One of my earliest memories was of playing Super Mario Bros., listening to Young MC and drinking Dr. Pepper with my older brother in his bedroom. This was on the edge of 1989, and since his bedroom was at the far end of the house, it had a cave-like quality to it. Our local authority figure was cooking dinner in the kitchen, but we could shut the door and feel like we were on a different planet. Jumping on mushrooms with menacing eyes and popping coins out of bricks helped intensify that feeling.
Eventually games like King’s Quest IV would draw even mom out of the kitchen (delaying dinner when walking down pixelated staircases was more challenging than it should have been), and video games took on a familial, team quality. We were all growing to appreciate the emergence of a digital phenomenon.
I’m not alone in having these memories. In fact, I’m so not alone in having them that there’s potentially a billion people that could, and should, be drawn in by the history World 1–1 is attempting to cover. With an engaging group of talking heads, the documentary from Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez chronicles the earliest years of video gaming by focusing on Atari and its pioneers. From its inception to the birth of the microprocessor to dominance to downfall, World 1–1 exhaustively chronicles the inspirations and frustrations that paved the path toward the media that most defines this generation.
In a way, they’ve hit the sweet spot in terms of timing. It’s a bit like making a documentary of cinema history in 1935 when you could celebrate a massively popular, growing industry but still have access to Georges Melies and D.W. Griffith. One of the most interesting meta-elements of the documentary is the generational stretch they tap into. Some of the earliest video game builders had parents who grew up during the Great Depression, making them Baby Boomers crafting interactive entertainment for Generation X punks and Millennials.
Garcia and Rodriguez take full advantage of the living foundation builders by getting inside stories from figures like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, Pong developer Al Alcorn and Centipede co-creator Dona Bailey.
They are all high spirits, passionate and often wistful about the work they did. Alcorn is probably the most entertaining, his pudgy frame sunk into a leather chair as he recounts the calm chaos that led to innovation with only a dash of bitterness behind his voice whenever finances enter into the story. The conversations are rounded out by other early employees of the company who describe an environment that was both powerful as a primordial soup for creativity and earthquake shaky for business acumen.
The harsh reality of failure isn’t glossed over, but this also isn’t a slug fest with finger pointing from angry people unable to bury hatchets. Everyone interviewed clearly has a deep appreciation and love for what they’ve achieved. They’re also a little salty, hardened by the disparity of a yeoman’s salary versus explosive sales figures for “the most popular Christmas gift.” World 1–1 is stoically straightforward as a history, tinged with the bittersweetness of legends working day jobs as they round the corner toward retirement.
There are also a few clunky elements to the film. It starts by evoking WWII – specifically Hitler strolling into an undefended Paris – which is a near-arbitrary way to explain that there were computers in the 1940s that would eventually mature three decades later to become video games. It’s an opening that feels like when a high school essay begins with the phrase, “Since the dawn of time…,” and the closing narration is nearly as weightless. World 1–1 also fails to introduce its figures properly, tossing a name on screen when he or she first appears, but not adding job titles for context. Several – the most important – become obvious quickly, but there are more than a few speakers whose connection to video games is never detailed, furthering the notion that this doc was developed purely for insiders.
Admittedly, the movie can also feel like an info dump at times. At two hours long, it’s thorough in delivering and contextualizing the story of one company’s ups and downs. Every story flows nicely into the next, but the mountain to climb is so tall that it feels like some of the bloat should have been excised. Ground is so well-covered and so straightforward that the doc tends to discuss a profound cultural revolution embodied by one company as if it were a Sunday brunch. For the most part, the history lesson remains interesting because of the bright personalities they’ve rounded up, and in that sense it’s admirable that the documentary gives them a large enough stage to fully share the story.
The film opens with the disconnect between a math-loving, engineering-happy society and the regular barflies they were attempting to keep distracted for 25 cents at a time. Video games set up next to jukeboxes in the 1970s had to devolve in a certain way in order to work. To simplify. Pitch and yaw and reverse thrust were overly complex after a few beers.
World 1–1 faces something similar – a dilemma that all specialized documentaries face. If you aren’t interested in video games (and, really, video game history) already, the doc does nothing to pull you into its orbit. However, if you’re even slightly curious about how video games got started or if you’re old enough to remember your Atari 2600 fondly (Dig Dug for life), there’s an overwhelming amount of information and heart here.
The Upside: A thorough and interesting history of an important media icon; an excellent mix of personalities; a clear passion for the subject
The Downside: A bit long and often too detailed
On the Side: This film exists thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, and they’re selling it themselves. You can watch World 1–1 for four bucks at their website.