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Netflix’s ‘High Score’ Wants You to Know Video Games Are Art

The six-part docuseries excels when focusing on the visual elements of games and the narratives around their creation, but largely skips past the programmers that made early titles sing

Netflix/Ringer illustration

This week, video game developer Asobo Studio released Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game that contains the entire world. Asobo’s cloud-enhanced (and cloud-filled) software streams AI-generated, three-dimensional terrain based on Bing satellite data, models real-time, real-world weather patterns, radio frequencies, and flight traffic, and features laser-mapped, roughly photorealistic cockpits. With actual air travel still scarce compared to pre-coronavirus rates, the revolutionary release offers a convincing virtual alternative: When you fly somewhere in Flight Simulator, you see it approximately as it appears on the planet at that time (with occasional, comical exceptions).

Although the game is an immersive marvel that constitutes a significant technological leap, it’s also the latest in a long line of iterative advances dating back to the original Microsoft Flight Simulator in 1982, which itself was a repackaged port of the 1979 release FS1 Flight Simulator. An advertisement for the first Microsoft-branded edition claimed, “If flying your IBM PC got any more realistic, you’d need a license.” It did get more realistic, bit by bit, upgrading over roughly 40 years from its black-and-white, wireframe origins to its current, near-lifelike fidelity (which will also likely look dated decades hence).

The evolutionary journey that gave us the games of today is the focus of another new release: High Score, a six-episode docuseries about the formative years of video games that came out on Netflix this week. “Each new game was built upon the foundation crafted by the game before,” Charles Martinet, the longtime voice of Nintendo mascot Mario and the passionate narrator of High Score, says in the series. “And because of that, it can be hard to remember the humble beginnings.” High Score is about those beginnings. The series traces the nascent mainstream medium’s development from the arcade boom of the late 1970s to the dawn of 3D and deathmatch in the early 1990s, recounting the highlights and low points of that pivotal period through archival footage, retro animation, Martinet’s narration, and interviews with the creators who helped shape how an interactive art form with no entrenched traditions would look, sound, and play.

In one episode of the series, former Sega designer Hirokazu Yasuhara says, “People tend to think games are a solitary activity, but the game designer is always there behind the screen.” High Score brings designers to the surface. Some designers, at least: Six episodes and roughly four hours isn’t enough time for a comprehensive history of the emergence of a medium. Because of space constraints, the series is selective about which stories to tell; if it had covered everything, executive producer and showrunner Melissa Wood says, “it wouldn’t be about the people anymore. You’d just be running through a list of video games and just doing the basic facts.”

Last month, the popular “Gaming Historian” YouTube channel released a 45-minute documentary on Mario Paint. Admittedly, most viewers aren’t in the market for that much Mario Paint, but they may be disappointed by some of the big games and names that High Score skips over (including Microsoft Flight Simulator and, for that matter, Mario Paint). The series doesn’t deliver an exhaustive account of the era or unearth new information for diehard fans of any given game. But it does provide a visually dynamic and highly bingeable batch of 37-to-47-minute episodes that will give gamers who remember the era a nonstop nostalgia high and younger gamers and non-gamers a solid synopsis of what made that time so intoxicating.

etflix was a natural candidate for funding a documentary about video games. Not only are games a kind of cultural lingua franca across every region in which the global streaming giant operates, but they’re also the fount of an increasing quantity of noninteractive TV content. In 2017, I wrote that Netflix’s Castlevania adaptation portended a TV “video game gold rush.” A few years later, an IP feeding frenzy is well underway.

In recent years, Amazon invested in Fallout, HBO bought The Last of Us, Showtime banked on Halo, and Sony committed to making a live-action Final Fantasy. Ubisoft is churning out TV series based on its titles, and TV adaptations of Brothers in Arms, Twisted Metal, and League of Legends have also been announced. Netflix has been the biggest buyer of video-game-adjacent properties: In addition to investing in The Witcher and its upcoming spinoff and developing a movie version of The Division, the streamer is cultivating a suite of video-game-inspired TV series, including Cuphead, Cyberpunk 2077, Resident Evil, Dragon’s Dogma, Devil May Cry, and Angry Birds. Given that growing portfolio, High Score is a perfect fit: Gamers who gravitate to Netflix for its video game adaptations may also want to watch a video game documentary, and vice versa.

There’s more to High Score than streaming synergy. Each episode of the loosely chronological series is structured around a central theme: Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Atari’s transition from arcades to home consoles; Nintendo’s domination in the NES era; D&D and RPGs (heavily featuring Ultima’s Richard Garriott and King’s Quest’s Roberta Williams); the genesis (so to speak) of Sonic and the Sega-Nintendo console war; fighting games and the furor over video-game violence; and the first forays into 3D and online multiplayer. In relating these stories, Wood and cocreator and director France Costrel, who previously collaborated on the Showtime documentary Dark Net and the Emmy-nominated micro-documentary 8 Bit Legacy, lean more toward the audiovisual aspects of game design than the technical nitty-gritty. Wood says the producers “thought about what would be interesting to a broad audience” and decided that the “more visual, artistic side or the musical side” would make for an “easier translation” both to a mass audience and to the documentary medium.

Thus, High Score features interviews with Mortal Kombat artist John Tobias, but not programmer Ed Boon; Sonic character and level designers Naoto Ohshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara, but not programmer Yuji Naka; Doom designer John Romero, but not lead programmer John Carmack. A viewer introduced to video games through High Score might conclude that the key to Donkey Kong was composer Hirokazu Tanaka’s sound effects for Mario’s movements, or that the success of Final Fantasy was solely attributable to Yoshitaka Amano’s art. The series gives the impression that games simply spring into existence from the imaginations and sketchbooks of visionaries with liberal arts backgrounds.

