By Marshall Garvey
What do you think of when you hear the term “video game”? Your first thoughts may be of spectacularly rendered, immersive titles you dedicate hours to on blockbuster consoles ranging from Nintendo 64 to the Xbox One and Playstation 4. Likewise, you think of the video game industry as the expensive, omnipresent juggernaut it is today. All told, consumer spending on games now rivals or exceeds that spent on movies and music. In the former industry, video games are an increasingly fertile topic, getting the attention of everyone from Disney to Adam Sandler to Steven Spielberg. In the latter, well, when you’ve got Paul McCartney contributing to the soundtrack of Destiny, not much more validation is needed.
But throughout the 1970’s and into the early 80’s, the idea of what a video game was to begin with, as well as its capabilities, was continually evolving. This was a time of bell-bottom pants, thick-rimmed glasses, and shag carpeting. Games were primarily an escapist diversion at local arcades, and when they came home on consoles, those consoles looked like the dashboard of an old car rather than the immaculate devices of today’s next-gen wars. With the precipitous decline of arcades, it’s a time period that’s also sadly being quickly relegated to the distant past. Saying millennials and younger generations don’t know anything about this time isn’t a condescending “kids these days/my generation sucks” lecture, but rather a plainly unfortunate reality.
While the gaming industry is still incredibly young by any measure, this segment of its history is still ripe to be documented with exactitude as well as notalgia. World 1-1, an independent Kickstarter documentary from the duo of Daryl Rodriguez and Jeanette Garcia, is a superb first step in accomplishing that. Drawing upon interviews with Atari industry figures and gaming aficionados, with an ample synthesis of vintage video clips and rare photographs, it delves not only into the history of Atari, but also the growth of video games as a whole from their larval stage at the dawn of the 70’s all the way until the industry’s storied crash of 1983.
To say I was excited to watch this film is soft-peddling it to the extreme. Ever since Last Token Gaming’s inception, I’ve wanted to learn and write about the game medium’s history. Not only for the sake of tracing key developments and seeing how much it’s evolved, but also to dig out colorful tidbits that give the history its unique character. Recounting history isn’t merely a matter of getting facts and dates right; it also requires the historian to convey specific perspectives of what the time was like, especially as that time period grows increasingly distant. World 1-1 is superb in meeting all of these requirements. As a documentary about Atari and the beginning of the video game industry, it’s as precise and passionate as the original minds who are interviewed. But moreover, it brings the glory days of coin-operated arcades to bleeping, quarter-clicking life. Whether you lived through this era or not, it’s a delight to soak in.
The story that World 1-1 chronicles truly begins not with Atari and the 70’s, but rather elite college campuses like MIT and Stanford in the 60’s. Utilizing the computer technology that evolved in the post-World War II years, cliques of students created simple but functioning games like Spacewar. These creations were derided by professors as a waste of time, but quickly became a devotion for burgeoning numbers of college tech nerds. By any measure, though, these games were seen as a niche hobby for Stanford brainiacs with PhDs. Not, as we’re accustomed to today, something anyone can buy and understand.
Like many great underground sensations, it would take a passionate and sharp entrepreneur to make it a popular commodity. Enter Nolan Bushnell, a computer science and electrical engineering graduate who played Spacewar on DEC mainframe computers while attending college in Utah. Seeing the earning potential of coin-operated arcade machines, Bushnell and colleague Ted Dabney formed Syzygy in 1969. Their initial effort, a Spacewar clone entitled Computer Space, proved a financial flop. Arriving in bars in a funky space-age cabinet that looked like it came off the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it proved relatively inaccessible to the masses.
By 1972, with the new game-inspired name Atari (Syzygy, it turned out, was already legally used by a Mendocino hippie commune), Bushnell sought to make a game that was exceedingly simple but captivating. Drawing inspiration from a live demonstration of Ralph Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey system, he tasked newly hired engineer Al Alcorn with developing his next idea: Pong. Comprised of nothing more than two lines bouncing a ball back and forth, its first machine suffered only one major problem: it broke down because it became engorged with so many quarters from people playing it.
From there, Bushnell, Alcorn and other brilliant tech minds pioneered not just a new industry, but a new medium. Video arcades continually expanded with a seemingly endless array of titles from Space Invaders to Donkey Kong, while Atari pioneered the home console to unprecedented success. Year by year, the possibilities of what games could accomplish seemed endless with each new eye-popping creation that arrived in arcades and homes. The good times would soon come to a crashing end in 1983, as we all know. All of the factors of the industry collapse are laid out in unvarnished detail, in a way that conveys a kind of sad finality. But as we also all know, it wasn’t the end of video games. After all, a certain Japanese company named Nintendo was waiting in the wings with some guys named Link and Mario, and it would soon be time to begin again.
