Considering the huge cultural impact of video games and their widespread contemporary acceptance, it’s perhaps odd that we don’t see more TV programmes dedicated to the world’s most interactive art form. Yes, I said the ‘A’ word, punk. Then again, as the inimitable Charlie Brooker politely points out: TV shows about video games are almost exclusively a pile of steaming shit. Bold words from a once-upon-a-time games journalist taking the plunge and making a lengthy and personal documentary about the top 25 most influential games to have ever graced the world. Ever.
So, here at Voxel Arcade, we thought that we too would embrace this pleasantly left-field indulgence of gaming’s finest moments and use the opportunity to review Charlie Brooker’s efforts. A gaming site reviewing an ex-gaming journalist’s attempt to gauge his peers’ ability to highlight moments of genuine cultural significance? Fancy that.
Don’t blame me because you spent your last 10p on candy floss, Brooker!
With slick presentation, a world-weary presenter and a whole slew of giddy industry insiders and celebrity gamers all eager to chip-in to the debate; this feels immediately like one of those bloody awful, end-of-year count-downs that we’re all about to be tortured by. Unless of course you actually like sitting through the four hours and three hundred adverts that will frame the ”Top 100 Celebrity Tattoos of 2013′. Indeed, the programme’s title is really nothing more than a headline-grabbing diversion from the truth: this is Brooker exploring his personal list of cultural milestones, whilst all the time receiving knowing nods and enthusiastic endorsements from all manner of publicity junkies ranging from Jonathan Ross right through to Mahatma Ghandi. Oh wait – it was just Peter Molyneux looking godus-like on a Chesterfield.
And yet, based on the list of games that he’s chosen, there really is little to argue with. To begin with, at least.
Starting with the seminal Pong – the undisputed drop cap for the story of video games – Brooker skillfully works his way through the idiosyncrasies and technological significance of the early, cumbersome beasts of gaming. Each title from Space Invaders through to Pac Man and Super Mario is woven into an authentic, historical context – one that thankfully ‘ranks’ the titles in chronological order as opposed to attempting the arbitrary car-crash that would be debating which one is more ‘important’ than the other. By the time we reach the open-world, intergalactic orgy and technological bumblebee that was Elite, however, the story seemingly reaches somewhat of a narrative plateau, with the next few entries in the middle-ground adopting more of an ambiguous, subjective grasp of their worth.
Number 963 in this year’s greatest chat-up lines …
Entries such as Monkey Island stand out as clear milestones in the story of, well, stories in games – yet others such as the god-awful Night Trap seem to merely serve as convenient segues into aspects of gaming that Brooker is keen to explore as opposed to being genuinely meaningful games themselves. The choice of games is, then, somewhat ruled by the production team’s choice of narrative. Parapa The Rappa and Angry Birds are more contemporary culprits of this journalistic approach with the film veering way off the beaten track before it approaches more credible highs in the form of Wii Sports, GTA and The Last Of Us.
I suppose it’s entirely possible to argue, as Brooker and his crew so expertly do, that all of the games in this list were of major significance on the journey we’ve taken from Pong to Twitter (yes, Brooker even asserts that Twitter is a game – and convincingly so). Yet, as a staunch gamer, I’d argue that a good number of those that he has chosen have either failed miserably to stand up to the test of time, or were just plan shit to begin with. Brooker being, well, Brooker, does at least couch all of this with fair warning from the outset that this is no scientific experiment – but with the absence of titans such as Half-Life, Portal or Bioshock, it does feel rather hollow at times. Then again, this is about how video games changed the world – not about what gamers themselves enjoyed the most. I mean, fast-food changed the culinary landscape, but it’s still just minced hips and lips scraped off the abattoir floor.
On the plus side, sensitive issues such as sexism and violence in video games are explored in a refreshingly balanced and mature way, with Brooker and pals denigrating extreme violence that lacks any form of meaningful context – COD and Mortal Kombat 9, for example. A viewpoint that we at VoxelArcade share. Literally. The suggestion that The Last Of Us represents an entirely new branch of video games – one that integrates itself with an HBO-styled narrative framework – was a shrewd assessment of the immense strength and human spirit evident in Naughty Dog’s magnus opus. Roll-on a PS4 sequel, would you kindly?
So: you can forgive Brooker for neglecting to mention a whole slew of titles that gamers themselves would have probably wanted to be mentioned – ones that may have not stuck a flag in uncharted territory, but were sublime masterpieces nonetheless. Yet – and here is perhaps the programme’s only real failing – only in the final minute does Brooker attempt to explain how video games changed the world. Simply blurting out as many plausible statements as he can squeeze into the final scene feels like a missed opportunity – something that could have been explored in much greater depth in part two. You could argue that the content spoke for itself thanks to the deft historical slant, but I was left wanting more nonetheless.
The world’s greatest MMORPG?
The scene was expertly set, then, but the final act was near non-existent. There’s also the issue of the strange juxtaposition of clearly passionate gamers whose lives have been enriched by the medium and then Brooker himself who looks like he’s just had his house burgled – for the third time this month. Such is his style – and I wouldn’t want him to change for a minute – but in the context of something he so clearly cares about, it felt like somewhat of a Jack Dee routine as opposed his usual (and warranted) intellectual vitriol.
So has gaming changed the world? Yeah – I reckon it has, but only so much as the world has changed gaming. There you go Charlie : you can have that one if you like – for a small fee #payup.
All things considered, this was a superb documentary – one that will hopefully pave the way for further meaningful exploration of video games in the TV format. It just left me curious as to what look Brooker actually has on his brilliantly stoic face when embracing a particularly sweet gaming victory…