The top 10 video game documentaries
Various times throughout the years, filmmakers have been fascinated with either the amount of energy that goes into the development of a video game or the hold they can have over us, turning the camera to those that give a specific game or games meaning with the hope of revealing something more.
For a select portion of gamers, the idea of a video game documentary that takes an acute and original perspective and promises to delve just that little bit deeper into their favorite medium is an all too tempting prospect and one which has resulted in some of the most riveting stories ever put on film and some of the best gaming documentaries ever made.
The following is a list are our of the 10 best video game documentaries. The small few game documentaries that have been able to transcend the conventional gaming audience and reach others, delving under the hood of an intriguing tale involving video games to such a degree that no one should miss their stories, whether you know your way around a controller or not.
10. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters (2011)
Expertly investigating the various design elements and features of one of the most important and addictive video games of all time, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters recounts the development and rise of iconic puzzler Tetris by centering on various arcade gamers as they prepare to compete in 2010’s Classic Tetris World Championship.
Ecstasy of Order has everything that makes a documentary which focuses on a class game great: competition, passion, but perhaps most importantly an eclectic cast of real-life characters you can really empathize with and by the end hope to see succeed. In the run up to the championship it’s never clear which of the contestants is likely the win, making the final outcome even more nail-biting and unpredictable. Oh yeah, and you’ll learn a lot about the history of Tetris whilst watching this gaming documentary too!
9. Branching Paths (2016)
If you’re someone who has previously found the Japanese independent gaming scene somewhat impenetrable to understand, look no further than Anne Ferreri’s utterly brilliant video game documentary: Branching Paths. Tracking and shedding light on elements of the scene from Tokyo Game Show to the humble offices of a Japanese indie studio, the movie documents the struggles of what it means to be an indie developer especially in a territory trying to catch up with Western successes.
Branching Paths explains just as to why many artists, creators, programmers, and game writers take the risky but executive decision not to work for one of the world’s biggest game studios, instead hoping to make their vision profitable on the back of their own creativity and resources. With interviews featuring Japanese industry legends such as Koji Igarashi and others, Branching Paths is a video game documentary which helps shed new light on an otherwise niche area of indie game challenges.
8. Minecraft: The Story of Mojang (2012)
It was inevitable for a video game documentary that covers the modern world’s biggest video game phenomenon to surface eventually, and despite the rather generic and uninspired title, Minecraft: The Story of Mojang is a must-watch for anyone who has a passing interest in all things procedural and block-based. Whilst the main subject of the documentary initially covers the development process of Minecraft, The Story of Mojang also does a great job of highlighting the game’s impact using many insightful interviews and archived footage.
The video game documentary does a great job of appealing to both veteran players of Minecraft as well as newcomers seeking to discover and learn more about what all the fuss is about. If ever you’ve wondered how a video game with such a low focus on graphical fidelity and narrative has been able to grip the world like no other game before it, The Story of Mojang is the best video game documentary for you.
7. High Score (2006)
In a lot of ways, the precursor documentary which set the template for future movies like The King of Kong and Man Vs Snake to place focus on the idea of score-chasing and the “man vs machine” angle, High Score is an award-winning film that follows William Carlton, an average gamer from Portland Oregon on his mission to beat the score record for Missile Command, and arcade game released in 1980.
It’s revealed in High Score that in 2006 at least, the average person doesn’t play an arcade game for little more than two and a half minutes. You can therefore imagine the struggle, frustration, and heartache required to achieve the new high score in Missile Command, after learning that it’ll take a thousand times that number. Riveting and engaging from start to finish, High Score is one of the best video game documentaries ever made and well worth a watch.
6. From Bedrooms to Billions (2014)
An absolute massive undertaking in video game documentary film making and by far the most ambitious entry on this list, From Bedrooms to Billions unlike most other films in its genre chooses to cover almost 25 years in video game history as opposed to a more focused subject area. By concentrating solely on how the UK’s creative and somewhat visionary contributions to the video game industry played a crucial role in its popularity, the video game documentary features various insightful interviews with major British game designers, composers, and journalists throughout the last three decades.