Wood and Costrel say that part of the appeal of creating High Score was to burnish the artistic reputation of video games among cultural gatekeepers who continue to discount them in comparison to film, music, or literature. “It was exciting to feel like we were maybe a part of showing the thoughtfulness and creativity and innovation that went into the creation of this new medium,” Costrel says. According to Costrel, one reason why games get short shrift is that their creators aren’t very visible in their completed products: Someone who sees only what’s on the screen may “feel like it’s all made by machines” and “forget all the craft and the very skilled people behind them.” No one would imagine, she says, “that Final Fantasy started with paint and brushes when it comes to the design of the characters. And so by showing this, you also realize, ‘Oh, wow, OK. I understand there’s really a different side to video games we don’t speak that much about.’”

In other words, High Score suggests, the secret to convincing doubters that video games are art is explaining how much other art goes into them. There’s an artistry to coding, too, and by yadda-yadda-ing the crucial step of converting a vision into a functioning game that feels fun to play, High Score constructs a somewhat myopic portrayal of the development process. Maybe machines aren’t making these games, but it’s often unclear who is. Considering the difficulty of conveying the intricacies of coding to viewers who can’t code themselves, though, High Score may have hit on an effective blueprint for preaching to the unconverted, who may not know or care that they’re missing part of the picture.

Code doesn’t lend itself to on-screen splendor, so the series’ emphasis on audiovisual elements also suits its aesthetic. “We had to make it as engaging and as colorful as the video games themselves,” says Costrel, who continues, “we wanted to explore the idea of blurring the line between reality and fantasy.” At that, they succeed. Animations are overlaid on real-life footage, as if to illustrate scenes from a game-maker’s mind’s eye: As Tomohiro Nishikado speaks about Space Invaders, computer-generated alien enemies stalk across the city laid out below him.

Netflix

Many recollections are rendered in a playful 16-bit style, accompanied by MIDI music, and most of the interviewees are shown in the act of creation—sketching Sonic, say, or slicing and dicing audio tracks. The producers delight in transplanting their subjects from the indoor environments where games are made to the outdoor settings that sometimes inspire them: Romero recalls making Doom in an airless room where the one window was covered to produce a permanent night, but in High Score, he’s outside, charging across the screen while wielding a chainsaw like Doomguy. Some may find the format frenetic or the humorous re-creations gimmicky, but I found them refreshing departures from the standard documentary devotion to static talking heads.

Some potential interview subjects are absent not by choice, but because they couldn’t be cajoled into appearing: Although video game god Shigeru Miyamoto is often invoked or pictured, the producers weren’t able to coax him in front of the camera (as they did for 8 Bit Legacy). Costrel claims that she came came to regard his absence as a blessing in disguise, in that it allowed the script to incorporate lesser-known figures such as the late Nintendo attorney John Kirby, former Nintendo of America marketing manager (and Nintendo Power founder) Gail Tilden, former Nintendo game counselor Shaun Bloom, and Dylan Cuthbert and Giles Goddard, the English, gaijin programmers who helped Miyamoto make Star Fox.

At times, the series adopts the player’s perspective, training the spotlight on Rebecca Heineman (who became the first national video game tournament champion when she won the 1980 National Space Invaders Championship), Jeff Hansen (who won the “11 and under” category at the inaugural Nintendo World Championships in 1990), and Chris Tang (the victor at MTV’s and Sega’s Rock the Rock event in 1994). For Heineman, a trans woman, video games were a cherished childhood source of escape, and an early outlet for self-expression. “We wanted to show that games come to life when they’re being played,” Costrel says.

The series also allots time to the importance of representation (via tributes to Street Fighter’s kick-ass female fighter Chun-Li) and excels at extolling the impact of nonwhite and non-cishet creators who have historically been underrepresented in the industry, including Jerry Lawson (the engineer who invented the swappable cartridge), Ryan Best (the creator of LGBT RPG GayBlade), and Gordon Bellamy (who brought Black players to the previously all-white rosters of Madden NFL). Wood notes that those contributions don’t deserve to be categorized as side stories or footnotes. “The video game landscape has these big figureheads, the Nolan Bushnells and [others], but Gordon Bellamy’s contribution, in my mind, is equally significant on a cultural level,” she says. High Score presents it as such.

The documentary’s most memorable, romantic material stems from the points when its pixel pioneers, armed with imagination, ingenuity, and trial and error, battled technological limitations to learn a new language and pave a new path. Players sometimes take the wizardry of modern games for granted, but trailblazers who hardly knew what they were doing had to figure out how to make multiplayer Doom playable on networked computers, or how to make three-dimensional flight fun in Star Fox. The industry that those early efforts birthed mints money now, but that behemoth was created, Costrel says, “with no rules, just big personalities and bold ideas. And they were just having fun.” As Tobias says in the series, “No one was telling us how to do games back then.”

Aside from infrequent footage of contemporary titles and a detour into esports, High Score largely leaves it to the viewer to trace the industry’s trajectory from upstart to juggernaut. Martinet doesn’t deliver his line about games being built on foundations laid down by their predecessors until the final few minutes. But the implication is clear: Gaming wouldn’t be what it is without what it was. “What we did back then was ahead of its time,” Heineman says in one scene. “But the time is now.”

At the end of the series, Martinet muses, “Now that technology can fully blur the line between fantasy and reality, the question is, where will we go next?” Perhaps for High Score, the answer is “a second season.” As Flight Simulator suggests, though, the answer for gamers is “wherever we want.”