Computer gaming is normally seen as something to be action focused, not passive. You don’t watch, you play! I’ve never believed that, and since for the last year I’ve struggled to play much due to health reasons, I’ve had a lot of time to consume gaming media.
Whilst decades ago there were news reports on computer gaming, it was not until the 2000s that gaming documentaries started being made. From what I could determine it was not until 2007 that a mini explosion occurred in this field. With a few exceptions I have found the documentaries to be either too basic in scope and depth, or too narrow in focus. I appreciate why this is, and I at least have still enjoyed what I’ve seen, but I wanted something bigger and better. At least YouTube has provided me with regular short but quality video-essays.
I was pleasantly surprised to come across a reference to a new documentary about the Amiga years. When I looked into this documentary information I then discovered that there is an older documentary that I just had to watch.
From Bedrooms to Billions by Anthony and Nicola Caulfield.
“The film journeys through those early 8-bit game design years, the transition into the 16-bit era and PC”
The list of interviewees is impressive:
“Mark Healey (Little Big Planet), Ian Livingstone (Tomb Raider), Peter Molyneux (Populous), Jeff Minter (TxK), David Braben (Elite Dangerous), David Perry (Earthworm Jim), Mark Cerny (Sonic the Hedgehog 2)”
The length of 2 hours and 30 minutes is quite impressive. These factors combined to give me high expectations. As I started to watch I noticed that my enthusiasm was being infected by creeping doubts. I got myself armed with a hot drink, and then reminded myself to watch with an open mind. I was quickly rewarded with an in-depth and well-structured documentary. The film moves from topic to topic with good pacing, for me this demonstrated that the filmmakers understood the scope of their project, and implied that the length would be well spent.
Many different machines are covered, and it was a relief to not detect any bias. I felt each machine was respected, not brushed over. It was great to see so many vintage clips, from showing the machines, numerous games, different people (8-bit megastars), and even news reports.
It was lovely to see so many people interviewed and giving their recollection of event, some names I even recalled from my childhood. The interviews had been cut well, and placed appropriately to support the film’s narrative. Different old stars talk about a subject, then the film changes to someone else and another viewpoint is given, whilst a broad picture is painted.
For me, this succinct style, with so many sources combined to keep me invested. Half way through I considered pausing to make a new hot drink, but I actually decided that I could make do with some water so I could continue watching. It’s an impressive thing to make me forego a coffee or tea.
The film regularly presented old game music. I appreciate that to younger ears the music may seem funny, but in context this was really pioneering work, and this is something the documentary explains well. I went from enjoying myself to being ecstatic when I heard the music for Commando on the Commodore 64, what a masterpiece! There is even a soundtrack to go with the film, which I plan on getting.
The film explains how these pioneers literally went from their bedrooms, embracing new technology and then invented an entire industry, including how to distribute things. Some of the stories were unknown to me, and crucially stories that I vaguely recalled from my childhood now have a richer context as I appreciate the drama involved. I was also very happy to Chris Anderson talk about his early days running computer magazines. Mr Anderson is better known to the masses due to his work changing the T.E.D. organisation, he truly has helped shape how the world; I love both him, and that he came from gaming.
The film does a wonderful job of conveying the emotionally twists and turns in the industry for various developers. The intensity I felt being reminded of why successful UK gaming companies started to struggle, and also learning things I never knew from that era. It is wonderful that the film goes on to explain what happened to so many of the talented developers.
The film also highlights the preposterous problem that the UK education system has had in regards to programming not being taught in schools; I had a terrible time at high school learning ‘I.T.’ when I wanted to learn more coding. It is great to find out that Ian Livingstone (Games Workshop & Eidos), and others, have had to help fix things. A generation of coding potential lost, which is ridiculous when you consider that the UK was one the leading computing places.
The documentary wraps up enthusiastically with talks about the recent changes that have taken place, with the return of a large number of bedroom coders due to the indie and mobile markets. This also ties back in to the UK’s education improvements.
I think this is an exceptional film, covering an important part of the history of gaming. It is odd that other documentaries either don’t even acknowledge, or barely mention. When watching the film I felt that the program did not allocate enough time to the story of the Amiga and Atari ST. However, given that a follow-on documentary has been made The Amiga Years, has been made covering this era in more depth, I think this was for the best.
I am sure people all around the world, as well as the younger generation, will appreciate the important story about the UK computer gaming industry. I think this film has greatly added to the history of computer gaming, and I highly recommend it. I am now going to watch The Amiga Years.
I am sure most readers will be thankful that I cut my backstory from this article. If you’d like to read about it, to give more context to this review, then I have placed it on my Batjutsu blog.