Man vs Snake Is the Best Documentary About a Game You’ve Never Heard Of

By  · Published on September 30th, 2015

Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.

A few years back the documentary The King of Kong chronicled the underdog story of a man, against all classic video game nerd snob odds, setting out to claim the world record high score in Donkey Kong. It took the festival circuit (and geek hearts) by storm as it was a classic narrative of a guy, who nobody in the world of classic competitive gaming knew, going up against the Apollo Creed of competitors – and winning. Man Vs. Snake tells a similar tale, and even features some of the same cast of real people, but presents itself less as man vs. man for arcade game supremacy, but as man and rebel man and Italian man vs. arcade game – but, still, yes for supremacy.

Being a child of the ’80s I can honestly say if someone were to bring up The Nibbler in conversation regarding favorite arcade games of childhood that I’d probably lie and say “Oh yeah! that game!” while thinking “Oh no! What game?” I could count on zero hands the number of people I’d asked “What is The Nibbler” who responded with anything more than confusion. The Nibbler is a game, and in fact sets itself apart from other classic arcade games of the past as being the first game to have a billion point scoring system. You could score 999,999,999 points in the game before the game reset the score counter. Nobody had ever gotten that high. To do so would, mathematically, require someone to be in front of the game for no less than 30+ hours of continuous game play. It’s an arcade game (so there’s no pausing to go to the restroom) and the game is structured in such a way that the farther you get into it the faster the game gets – meaning that as your reflexes begin to go caput and mental faculties slow down the game requires that you be at your processing best. It’s like running a marathon on a treadmill and for the last 5 miles you’re required to sprint up a hill.

It can be done though, and in the early 1980’s a teenager named Tim McVey (no, not that one) was able to do it. He became the first person on the planet to earn over 1 billion points on the only game where one could earn over 1 billion points. Tim was given a key to the town, his own arcade game of The Nibbler, and a reheated bowl of macaroni and cheese – and life went on.

On the other side of the world, in Italy, another young boy was tracking the world gaming records and set his own sights on attaining the high score for The Nibbler. He, also, was able to exceed the 1 billion point threshold – unceremoniously sans re-heated mac and cheese (despite being in Italy, the world capital of macaroni, and cheese) – and broke Tim’s world record. However, the laws and rules of world record-breaking feats in the video game community are none-too-kind to accomplishments not witnessed, or documented in full, of the game play. Despite ample evidence of the score the young Italian never received the world recognition of having the world’s highest score in the world’s highest scoring-able game. His eventual discovery of the claim, though, was all that was necessary for Tim to dust off his gaming chops and come out of retirement to reclaim his throne as the world’s greatest player in the game that few seem to recall ever existed.

Filmmakers Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir do a great job, first and foremost, of establishing their own disparate story around identical subjects to Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Gordon’s primary objective was to give the audience a good guy to root for, and a bad guy to see bested. The exceptionally inflated ego of gaming legend Billy Mitchell was in full-force in Gordon’s picture to frame him as the guy everyone would be comfortable loving to hate. Mitchell appears here as well, but his role here paints him in an entirely different light. If he is an asshole in real life (as The King of Kong would have us believe) he’s, at least, a true source of consistent encouragement to Tim at every turn. It might be because he has no stake in the outcome, because he doesn’t play The Nibbler, and is therefore fine being a genuinely helpful human being. Whenever Tim seems like he’s about had enough, Billy is either there in person (as he was when Tim set the record in the 80’s) or on the phone trying to help him through.

It’s a daunting undertaking to be a competitive gaming-marathoner. Unlike actual marathons there is no scheduled end to a marathon session of a video game. You could be so good at the game that you’re not fighting the game, but your body. There isn’t a finish line to cross, just a game to quit – because you can’t take it anymore. Your hands have blisters, you haven’t slept, you’ve barely eaten, your back hurts, your ass hurts, and you can only break for the restroom when you’ve acquired enough extra lives to waste while you let out waste – and then you get back at it, and if you’re lucky you won’t have thrown the last 36 hours of your life and tortured yourself by falling short of where you wanted to be. It’s even worse if you don’t get to play games for a living and have thus wasted an entire holiday weekend of you, and your spouse’s lives.

Man Vs. Snake does a wonderful job of giving the audience a source to emotionally attach to without fabricating an antagonist. They portray the world of competitive gaming as I imagine it to probably be. The competitors talk trash to each other, but they also support one another. They push each other, they concede defeat, and then they share a pizza. It isn’t always the human opponent that’s your enemy. They aren’t the one giving your hand blisters, or depleting your brain’s capacity to process information, or making your back stiff, or the reason you reward yourself with bathroom breaks. They’re the reason you’re as good as you are, can last as long as you do, and help you realize your best doesn’t have to be restricted solely to a world of pixels and badly synthesized music.

The Upside: Well-structured narrative; funny; entertaining animated sequences; doesn’t formulate “bad guys”; separates itself from another documentary of nearly-identical material

The Downside: Some lull-ish moments; might have felt more fresh had there not already been a documentary about competitive classic gaming

Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.

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