This American-centric documentary offers little new understanding of that nebulous term “videogame history”, but it does present a fascinating perspective on the ephemeral impact of the medium in popular culture.
Netflix’s six-part mini documentary series is rather unimaginatively called ‘High Score‘, and the rest of the series is equally unimaginative in its basic retelling of videogames in the United States through the late-1970s to the early-1990s. Those expecting to see the Magnavox Odyssey and other cult classics will be left disappointed.
The series is consistently celebratory in tone. This praising tone and argument is constant throughout the series. It’s not alleviated by the overly-peppy narration from Charles Martinet. For the cynics amongst you, this will grate extremely quickly.
There is a fixation in High Score on consistently reinforcing the argument that videogames and the videogame industry are an overwhelming force for good. In some cases, this tone is welcome; there are some particularly nice moments revolving around inclusivity.
Most of the series is one giant argument that “games are important”. This does not strike me as something that still needs saying. And – if we are being wholly critical – the series ultimately argues that videogames are primarily important because they make massive amounts of money, and maybe not because they represent something more significant.
Consequently, the documentary’s scope is narrow. While it purports to be a series about broad videogame history, it is exclusively talking about American history. There is barely a mention of the impact of videogames in a European context. All the achievements of Japanese game developers are judged by their impact on the American market. Violence in videogames is contextualised by American congressional hearings in the 1990s; the popularity of specific videogames are reinforced by human interest stories about how plucky and talented American kids were able to make their names through the industry.
This series is a monoculture. Perhaps a duoculture at best.
Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the series reemphasises the view that videogames are more significant than just embodying the physical discs or cartridges that we play or see on a screen.
The documentary calls upon parataxts regularly. These materials about videogames that exist outside of videogames are employed in interesting ways that reaffirm a cultural impact that lingers long after the game is over.
For example, the creator of Space Invaders Tomohiro Nishikado details his hand-drawn design books for the sprites in the game. Artistic illustrations of jellyfish and monsters are then also shown in their bit form, demonstrating the design processes of creating the game on screen and formatting images into bit-art. To a lesser extent, John Romero similarly explores early enemy designs for DOOM, and Yoshitaka Amano is extensively interviewed regarding his initial intricate illustrations for the iconic monsters within the Final Fantasy series.
Furthermore, TV adverts and one-off shows about public videogame events are extensively cut into the documentary. This isn’t breaking with documentary tropes. But their use highlights that gaming history should also include how the industry marketed these new systems, and how they attempted to use the medium of TV and print to proliferate them.
By demonstrating this material alongside the creative work of developers, the series promotes the notion that videogame history does encompass something more than just the cartridge and the system it is played on.
It will be interesting if Netflix build upon this documentary further, especially with some acknowledgment that videogames are truly global, and not just for American audiences.