In "High Score" a new documentary series from Netflix, viewers take a deep dive into the golden age of video games, spanning the creation of legends from "Space Invaders" to the controversial "Doom." That period of time was full of novelty and innovation, for programmers and players alike.
There was a lot of money to be won and careers to be either made or broken. Along the way, series creators France Costrel and Melissa Wood also investigated lesser-known members of the industry whose contributions changed how we play today.
"Video games are often not seen as a form of art because we don't realize the craft that goes into making them," Wood told Salon. "Not just developers and creators, but there's also music composers, artists, marketers. It was a really great opportunity to show all these different fields and make sure we had diversity."
Among some of those stories are how Ray Best created – and then lost – "Gayblade," the first role playing video game featuring LGBTQ characters; how Gordon Bellamy found acceptance in video games and went on to add the first Black characters into "Madden"; and how Shaun Bloom channeled his inner '80s teenager (and mullet) to became the ultimate Nintendo Games Counselor.
Costrel and Wood spoke with Salon about the creation of the series (narrated by Mario himself, Charles Martinet), how they chose which games to highlight, and some of the unknown stories they uncovered.
There's this quote at the beginning of the series about how video games transformed televisions from something where you were a passive viewer into an active participant. Through this series, we're kind of reversing roles again. What made you decide to bring video games to the small screen through "High Score"?
France Costrel: I'm so glad you picked up on that quote, because I actually find it very interesting as well. In a nutshell, Melissa and I both love producing television and we've done it for a few years and worked together on other projects.
But I think of video games as this unique ability to create a connection between the game and the gamer, so this is why we interviewed game designers . . . to create that connection. It all started while I was working on a short documentary series called "8 Bit Legacy." We produced a few episodes about some early video games and the people behind them. It did pretty well. We got nominated for an Emmy, and then I realized, "You know what? There is no shortage of amazing tales when it comes to the people behind the games," so we put together a deck and went to pitch, and got super excited and lucky that Netflix was on board.
Then I had the pleasure of working with Melissa before on a series called "Dark Net" on Showtime, which also had a lot to do with screens. I knew that Melissa was super creative and an amazing leader and manager, so she would be perfect for this project, to bring it to life with me. From there, we created a team of animators, editors, and producers.
Speaking of animation, the main title sequence is so fun and you take that same animation style throughout the series to illustrate events. What was the brief on that, what did you tell the designers to get to the point that it looked like a combination of graphics but also incorporated elements of anime?
Melissa Wood: It was something we spent time on in the beginning, working with one of our art directors and what we wanted to do, obviously, is pay tribute to the games that we were profiling. But we also didn't want to make them so gimmicky that we lost the humanity of the stories that we were telling. So that is where the anime elements kind of helped out. We didn't want anything that was too cartoonish or too derivative of the 8-bit games, because we felt like the stories that were being told — through our original footage or through the animations — were the real stories of real people. That was the core of every story we were trying to tell.
That makes sense, and I feel like the graphics also sort of contribute to the show's overall sense of humor, which is something that I loved. Some of the funniest parts were the show's reenactments. Whose idea was it to have [Nintendo Game Counselor] Shaun Bloom wear an '80s mullet again? Was he game?
Costrel: Melissa! She got that wig and put it on Shaun, and when I saw the footage for the first time, I just couldn't believe it. I was laughing so hard. I'm so glad you picked up on the humor because we wanted this show to be fun and encapsulate both the period and the people behind the games. But yeah, Melissa did the Shaun Bloom portion. It is quite something, and I think he's good. Shaun, to be fair, should consider an acting career.
Wood: I mean, he was really on board, as were so many of our characters. You know, game creators are creative people themselves. They love games and were so willing to jump in and participate and have fun with us. I have to say, the Shaun Bloom shoot, I don't remember laughing that hard on a shoot ever.
So it was just fun to make, and he was amazing to work with. But I think for all the stories, we really tried to amplify the sort of personalities of the people we were working with and having fun.
Costrel: To your point, Melissa, it was important for us to find a way to illustrate and bring to life, visually, the creative process of all these creators. You know, when we would speak to them in the early development phase, we would always discuss things like, "Alright, what kinds of things can we film together?" and "What is linked to the game?"