For all of its two hours and 11 minute running time, World 1-1 excels because its stories are so freshly told. The history is chronicled in a way that’s accessible, and sometimes clearly threaded to the complex gaming world we live in today. For example, ever been annoyed at all the cookie-cutter knock-offs of AAA titles that seem to endlessly plague the market these days? Well, that’s how it’s been since the very beginning, with Pong itself spawning shameless rip-offs the world over. (Granted, Atari’s breakthrough title was a clear imitation of a Magnavox tennis game.) The interviews with Bushnell and the developers of Atari themselves, as well as gaming historians and aficionados like IGN’s Colin Moriarty, add up to a satisfyingly informative whole that could probably make for a book as well as a documentary.
All told, World 1-1 is as much a chronology of the evolution of games as it is a personal history of Atari. Nary a detail is missed here. The legacy of Ralph Baer (considered by many “The Father of Video Games”) is discussed at length, as well as other forefathers like William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two (which was played on an oscilloscope in the 50’s). Altogether, it gives a view of games not as the sudden masterful invention of one mind, but rather a broad field which various figures furthered in critical ways over time. All of the technology involved in the games is captured downright obsessively as well, from the amount of memory a certain device used to the invention of the microprocessor. I’ll certainly admit I didn’t understand all of the tech specs shown here, but the film is all the better for delving into them.
Yet, as precise as it is in cataloguing the technological minutia, World 1-1 doesn’t let that overshadow the heart and soul of the early days of game development. Watching it touched upon something that my colleague Isaac Smith and I have written about recently, how the process of making a game is a difficult, taxing process. It isn’t, as many have long assumed, just a bunch of nerds goofing around for fun. Many of the stories here attest to that, from 12-hour work days spent making one game to developers having their desire for individual credit snuffed out by the corporate obsession with the bottom line. But at the same time, there’s an equal amount of pure love and joy that goes into the process. Like any medium, you have to love what you do, whatever the challenges or constraints you face.
This is best exemplified by the interviews later in the film, where the developers of some of the most innovative titles of the time talk at length about the creative process they went through. Warren Robinett’s Adventure not only pioneered the concept of item-based quest games; his decision to put his name in a hidden room gave birth to the idea of the Easter Egg in games. Some even share the exact moment they created the game’s concept, such as Pitfall designer David Crane replicating his standing poses to create a lifelike human avatar on the screen. In perhaps the most poignant of these moments, programmer Dona Bailey recalls how she made Centipede in the hopes of attracting more women to gaming, and ultimately created a sensation that appealed to all genders. It’s a treat to see their eyes light up with pride, knowing what they accomplished represented another leap in the evolution of gaming.
All throughout, delicious bits of fun facts and buried history are in great abundance. Most interesting is the segment about Bushnell and company’s mid-70’s collaborations with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, including the way they subtly influenced the work fashion trends of Silicon Valley. They created a more relaxed culture where people came to work dressed in jeans and t-shirts, and worked as they pleased. (Indeed, when Atari met the formally dressed corporate suits in Chicago to discuss developing a home console, they were embarrassed to have done it in casual clothing. At the next meeting, with their best suits on, the corporate execs showed up in slacks and t-shirts.) More mind-boggling is how Jobs and Wozniak’s revolutionary home computer design was offered to Atari, who turned it down to focus on home consoles. (Additionally, Bushnell was offered a share of Apple stock by Jobs, but turned it down.) To think what could have been!
Easily the most delightful part of World 1-1, however, are the passages detailing the growth of arcades. The earliest arcade games aren’t regarded as museum pieces from today’s vantage point, but rather are celebrated for their ingenuity. This was a time before the internet pointed one towards what games to play (hell, a good chunk of this story is told at a time when the very idea of a personal computer was widely laughed at as fantasy); when “multiplayer” wasn’t people all over the world on Xbox Live or internet servers, but groups of kids huddled around the “high score” champion at the local arcade. The games told entire stories with a few crude bleeps and objectives so simple you had them figured out in seconds. Centipede, Pac-Man, Tempest, Crystal Castles…they’re presented here with the same sense of novelty that set gamers’ imaginations in motion back then. While watching, I wanted more than ever to grab a bag of quarters and bolt to an arcade to play every last one of them.
By all means, this is a movie anyone with a substantive interest in games should watch. World 1-1 is a perfect balance of revelatory historical storytelling and geeky reverence that serves as a template for likewise efforts in the future. Hopefully the Rodriguez/Garcia tandem will tackle subsequent chapters of the unfolding saga of video games soon, and perhaps for audiences to enjoy in theaters.
Official trailer for the film:
World 1-1 official site: http://www.worldoneonemovie.com/#/
Official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/worldoneonemovie
Official Twitter page: https://twitter.com/worldoneonefilm