What is World 1-1? On the surface, that questions seems to be fairly straightforward to answer. It is a Kickstarted documentary about the dawn of the video game industry. That was a good enough explanation to engage my interest when I started watching, but as the film progressed it became clear that it's a bit more than that. It is a time capsule. World 1-1 captures the words of the people who created the video gaming landscape from nothing but makeshift televisions and handmade circuit boards. These same creators and visionaries, they have been silently fading into history and soon many may not be left. In a world where many of the next generation of gamers barely know what an NES is, even less remember the time when Atari reigned supreme over the video game industry. Outside of the truly dedicated, who knows the names of Al Alcorn, Dona Bailey, Garry Kitchen, or Howard Scott Warshaw? This is important video game history. But perhaps I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. As always, it is best to start at the beginning….
Full disclosure: The author of this piece contributed financially to the Kickstarter in 2013 because it seemed like a cool idea that no one else was pursuing. The filmmakers, Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez, contacted us about World 1-1 and sent a review screener.
The film opens with a brief narration by Colin Moriarty, an ex-senior editor at IGN, covering the development of computer technology and how it became associated with Nolan Bushnell, one of the founders of Atari. From there, the documentary is two hours of interviews with the movers and shakers that passed through Atari. We get interesting, long-form stories about the business deals and backroom drama that propelled the most rapidly growing and then most rapidly declining company in American history. The majority of those two hours consists of talking heads, old news clips, and still images demonstrating the speakers’ points. Perhaps people who have no interest in video game history wouldn’t find it particularly compelling, but then again, this isn’t a documentary for those people.
I found the experience to be riveting. One of the highlights of the documentary is learning about the nitty-gritty details of how Bushnell and company made their first few arcade machines in order to launch Atari. Hearing about how those gaming cabinets were cobbled together from spare parts and a television from the local Walgreens is an unimaginable treat. The film also highlights the creation of the Atari 2600 and the bizarrely outside-of-the-box thinking it took to invent. Even little details like how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start at Atari make it into the movie. As the documentary unfolds, it manages to paint a picture of a freewheeling house of creatives that managed to scrape by in the arcade business, until things went sour after Atari merges with Warner Communications. From there, the documentary shifts focus onto how mismanagement by Warner Communications eventually toppled Atari and the entire video game industry in 1983.
World 1-1 concentrates on the events that unfolded around Atari and how Atari’s innovations changed video games forever. It is very thoughtful and introspective, but we only get hints about the gaming landscape around Atari. We hear snippets about the Magnavox Odyssey and the Fairchild Channel F, but not much more than snippets. It isn’t hard to understand why; Atari, and subsequently Activision, were the big names at the time and their games forged the industry, while the Odyssey and Fairchild Channel F became footnotes. Alternatively, I would have appreciated seeing an interview with someone who had been “one of the suits” at Warner Communications explain why Atari was managed into the gutter. Seeing a few more outside perspectives from the people who worked in the industry during the 70s and early 80s would have been great.
I cannot stress enough how great it is to see the old guard of game developers and console inventors talk about how they came up with their ideas and inspirations. They were treading new territory and creating material that has become indelibly iconic. Many of these people should have become household names, but because of the way the industry began, many never received the recognition they deserved. Moments like hearing Al Alcorn describe making Atari’s Pong in a matter of weeks and adding that the sounds took only three or four hours, words can’t express how awesome that is to me. World 1-1 brims with stories like Alcorn’s. I was afraid going in that it might feel like a Wikipedia rehash of game industry factoids, but it isn’t like that at all. Instead, because the people being interviewed are the creators and were directly involved in the events they describe, the film feels personal, while relying on interviews from current industry professionals and experts to put those stories into context.
I should also mention that I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack by Wait and See & NGHT. Its light electronica beats weave into the movie in an understated, yet punchy manner that perfectly suits the material. The soundtrack and material it combines with can’t fail to bring a smile to your face.
World 1-1 is a must-see for anyone even a little bit interested in the video game industry. The history comes right from the mouths that made it. People with short attention spans or no interest in video games might have a tough time investing themselves into the film. I’ll admit that I thoroughly geeked out at more than a few points during my time with the screener. I can’t hide my enthusiasm for a project that finally gives people like Joe Decuir or Franz Lanzinger their time to shine. World 1-1 fantastically captures a chunk of video game history, and I feel audiences will be better able to put modern video games into context within the grand scheme of the medium.
In short, World 1-1 is really freakin’ cool.
World 1-1 releases digitally on January 15 through VHX. A physical DVD and Blu-ray release is planned sometime later.
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 01/12/15