Whether you’re a fan of games or just someone who’s interested in the creative process that goes into making art or entertainment, there are some fantastic video game documentaries available. Want to learn about the humble beginnings of a hundred-billion-dollar industry? Curious about which singer-songwriter performed on the Halo 2 soundtrack without almost anybody knowing? Maybe you’re fascinated by the artistry of indie games, or want to know more about the folks who made Skyrim and Fallout 76. Whatever your interests, here are ten of my favorite games documentaries from the last decade and a half.
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, Indie Game: The Movie is one of the most inspiring documentaries I’ve ever seen about art and managing the ups and downs of the creative life. Not all the interview material has aged well, and it takes a somewhat narrow view of what the indie-game scene looks like. However, the filmmakers seem to care very deeply about their subjects. There’s even a worthwhile follow-up, Indie Game: Life After, if you end up getting really invested.
Atari: Game Over (2014)
Directed by Zak Penn, the screenwriter who adapted Ready Player One for the Spielberg treatment, Atari: Game Over chronicles the fall of early ’80s Atari by way of a peculiar urban legend. For decades, a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, was thought to be the burial site of countless unsold Atari VCS cartridges, such as the lackluster port of Pac-Man and the much-maligned E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Here, a number of games historians, along with E.T. programmer Howard Scott Warshaw, set out to discover the truth.
Also available on Amazon Prime.
Nintendo Quest (2015)
If you’ve ever been heavily involved in collecting, or any nostalgia-driven fandom, you ought to be entertained by this affectionate road-trip doc. In Nintendo Quest, die-hard NES fan Jay Bartlett sets out (along with director Rob McCallum and cinematographer Sarah Mulholland) to collect all 678 licensed games released on the system in a single month. If you liked AMC’s reality series Comic Book Men or Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. It’s available on Amazon Prime.
The games industry has a misogyny problem; the online culture surrounding games has a sexism problem. Video game developers themselves aren’t always so great with representation across gender lines, either. GTFO draws on interviews with prominent voices in games—Leigh Alexander, Rhianna Pratchett, Brenda Romero, Anita Sarkeesian—to shine light on the harassment of women in that world. It’s a sobering but necessary picture.
Remaking the Legend: Halo 2 Anniversary (2014)
This hour-long documentary from Microsoft charts the making of 343 Industries’ 2014 remaster of Halo 2. It was created in collaboration with Saber Interactive and Certain Affinity. It serves a love letter to one of the finest first-person shooters ever made. If you want something like a full two-hour feature, pair Remaking the Legend with the 2004 DVD extra Behind the Scenes: Making of Halo 2—both of them are free on YouTube—and relive Halo’s glory days ahead of the upcoming Halo Infinite. Watch it below.
World 1-1 (2015)
Here’s a good place to start your exploration of video game history: the beginning. Built from accessible interviews with industry pioneers and games journalists alike, World 1-1 is essentially the story of Pong, the Atari VCS, and the downfall of the company that helped give rise to the modern games industry. View it on Amazon.
Gameplay: The Story of the Videogame Revolution (2015)
Perhaps more appealing to younger audiences, Gameplay: The Story of the Videogame Revolution is a breezy, 101-level overview of video game history. It features interviews with games-industry luminaries like Todd Howard (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind), Nolan Bushnell (Pong), Noah Falstein (Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis), and John Romero (Doom). Rent it from Vimeo or iTunes.
The History of Bethesda Game Studios (2018)
You really should check out the entire Noclip YouTube channel, which is full of incredible (free) documentaries about video games—but The History of Bethesda Game Studios is my current favorite. Filmmaker Danny O’Dwyer sits down with a number of the people behind classic RPGs like Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Skyrim, and Fallout 4 to chart the studio’s fascinating history.
The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time (2013)
Where do arcade cabinets go to die? That’s the subject of Jeff Von Ward’s well-made 2013 film, The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time. This is yet another story of collectors and obsession, shining a spotlight on the passionate folks who work to preserve the physical artifacts of gaming’s past. Stream it on Amazon.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
You’ll want to do some supplemental reading when you finish King of Kong. In this 2007 doc, director Seth Gordon (The Office, Parks and Recreation) chronicles the epic rivalry between underdog math teacher Steve Wiebe and former Twin Galaxies champion Billy Mitchell. If the rest of the movies in this list are about history and tortured artists, this is one with some genuine drama; it’s a story happening in real time. While it doesn’t end the way you might expect, King of Kong’s legend reaches beyond the film’s running time.
Watch it on Hulu or a number of other streaming services.
Featured Image: BlinkWorks