Movie Review: World 1-1: The Pioneers

For a hobby as popular as video gaming, there have been surprisingly few documentaries about it over the years.  There have been the occasional films about specific parts of the hobby like “King of Kong”, “High Score”, and "Icons", G4's half hour specials that aired when the channel was still a video games network.  However, there has never been a complete Ken Burns “The Civil War” style documentary that covers the history of everything.  Given the treasure trove of interesting stories the hobby has to offer, it was only a matter of time before somebody put together a more ambitious project.  Filmmakers Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez appeared to have done just that with the release of “World 1-1: The Pioneers”, the first in what will hopefully become a comprehensive series about the history of video gaming.

If you have dabbled in video game history before, then a large part of this documentary will be a review of familiar material.  You may have heard the stories about Atari’s crazy, laid back, T-shirt and jeans culture.  You may have already heard of Space War  or how some Atari employees broke off to form Activision because they wanted to receive individual recognition for their games.  These stories have been told in bits and pieces, but they have never been all in one place, in front of one camera, and told by the those who experienced such moments or actually made them happen.  Interspersed with stories direct from the mouths of gaming’s forefathers are historical tidbits and insight from the gamers who grew up with their games, like IGN’s Jared Petty, Sam Claiborne, and Colin Moriarty.  Colin Moriarty also narrates the opening and closing segments of the video (his voice isn’t bad, but it lacks the appeal or gravitas of your typical documentary narrator). Old advertisements, interviews, and news stories also make the occasional appearance.

"World 1-1" is about the hobby’s early years, but it focuses almost exclusively on Atari, their arcade games, and the Atari 2600.  Atari’s story, by itself, is a fascinating one and this documentary does a great job of capturing almost every aspect of their story.  The early Atari machines were engineering marvels and their creators were tinkerers who had to constantly improvise creative solutions to problems.  They had to develop games on cartridges that had less memory than a thumbnail sized Jpeg.  They also had to double as businessmen who could make practical, reliable, and profitable products.  It is impossible to come away from this documentary without admiration and gratitude for the people who toiled long hours to create a hobby from scratch, with no precedents to follow and no mentors to learn from.

If you did nothing but look at the list of interviewees on the movie’s IMDB page, then you might make the conclusion that "World 1-1" is the product of a large budget and a recognizable director.  That it was created by two young filmmakers with no other credits to their name is astounding.  From Nolan Bushnell to David Crane, Centipede to Adventure, the documentary is a compendium of game development legends from the 1970s and the early 80s.

If "World 1-1" were a video game, it could be described as “hardcore”.   With a running time of 132 minutes, the documentary spares no detail in letting the pioneers in video gaming tell their stories.  There is no filler material in that time and the conversation is lively, never dull.  It never feels like a spoken word version of Wikipedia and the storytelling on display makes for compelling oral history.  Older gamers who lived through this era will experience waves of nostalgia as they hear the stories behind the games that shaped their childhoods.  Engineer types will be impressed about the numerous technical tricks that game designers utilized to develop unique games like Yar's Revenge and Adventure.  People with an interest in the business world will enjoy hearing the challenges Atari faced managing its finances and, ultimately, becoming a subsidiary of Warner Brothers.  The strife caused by WB’s acquisition of Atari could, itself, make for an interesting Harvard Business School case.

With as much as it covers, there are still a few important topics from the era that don’t get a significant mention.  It doesn’t give a nod to pinball, the hobby that ultimately paved the way for video arcades.  Scant coverage is given to the Colecovision and the Intellivision, two other major consoles of the generation that provided competition to the 2600 in the early ‘80s.  Magnavox’s lawsuit against Atari for patent infringement isn’t mentioned either.  In addition, the rise of home computing is barely acknowledged, outside of a few shots of some Apple products.  It will be a shame if the series never delves into home computing, as the Apple IIe and the Commodore 64 were critical in bridging the gap from the 1983 crash to the NES.

"World 1-1" is intimately detailed and informative, with a very impressive list of interviewees and an overall quality that exceeds the expectations of its small budget.  It is clearly a labor of love that benefits from the directors’ passionate devotion to the rich subject matter.  If this installment is representative is what a larger series might look like, then it is a series that deserves to get made.  At the very least, "World 1-1" is a documentary that deserves your attention if you have any interest in the history of the medium.