In some cases it was like, "So, you actually were inspired by a bathouse to create a street fighter? Can we find a traditional Japanese bathhouse?" And I think, exactly like Melissa said, they were so excited to do it themselves because they're creators and they understand the need to make it visual, fun and engaging.
There are also elements of the series that are really touching, like looking at the thread of putting Black characters into the "Madden" games. And Gordon Bellamy has this quote, "For marginalized people, you spend a lot of time justifying your existence in spaces." What does this say about the power of video games and inclusivity?
Costrel: I grew up in France, and I didn't play the same toys, listen to the same music, read the same books as my American friends. So there was something that was quite unifying in that we all played the same games. And I think video games have their unique appeal, it doesn't matter like your age, your gender, your religion, your econom[ic] background.
There is a thing where, you're just behind a screen, joining the experience, having fun and becoming a character. So, I think Gordon Bellamy had a beautiful way of saying it and encapsulating it.
Well, and I think that ties into a misconception that "High Score" subtly addresses, the idea that only certain people or certain demographics are "gamers." But that's just not true. How important was it for you all as filmmakers to create a narrative that reflected some of the diversity of video games' history?
Wood: That was definitely one of our goals. We've certainly done our research, watched a lot of other video game documentaries, read a lot of books — and on the surface, you might think that a lot of the major figures in video game history were white men.
But when we dug a little further, we found stories of people like Jerry Lawson, who made incredible contributions to the history of video games. I mean, just imagine how different playing video games would be if cartridges had never been invented.
He had an enormous impact, but his story was buried. And so we thought it was really important to tell his story, because we had the platform to do it, because he did change history.
A larger goal of our series was also to look at video games from different perspectives. A lot of video game documentaries and books that have been written really focus on the programmers, but there are people who are creating the sound for these games, or whose images that are turned into representations. These people have enormous impacts on the history of video games.
Video games are often not seen as a form of art because we don't realize the craft that goes into making them; not just developers and creators, but there's also music composers, artists, marketers. It was a really great opportunity to show all these different fields and make sure we had diversity.
You also present some diversity in the games discussed in "High Score," like "GayBlade," an LGBTQ RPG released in the early '90s, so it was a little before my time . . .
Wood: That was a deep dive. None of us have heard of this game before we started doing research, and then we came across this woman from Berlin.
Costrel: From the Computerspielemuseum Berlin.
Wood: Right, and she was compiling this collection of games with LGBTQ games that had been made over the decades. A lot of them had sort of been lost through history, but we found the story through her search for this game. And we thought that the search was an interesting, active way of storytelling, but we also felt like it, to an earlier point, video games are art and art often reflects the historical context in which it was made.
So, "Gayblade" really reflected the sentiments of the gay and lesbian community in America in the late '80s and early '90s and what they were struggling with. We felt like it's not a game that makes people heroes, but the story behind the creation of it is something people could connect to.
And I was unclear, a copy was actually found of the game because of the RPG community kind of pursuing the hunt for it?
Great! Okay, so you ended the series on the creation of "Doom," and of course there have been many more games and game systems since then. Why did you decide that was a good stopping point?
Costrel: It was hard to find the perfect ending point for the series because we really could have made it 40 hours and just looked at the history of so many great games. So, we kind of adopted everything from the perspectives of the viewers hearing our choices because we feel like a game comes to life when it's being played.
And in "Doom," you are suddenly asked as a player to adopt the perspective of the game. And on top of that, there is this bust of the community aspects of gaming, where you have this multiplayer aspect and can play with others.
We open with early games such as "Pac-Man," and close with the first time a player is asked to become the mascot. We kind of like that we end up with the players being asked to adopt that first-person perspective and entering that new dimension. I also think that after that, games are more familiar. So that would be like a new type of genre and games we would cover, so we really wanted to look at the early days and the golden age of them.
Are you hoping to continue this series to dig into things like Playstation, Xbox, eSports, "Pokemon Go"?
Wood: My gosh, if I could do this series for the next ten years of my life, I'd be so happy. I mean, it's a really fun topic. The participants are amazing. We've had an amazing team working on this. It's just so fun to work on. So we would do it again in a heartbeat. There are also just endless stories, so we would have a lot of material for content.
"High Score" is now streaming on Netflix.