From retro high score champions to esports to the struggles of game development, here are 10 feature-length video game documentaries to suit all tastes.
Wherever there are people with stories to tell, there’s the potential for a documentary. Over the past decade or so, we’ve had filmmakers cover everything from conspiracy theories triggered by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to a fly-on-the-wall yarn about a bloke from New York who dreamed of asking Drew Barrymore out on a date.
It makes sense, then, that the biggest entertainment medium on the planet has had more than a few documentaries made about it, particularly in the current century. With subjects ranging from chasing high scores, the stresses and heartbreak of actually games, or the history of a particular medium, some genuinely absorbing feature-length documentaries about video games have emerged in recent years. Which is logical, because otherwise we wouldn’t be compiling a list like this one.
Here, then – and in no particular order – are a selection of 10 eminently watchable, film-length video game documentaries you can watch right now, and where. If you’re based outside the UK and looking for suitable streaming venues, Just Watch should have you covered.
Oh, and if you have your own recommendations, why not add them in the comments section?
The Name of the Game
The title of this 2018 documentary is somewhat uninspiring – at least until you watch the film itself and discover what it means. Years before Returnal provided Finnish developer Housemarque with a global hit, it was working with industry veteran Eugene Jarvis on a retro-style, twin-stick shooter in the vein of Robotron 2084 – what would eventually become the acclaimed Nex Machina. Struggling to nail down an effective title for their project, several developers at the studio decided to barricade themselves in a hotel room – stocked with an industrial quantity of alcohol – and stay there until they could agree on a name for the game.
Hours later, and by now horribly drunk, the developers admitted defeat and staggered to a nearby club. Filmmakers Paul J Vogel and Jarno Elonen capture all of this and more in a candid and effective fly-on-the-wall documentary which shows the highs and messy lows of game development.
Where to watch: Netflix UK
Indie Game: The Movie
In what might be one of the most impeccably-chosen selection of documentary subjects ever, filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisann Pajot managed to capture the birth of the 21st century indie games scene in the late 2000s. Cut together from some 300 hours of interview material recorded over the course of several months, Indie Game: The Movie follows the development of Super Meat Boy, Braid and Fez, as their respective creators toil through everything from getting their game listed on Xbox Live Arcade to falling out with their business partners.
It’s fascinating to see the likes of Edmund McMillen, Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish talking so openly about their work and personal struggles, long before their games went on to become huge independent hits. If anything, Indie Games: The Movie only grows more interesting as the events it captures recede further into time.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Let’s face it, you’ve probably seen this one by now. First released to much praise in 2007, The King of Kong is itself something of a retro time capsule, documenting a period of time where Billy Mitchell was still revered as one of the most skilled players of classic games in the United States. Director Seth Gordon and his crew follow would-be record holder Steve Wiebe on his quest to attain a new high score on Donkey Kong – but in a way, his greater struggle lies in finding acceptance among a close-knit retro game community that reveres Mitchell as an icon and regards Wiebe with suspicion. An underdog sports story that makes conscious references to The Karate Kid, The King of Kong remains a hugely entertaining watch today – long after Mitchell’s spectacular fall from grace.
From Bedroom to Billions
Anthony and Nicola Caulfield’s lengthy survey of the 1980s home computer scene is a bit slow-paced in places, but it’s enlivened by the array of interviewees and their reminiscences. Together, the likes of Jeff Minter, Matthew Smith and Mel Croucher provide a snapshot of the nascent games industry and its swift evolution from a bunch of teenage hobbyists making games – all photocopied cassette inlays and classified ads in the back of magazines – to besuited entrepreneurs starting up dedicated studios and selling their games in Boots and WHSmith. Unashamedly nostalgic, and unabashedly British, From Bedrooms to Billions is about a specific moment and time that, in retrospect, was only fleeting. There were a mere handful of years where it was possible for developers to make a living from eccentric, often quite bizarre game ideas – the likes of Jet Set Willy, Deus Ex Machina and Hovver Bovver. Even if you weren’t around at the time to enjoy those games first hand, From Bedroom to Billions makes it all seem like a blissfully creative, more innocent time.
The same team’s follow-up documentaries, The Amiga Years and The PlayStation Revolution, are also well worth watching as companion pieces.
Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler
It’s impossible to watch Man vs Snake without comparing it to The King of Kong, largely because they’re about middle-aged gamers trying to get the highest score on an old coin-op. What marks Man vs Snake out, though, is the obscurity of the game referred to by its title – even some arcade fans would probably struggle to pick Nibbler out of a lineup – and the extremes its biggest devotees go to in order to get their high scores. Documentary subject Tim McVey may be able to get a score ranging in the billions, but doing so requires him to spend a horrifying 40 or so hours hunched in front of an arcade cabinet. If you’re wondering exactly how anyone can stand in one place for 40 hours without having to go to the loo in public, fear not – Man vs Snake explains how gamers like McVey pull off this high-wire act.
