Wednesday 2 September 2020

Why High Score is Rubbish

Writing about video games is a difficult business, so compiling a six-part documentary for Netflix must have been a nightmare. Yet a critical piece could be done on the restrictive practices of hardware manufacturers, the toxic work cultures of programming, the questionable tropes recycled endlessly into games, and how games have contributed to the gamification of life and work with its metrics and endless apps for quantifying the self. Sadly, High Score, which began streaming in late August, did none of these things. If the problem with the bulk of writing about games is its refusal to break with the evaluation of the play experience, this show does not even approach these well worn parameters of video game criticism.

Choosing what should and shouldn't be covered was always going to be a difficult task, but you do expect something about the early days of video games to avoid distorting history. Like how, for instance, video games were almost entirely American-centric. Japan merits a mention thanks to its dominance of the US market from the mid-late 1980s and the influence of arcade games coming from the likes of Taito, Namco, and Nintendo, but if the viewer is entirely new to the history of video games it suggests nothing of any consequence was happening outside of these territories. Indeed, so egregious was the US-centrism at times that it failed to mention how Sega's Genesis was known as the MegaDrive in its country of origin, and everywhere else bar Canada. Naturally, the documentary makers might not wanted to have got bogged down in the home micro revolution in Europe either but given the subsequent impact British and French studios and publishers were to have globally, perhaps a smidgen of acknowledgement would have been the polite thing to do?

The significant omissions pile up. The 1983 crash which, again, was a US-only affair, was not thanks to E.T. on the Atari VCS upsetting kids and annoying parents, but was thanks to the glut of poor but pricey software. Which also included the appalling 2600 iteration of Pac-Man. The episode about adventure games overlooked the importance of Adventure on Atari's machine, and you would be forgiven for thinking Sega were also-rans before Sonic the Hedgehog arrived. Other readers who happen to know anything about video game history can watch High Score and find their own nits to pick - there are more than enough to go around.

Pretending the world outside America and Japan doesn't exist is one thing, but then there are the choices about what to focus on within these self-imposed limits. The beginnings of Atari and arcades, okay. The arrival and dominance of Nintendo. Yes. The challenge of Sega and the 16-bit console wars - essential. And I would also agree with the focus of the other three outings of High Score - adventure and role-playing (episode three), fighting games (episode four, with the spotlight on Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, but at least the prior history of beat 'em ups should also have got some acknowledgement), and lastly 3D games with Starfox and Doom taking over the episode. But here, there are major problems with how these stories are told.

Three types of people provide the bulk of the narrative. The artist/visionary/programmer, the businessman, and the player. For example, we hear about how Roberta Williams (later of Sierra Online) encountered a text-based adventure and it inspired to write her first adventure game, Mystery House. John Romero of id software talks about his part in the creation of Wolfenstein and Doom. Tom Kalinske, the celebrated head of Sega of America in its heyday waxes about his multi-pronged strategy for carving up Nintendo's American market share. These constitute moments of individual brilliance, and set up their celebration/veneration as auteurs. They might have been creative and insightful and made contributions to the development of video games, but these contributions were collective efforts assisted, supported by, and dependent on staff who don't get the same spotlight treatment. And besides, are we really to believe there would be no polygon-based games without Argonaut software as per the implication of High Score's overestimation of the importance of Starfox, or would first-person shooters never have become a thing had Romero ended up developing business software instead of games? This sort of naive, impressionistic history sits awkwardly on a streaming service sharing space with complex and multi-layered dramas.

Alongside the legend of the auteur, we have an entirely needless narrative of player-as-athlete. Even in the United States, the championships Nintendo and Sega ran were marketing gimmicks marginal to popular video game culture, and so the inclusion of four tournaments completely over-eggs their contemporary resonance, and for what purpose? Just for a little note at the end to say esports are becoming a thing? I suppose this accomplishes two things. It celebrates the cult of the hardcore gamer, which has taken something of a pummelling in recent years thanks to associations with toxic masculinity and the harassment of women in the video game industry. And by demonstrating the serious time kids put into Space Invaders and Tetris, the power of capturing and holding attention underlines the seriousness of video games as a medium, as if anyone in 2020 believes otherwise. This is the gamer as addict, as someone who can't get enough and is, therefore, the ideal consumer. Why casual gaming didn't merit a mention is another peculiar editorial decision given the size of its market, but it certainly doesn't fit the image of the player the documentary laboriously and annoyingly works to establish.

There are a few occasions where the role of women, black, and LGBT people are mentioned and briefly profiled, but it's strictly on the level of individual contributions and looks tacked on. Which, overall, is entirely consistent with the viewpoint the show's production team chose to privilege. Rarely does High Score lift itself above the horizon of a corporate documentary telling the world how wonderful, progressive, and economically useful the video game industry is. It's glossy and interesting if you know nothing about the topic, but it is not critical. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking no one put out an awful video games after 1983, and that the Nintendo Seal of Quality ensured shovelware was a thing of the past. And this is the most galling aspect of High Score. Everything is lovely. Games are fun, and we should play them. One or two gestures toward the representation of minorities fails to establish how, like all cultural artefacts, the production, reception, and commentary upon video games is a seething cauldron of struggle cutting across production and consumption. The terrain is contested and this should not be papered over or ignored. When a documentary fights shy of making an evaluation - the singular feature of most video game coverage - and goes in for the uncritical celebration of games and gaming, as a history it's useless save as a Noddy's introduction to the very basics. At best, it's a marketing exercise. And for this reason, High Score belongs in landfill with those mouldering 40 year-old E.T. cartridges.

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Anonymous said...

someone thinks very highly of themselves

Lidl_Janus said...

OP should be careful implying there are things outside of America and American influence - you'll upset some of the regulars around here.