Netflix’s New Doc Is Like The Last Dance for GamersBreaking News
tags: video games, technology, popular culture, documentary
High Score, Netflix’s new documentary series about the early history of video games, is filled with fascinating characters, flickering arcade cabinets, gorgeous pixel animations, flashy graphics, loosely woven yarns, and an aw-shucks sense that video games are just the best. Like another recent hit docuseries, ESPN’s The Last Dance, it delivers hit after hit of 1980s and ’90s nostalgia, a powerful and, lately, especially welcome drug. But also like that documentary, it’s unlikely to transform the viewer’s perception of its central subject. It’s a show obsessed with loving games, not understanding them.
Each of High Score’s six episodes (which all premiere on Netflix on Wednesday) is a rough account of a specific period or genre in early gaming culture, told through a series of interlocking character profiles. Because of this focus on character, each episode is less the story of a particular era in gaming and more a collection of stories of notable personalities associated with that era, strung together with the help of narrator Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario himself, who ties it all up in a cheerful bow.
Sometimes this works well. In the show’s best episode, “Role Players,” we follow some of the figures that gaming connoisseurs might expect: the charming King’s Quest designers Roberta and Ken Williams, who pioneered graphic adventure games in the early ’80s, and the eccentric creator of 1981’s open-world RPG Ultima, Richard Garriott. But the episode also features some less expected detours, including one into the studio of Yoshitaka Amano, the legendary illustrator for the early installments of Final Fantasy. At one point, the story pivots to Ryan Best, developer of 1992’s GayBlade. GayBlade was among the first queer games, and featured an adventure “to rescue Empress Nelda from the disgusting right-wing creatures inhabiting the dungeon” and ultimately take down final boss Lord Nanahcub. (That’s “Buchanan” backwards, as in Pat.) Sadly, GayBlade is now lost to time, but Best’s story is genuinely moving, and by featuring his story, High Score will hopefully drive a breakthrough in locating a copy of the game. It’s a gentle reminder of how ephemeral digital art can be, and it’s one of several moments in the series that may remind viewers how diverse the art form’s pioneers actually were.
But even as “Role Players” succeeds as a series of intertwined character pieces, the early history of the genre is left a patchwork. By concentrating on Richard Garriott and Ultima, the episode sidelines the equally important role-playing game Wizardry, which was released the same year. And as thrilling as it is to see Amano watercolor a sketch of Terra from Final Fantasy VI, High Score doesn’t get into the story of how Final Fantasy’s creators were working from a template set by Yuji Horii’s earlier Dragon Quest series, which had its own star illustrator in Akira Toriyama. Or how Dragon Quest was directly influenced by Horii’s encounter with Wizardry in San Francisco in the early ’80s. By dealing with the complexity of this international chain of influence, High Score’s story could be not only more accurate but more rich. Instead, it’s happy to just hang out with the characters it has on hand. Luckily, other documentaries have chronicled the early history of the RPG more comprehensively.
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