From Bedrooms to Billions’ bold tagline notably exclaims that “the video game industry had to start somewhere”, and the film does a great job at highlighting some of the original thinkers present during the spark of this revolution that made it all possible and into what it has become today.
5. The Art of the Game (2014)
Clocking in at a run time of only an hour, don’t let The Art of the Game’s short length influence its impact on you any less, as its name suggests this film looks to challenge how people think of video games as an entertainment medium and seek to convey it more as a true art form. Whereas other movies on this list relay the stories of creators through the lens of their respective games, The Art of the Game places the creations firmly at the forefront for analysis.
Critics described the video game documentary as an “evocative love letter to the video game industry” and in doing this The Art of the Game succeeds tenfold, exploring the cultural importance of gaming experiences as opposed to the more technical aspects sometimes seen elsewhere.
4. Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us (2013)
Click the video above to watch Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us
One of the most focused, expertly shot, and insightful video game documentaries out there, Grounded documents the making of one of the greatest games of all time in The Last of Us from beginning to end. Grounded works so well simply because it leaves no stone unturned, letting the creators at Naughty Dog explain the processes and thinking behind such aspects of sound design, art design, and game writing to better give you a sense of how each is practiced at such a Triple-A scale.
Particular highlights present in the video game documentary include Troy Baker’s slow realization that it is more important for the characters’ emotions and reactions to be ‘grounded’ rather than using it as an opportunity to show off his acting skills, and seeing the composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s unconventional recording methods. Grounded is just as much of a case study for Naughty Dog as it is their game, and it’s free to watch on YouTube now (click the video above to watch for free), so don’t deny yourself the opportunity of seeing this amazing gaming documentary.
3. The King of Kong (2007)
Being the ultimate video game underdog tale, legendary Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell and everyday newcomer Steve Wiebe’s race to become the next world champion of the classic arcade game is as much a reflection on the 1980’s arcade scene as it is a tale of corruption. It’s a tale masterfully told in 2007’s The King of Kong: A fistful of quarters, and although the Donkey Kong record has since been contested following the film’s release, it doesn’t lessen its riveting through-line.
Family relationships are tested, honors are broken, and many an arcade cabinet is shaken in the time it takes for The King of Kong to play out. It pulls at the heartstrings just as much as it bashes at the fire buttons, edging you closer and closer to will Steve Wiebe to succeed against all odds in an effort to penetrate the tightly knit and biased web of video game organisation Twin Galaxies.
2. Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Number 2 on our best video game documentary list. Indie Game: The Movie follows the individual paths undertaken by three aspiring and sympathetic indie game developers seems like such an obvious recipe for success from the outset, but Indie Game: The Movie takes this idea and runs with such a level of dedication that you can’t imagine experiencing this story through the eyes of another lens. One of Kickstarter’s most worthwhile funding successes, this 2012 film is expertly edited and really guides viewers through the tortuous process of developing an indie game.
Indie Game: The Movie documents the development of Team Meat’s hardcore puzzle-platformer Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish’s long-awaited Fez, as well as reflecting on the impact of Jonathon Blow’s time-reversal darling Braid. They’re stories set to inspire the next generation of indie devs as well as gamers with an interest, showing that there really is no substitute for pouring your heart into a project.
1. Free to Play (2014)
Watch Free to Play Above
Whilst its most common for the majority of the gaming audience to casually move from game to game as new experiences continue to release sporadically throughout the year, there’s a certain portion who devote their lives to a single game to such a degree, that said game is vital to their ability to overcome day-to-day struggles. This is the central conceit running through 2014’s Free to Play video game documentary, which documents the lives of three committed professional video game players in the run up to the $1,000,000 international tournament.
The video game documentary is notable for its inspired decision to draw parallels between the competitive gaming e-sports can facilitate with more conventional sporting activities. It serves to highlight a greater misconception, that despite the niche and unusual way these players choose to live their lives, gamers are just as capable of overcoming adversity and defying expectation. In the same way Jaws is a shark movie that isn’t actually about a shark, Free to Play is a DOTA documentary that isn’t actually about DOTA, but everything other than that!