New Documentary 'Atari: Game Over' Digs Up Video Game History

I was six years old when the Atari 2600 game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released. In the years since, the game has taken on an almost mythical quality in the hearts and minds of many Atari fans, not as something wonderful, but as something so awful (so the story goes) that it was largely responsible for the 1983 collapse of the video game industry.

This notion always bothered me, because to my six-year-old self, E.T. had not been an awful game at all. Broken and frustrating, sure, but also distinctive, ambitious, and most of all, emotionally resonant in a way most games weren’t. You win the game by phoning home and boarding the ship back to E.T.’s home planet, but this victory always seemed bittersweet to me, because it meant saying goodbye to Elliott, who you would then see, in his home, alone. I’d played games that were exciting, or scary, or whimsical, but E.T. was the first game I played that felt poignant.

Within a year of the game’s release, Atari was all but gone.

ago 10 ET screen
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600.

Because of my fondness for E.T. and my interest in Atari’s history, the documentary Atari: Game Over is essentially made for me. Filmmaker Zak Penn, also a lifelong Atari fan, sets out to discover the story of E.T.’s creation and find out just what role it played in causing the video game crash of 1983. While excavating the truth of Atari’s past, Penn also pursues a more literal excavation in the vast landfill of Alamogordo, New Mexico, where Atari was rumored to have buried perhaps millions of E.T. cartridges it had produced but could never hope to sell.

The film bounces back and forth between these two strands, but despite the tremendous symbolic power in the act of attempting to literally unearth the past of a once-massive and beloved company, the scenes focused on organizing the landfill dig sometimes get bogged down in talk of red tape and excavation equipment, making them feel like a detour from the real story. And some sequences, like one that follow Ernest Cline (author of the video-game-themed novel Ready Player One) as he cruises in a DeLorean with a full-size E.T. figure in the passenger seat, are so self-indulgently geeky and packed with so many pop-culture references that they diminish the film, sending the message that you’re either in on the joke or that this story is not for you.

There sure were some great promotional images for Atari games back in the day.
There sure were some great promotional images for Atari games back in the day.

And that’s too bad, because the story of Atari, and specifically of E.T.’s designer and programmer Howard Warshaw, is a fascinating one that you don’t need an existing interest in video game history to appreciate. Warshaw comes across as a smart, complicated, likable man, and by focusing on him, Penn makes the story of Atari’s downfall a human story rather than just a story of reckless business decisions and massive financial shortfalls.

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The young Howard Warshaw, who we see talking about the craft of game design in Atari promotional materials from the early 1980s, has a bit of the young hotshot quality about him that I associate with Kevin Flynn, the fictional game designer played by Jeff Bridges in Tron, and who can blame him? He was, after all, the programmer of some of Atari’s most massive hits. The fifty-something Warshaw, interviewed for the film, looks back on those days with the perspective only afforded by time. Talking about how he struggled in the years following Atari’s collapse, Warshaw says, “I never let go of the thought that my life could still be this or better. I just didn't know how to do it.”

Howard Warshaw, designer of some of Atari's biggest games.
Howard Warshaw, designer of some of Atari's biggest games.

The film paints a lively picture of Atari at its heyday as a place where people partied at least as hard as they worked, a place where keggers were common and where things happened in the hot tub. Importantly, it also portrays game designers as artists of a sort who are doing genuinely creative work, and it illuminates, in terms that anyone can appreciate and understand, what makes a game like Warshaw’s Atari classic Yars’ Revenge great.

Unfortunately, it also uncritically presents an almost exclusively white male perspective on game design and Silicon Valley culture. Yes, the movers and shakers central to the story itself that Penn interviews—Warshaw, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, and Warner executive Manny Gerard—are all white men; there’s no way around that, and they give illuminating interviews. But in selecting people to offer commentary on the events, Penn interviews novelists and screenwriters, collectors and scholars, all of whom have interesting things to say, but all of whom are also white men. Surely there are women and people of color with something to contribute to this conversation, but the film unwittingly perpetuates the idea held by many that video games and geek culture exclude their input.

Geek singularity achieved.
Geek singularity achieved.

Still, there is an endearing generosity to Atari: Game Over. The film challenges popular notions of Atari’s history and sets the record straight, clearing E.T. and the man who created it of the charges of killing the video game industry. It’s a warmhearted look at the industry’s past that celebrates the impact pioneers of game design like Warshaw had on video games as we know them today. But because the film sometimes lays on the references and in-jokes a little thick rather than inviting everybody in, you’ll get more out of the film if you’re like me, and it’s digging up pieces of your past, as well.

'Atari: Game Over' is available for rental and purchase from fine video-on-demand sites everywhere.

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