Netflix's Videogame Documentary Series, High Score, Suffers from Poor Focus

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Netflix's Videogame Documentary Series, <i>High Score</i>, Suffers from Poor Focus

Videogames have been a crucial part of our culture for almost 50 years, and yet the history of the medium has always been treated as utterly disposable, even by the people who made it. Game design studios and publishers are usually terrible at preserving their own history, and the ones who aren’t, like Nintendo, are almost pathologically opposed to letting anybody from outside the company access its records. (That’s why that massive leak of Nintendo data earlier this summer was such a double-edged sword for students of game history—yeah, it revealed a lot of fascinating information and provided a look into Nintendo’s design process, but it also might make the maddeningly private company even less likely to work with historians in the future.) So when Netflix announced it was developing a documentary series about the history of videogames, it opened up the possibility of a serious historical overview of the art form that would be high profile enough to get otherwise silent studios to open up.

Well, scratch that. Any hopes for a Ken Burns-style deep exploration have been thoroughly dashed. High Score is a light, insubstantial bit of fluff that cares less about the hows and whys of games history and more about weird side-stories that are often already over-exposed as is.

Take the first episode, which focuses on the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It starts with Space Invaders, the massive 1978 hit, with some illuminating interview footage with the game’s creator, Tomohiro Nishikado. He talks about some of the hardware limitations and difficulties of designing games in those early days, and even pulls out the notebook where he drew sketches and design concepts for the game. It’s dressed up with some goofy imagery—Nishikado sees giant War of the Worlds-style tripods looming over the skyline as he talks about how H.G. Wells’ novel influenced the look of Space Invaders—but for several minutes the show lets the designer of one of the most important games of all time just talk about how it was made. That’s great, and it shows what the series could have been like.

Later on the episode devotes much of its time to the General Computer Corporation, a company that started off by making mod kits for popular arcade games in the early ‘80s. One of them was a Missile Command mod that got them sued by Atari. Eventually they settled and started making games for Atari, but not before another mod, Crazy Otto, was sold off to Pac-Man’s American publisher and rebranded as Ms. Pac-Man. It’s a cool story, and mods are an important (and, yes, surprisingly long-lived) part of games history, but these segments are less about the nature of mods or these particular mod kits, and more about the legal history of this one company.

That’s the biggest failing with High Score. Instead of connecting the dots between the various stories it tells, and using them to craft a larger, fully fleshed out portrait of games history, it gets lost in the details of those smaller stories. Episodes will introduce a person or concept, lightly connect it to the larger games world, and then treat the minutiae of that person’s story as if it’s inherently more important and interesting than its relationship to the medium or what it says about the design and culture of videogames. Want to learn about the crash of the home videogame market in America in 1983? Get ready to hear rehashed facts about that E.T. game once again, instead of a broader view of why the Atari 2600 collapsed so drastically that year.

This is even more evident in the second episode. You can’t talk about the history of games without putting Nintendo near the center. They pretty much single-handedly revived the game console in America with the Nintendo Entertainment System. And to the show’s credit, Nintendo of America’s marketing manager from that era, Gail Tilden, is on hand to give some insight into how Nintendo reintroduced games to a wary American retail market. It’s frustrating, then, that the episode ultimately spends more time on the personal experiences of a former Game Play Counselor and one of the winners of the 1990 Nintendo World Championships. It takes two minor footnotes to Nintendo’s success at the time and elevates them above the art and work of the company itself. Things were probably complicated by Nintendo’s refusal to work with the project, but acting like one kid who did good at a one-off promotional tournament is somehow more interesting or more evocative of the era is asinine.

That misplaced focus continuously undermines the whole show. Don’t watch High Score to actually learn about the history of videogames. Between cheesy special effects, an inches-deep script, and a scattershot approach that spends too much time on insignificant sidebars, High Score is less interested in history than in nostalgia and human interest stories. It’s less “here’s what happened,” and more, “hey, remember this?” Given how bad the game industry itself is at preserving and analyzing its own history beyond merely capitalizing on nostalgia, that makes High Score a huge missed opportunity.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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