The first of a planned six part documentary series, Atari: Game Over is Microsoft’s Xbox wing’s first foray into feature length documentary filmmaking. Directed by Zak Penn, the writer of The Avengers, a couple of X-Men movies, Last Action Hero, and a whole lot of blockbuster cash-in video game titles,1 Atari: Game Over chronicles the rise and fall of the world’s first home entertainment system with switchable cartridges, the Atari 2600, focusing specifically on the title that (allegedly) led to the developer’s demise, E.T. The Video Game. It’s a rich story, drenched in video game folklore that should be fertile ground for an interesting feature length documentary – one rumour, which had long been denied by Atari, insisted that the majority of E.T. game cartridges were dumped in a New Mexico landfill after Atari failed to ship a significant portion of the stock and saw widespread returns of the game due to bugs and poor game design, and the truth of this myth is at least partially uncovered by the film’s conclusion. Unfortunately the film serves as a pretty lazy (and relatively pricey) exercise in general self-congratulation and patting so-called ‘nerd’-culture on the back. It suggests a fairly dire outlook for forthcoming Xbox Originals productions given that this seems to be the result of corporate meddling rather than representing a true realisation of Penn’s directorial vision.2
The documentary is split into two parts, the first specifically chronicling Atari’s rise and resulting hubris, an arrogance that eventually led to E.T. The Video Game’s development inside a production window 1/10th of the normal length dedicated to an Atari 2600 cartridge, on a budget far higher than usual; the second focuses on the planned unearthing of the alleged landfill containing all of the returned E.T. stock, a process that occurred at the end of Atari’s reign as a video game powerhouse in the early ‘80s. These two convergent plotlines are intertwined in a fairly unnecessary fashion, creating a bit of tonal dissonance as the former feels more like a documentation of (somewhat) important historical event, while the latter feels more like a narrow exercise in fan-service that appeals to a very vocal and very cringeworthy minority.3 The documentation of the planned unearthing of these cartridges is pretty weak on the content, going into individual fan experiences (on that point – women and people of colour are totally absent from the film) rather than focusing on the greater cultural impact that videogames in general had in that era although this is probably (and maybe rightfully) assumed to be prerequisite knowledge given the film’s distribution platform. This section is definitely the weakest and most corporate – there’s even an innocuous cameo from George R. R. Martin for some reason – and it is in these moments that the film reveals itself to be a very hollow, very calculated piece.
It’s pretty clear that Microsoft has some sort of vested interest in the unearthing of the old Atari videogames and making this portion of the film a major focus. It sees a disproportionate amount of screen time given to one minor event, and overshadows the far more interesting tale of how a boys club let their arrogance get the better of them, going from one of the fastest growing companies in the US to total financial collapse over the course of just 12 years (arguably 6 but who’s counting). In fact, the film posits that E.T. The Video Game was the reason for the companies collapse for the first 70 minutes, only to turn around in the final few and go ‘psyche, E.T. actually did okay, we were just a poorly run company who didn’t really know what we were doing’. It’s extremely frustrating and the sign of a bad documentary that’s trying to shoehorn itself into something it’s not. By focusing on reinforcing a media brand and specific aesthetic, Xbox have failed to shine a light on the past mistakes of another video game company while reinforcing them, 20 years on, in the same brushstroke.
Atari’s focus on being a profitable video game powerhouse overtook their focus on pumping out quality content and it feels as though Microsoft have made the same mistake in this very documentary. Somewhere in here is a great film, but it’s the same kind of ridiculous corporate attitude that is holding Atari: Game Over back from being something special. Off the back of this feature I don’t hold high hopes for future Xbox Originals productions – in a time where video-games really need to move themselves away from the traditional fan-boy, boys-club stereotypes, Xbox has funded the same tired, self-congratulatory trash that holds the industry back. For an industry so focused on technological innovation, they seem to more often than not show an extreme lack of regard from narrative innovation; you’d think that the release of critical powerhouses like The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto 5 would have yielded some lessons for larger gaming companies, but apparently not. I await the next feature instalment in the Xbox Originals line-up before passing full judgement, but I’m doubtful – Zak Penn is an important script writer in the current mainstream cinematic climate and I’m confident he could have put together a far better film, one that doesn’t look like another Xbox One press-conference video, given more creative control; what we have here is a veiled advertisement for the same sort of dumbed-down ‘buy-the-ultra-limited-extreme-edition’ subculture that congratulates shillery and uniformity rather than innovation and individuality. Avoid.
Atari: Game Over has just been released on mainstream VOD outlets including Vimeo and Google Play after an exclusive free run on Xbox Live. The film can still be accessed for free on Xbox Live.