Triple-A game development is generally buried under mountains of secrecy and non-disclosure agreements, but director Jean-Simon Chartier’s film provides a refreshingly unvarnished perspective on the making of Ubisoft Montreal’s 2017 game, For Honor. Perhaps because he isn’t massively into games himself, Chartier focuses less on the minutiae of the game’s development and more on the human cost of making it.
Creative director Jason VandenBerghe, in particular, cuts a sympathetic figure; For Honor began thanks to his original idea, and it’s mildly heartbreaking to watch as he becomes increasingly pushed out of his own project as its production grinds on. We’d suggest that it’s highly unlikely we’ll see quite such an intimate portrait of a major studio’s inner workings as this again.
Where to watch: Vimeo
Whether you refer to them as text adventures or interactive fiction, the genre is one of gaming’s oldest. Although somewhat austere in its presentation, Get Lamp provides a quite staggeringly detailed exploration of the text adventure’s origins and rapid evolution. It features interviews with around 80 subjects, whether it’s Will Crowther – designer of the seminal Colossal Cave Adventure – or the founders of Infocom, America’s foremost creators of interactive fiction, or the fans who still collect and enjoy the genre in the 21st century. In essence, Get Lamp is about the first people to think about using computers as a new means of telling stories, and director Jason Scott captures that pivotal moment superbly.
Where to watch: YouTube – see above
Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade
This retro-themed documentary had the misfortune of emerging at roughly the same time as The King of Kong, which is unfortunate, because it takes a quite different approach to exploring a similar era in 1980s gaming. Its focal point is a photo first published in a 1982 edition of Life magazine: a generation of young champion gamers, who’d all attained high scores in such games as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede. Chasing Ghosts catches up with some of those gamers some 20 years later, now thoroughly middle-aged and ever so slightly eccentric, and Walter Day, the twinkle-eyed entrepreneur who founded the Twin Galaxies scoreboard. Brace yourself for the moment where your eyes are treated to an unexpectedly lengthy tour of Twin Galaxies’ then-referee Robert Mruczek’s erotic ‘art’ collection. You have been warned.
Where to watch: Apple TV
Free to Play
Although it’s nearly a decade old now, Valve’s documentary about the professional Dota 2 esports scene remains an absorbing one, largely because it captures the personalities behind the competing teams so well. There’s Benedict ‘hyhy’ Lim, a fleet-fingered gamer from Singapore who hopes to win $1 million at the International tournament in Cologne, has recently taken up smoking, and still pines after his ex-girlfriend. There’s the almost worryingly young-looking Ukrainian Danil ‘Dendi’ Ishutin, who terrifies his team-members by taking heat-of-the-moment risks. And hailing from the USA, Clinton ‘Fear’ Loomis, an older esports player (he is – gasp – over 25) who plays Dota 2 on an old PC, his CRT monitor balanced on a stack of books. Free to Play portrays the intoxicating allure of being a professional gamer – the adulation, the overseas travel, the potential to win hundreds of thousands of dollars – and also quietly points out its downside.
Dendi, for one, showed promise as a musician and dancer before he became obsessed with Dota 2. For him, the decision proves to be a lucrative one; Free to Play also points out that, for every Dendi, there are hundreds of hopefuls who give up their younger years in pursuit of fame.
M2: Complete Works
This feature-length documentary was evidently a labour of love for YouTube filmmakers Coury Carlson and Marc Duddleson – creators of the channel My Life In Gaming. It provides a detailed history of Japanese developer M2, who for the past 30 years have been quietly, modestly undertaking some of the best, most accurate ports of classic games ever made.
M2 boss Naoki Horii explains how the studio got its start in the early 90s with a homebrew port of Atari’s arcade hit, Gauntlet, for the X68000 computer. That port eventually became Gauntlet 4 for the Sega Mega Drive – a release that included both the original arcade game with numerous other modes, including a more RPG-like single-player campaign. It was an early instance of M2’s tendency to put in a huge amount of effort in their port – or “above and beyond”, to quote the documentary’s common refrain.
Amid a changing Japanese games scene, M2 has continuously put out crisply updated versions of older games, from the 3D Classics line of adaptations for the Nintendo 3DS to its ShotTriggers revivals of cult shooters like Battle Garegga and Dangun Feveron. It takes passion to work so diligently for so long – and that passion is reflected in this affectionate, delightfully nerdy documentary.
Where to watch: YouTube! See above.