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4 Stars Movies

Kill Screen: Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

First, full disclosure: I work for the movie company that distributed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. My miniscule role in marketing the film was limited to designing the official movie website, and I am under no obligation or prohibition to write this review (which happens to be positive, anyway). Any opinions expressed here are mine alone. I mostly avoid writing about movies released by my employer. I’m making a rare exception in this case because The King of Kong has been out of theaters for some time, and my personal opinion on this blog is certainly not going to have any impact on its revenue. Having just seen it again, I have a few thoughts I would like to record here.

I would hate to be an English teacher, at any level, for one reason: the countless “it’s a metaphor for life” papers I would have to grade. Probably one of the biggest cliches of kids’ essays is to pull out that refrain, e.g. “the light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby in a metaphor for life.” After grading a few dozen of those I just might want to start throwing things and switch to another career, like, say for example, web design.

Billy Mitchell in The King of Kong
Billy Mitchell with the ladies of Namco

That said, I’m about to commit that very grievous essay sin: if anything is a metaphor for life, it’s Donkey Kong. Let’s look at the evidence:

  • Donkey Kong is an intensely difficult game.
  • The game’s god/creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not supply it with a predefined ending.
  • The number of levels is undeclared at the outset.
  • Anyone with a quarter can play.
  • Most players die very quickly.
  • A very select few thrive and have their names entered into history.
  • How you play, not just how long you live, determines your score. In other words, you can reach the exact same point in the same level as somebody else but have a higher score.
  • Even the best of the best players cannot “win” the game; everyone will eventually drop dead without warning and through no gameplay fault of their own. This point has become known as the game’s “kill screen.”

That list of bullet points just about covers it; Donkey Kong is so clearly a metaphor for the human experience that the film thankfully doesn’t even bother to explicitly state its themes. Kids, let that be a lesson for all your future school essays.

Steve Wiebe in The King of Kong
The King of Kong (2007) Documentary Directed by Seth Gordon Shown: Steve Wiebe

The King of Kong is a very rousing film that works best to an audience; if possible, watch it with friends. From what I can gather, viewers respond to two basic things: the frankly weird subculture of professional video gaming, and the more universal story of the underdog vs. an entrenched power network. A suspicion is gaining traction that the story is too perfect, the hero Steve Wieve too all-american, and the villain Billy Mitchell too evil. The movie’s official message board (no longer online) features heated discussions including actual figures featured in the film, and documentarian Jason Scott has gone so far as to publish a passionate teardown of filmmakers’ ethics.

Personally, I wish the film had been more clear on a few points:

  • As you can read on the above links, Billy Mitchell’s well-timed taped submission may have seemed fishy but turned out to be genuine.
  • Most viewers (including myself) all ask the same question: how long does it take to play one of these “perfect” games? The movie finally discloses the answer incidentally near the end, as if the filmmakers weren’t deliberately withholding the information, but rather didn’t realize it was something viewers needed to know.

All in all, the subculture featured in the film is a truly unique bunch of people, and a great find by the filmmakers. Some of them may deserve a little mockery, but my favorite moment in the film goes to a Robert Mruczek, who describes how professional sports records are broken once in a lifetime, but he sees gaming records broken every day. And how exciting is that?

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Personal

I Heart Katamari

Best. Game. Ever.

To give that statement a little context: I’m a novice gamer at best. I didn’t grow up with an Atari, so I’m a latecomer to all this beeping, flashing, vibrating analog joysticking stuff. A few years ago, I was engrossed in The Matrix films to a degree that seems silly now. But at the time, I was a web design working on the official Matrix online shop so I can explain away my obsession as having arisen from spending all day every day Photoshopping distressed metal boxes with glowing green screens. Word was that the Enter the Matrix Playstation game was a veritable revolution in gaming, an unprecedented merging of cinema and interactivity, necessary to understand the upcoming sequels, yadda yadda yadda. Sucker that I am, I actually bought a Playstation 2 on the strength of this hearsay, and… the game sucked. I had never even touched a PS2 before and I could tell that it sucked.

Worse than that, it was unbelievably violent. Before you call me naive for thinking it wouldn’t be: My favorite of the Matrix series is No. 2 (yes I know that’s against popular opinion, but what does Popular know?). If you watch closely, you’ll notice that although our ostensible heroes Neo and Trinity mow down dozens of innocent humans (not, technically, their bodies, but their consciousnesses in the Matrix, resulting in their real-world bodies dying) with machine guns in the first film, not a single living person dies in the second. Unfortunately the game takes after the first film and the player’s very first task is to sneak into a post office and kill as many armed guards as possible.

Where to start? First, is it intentional irony that you’re going postal on poor USPS workers? Second, why are they all packing heat, as opposed to packing tape? I forgot to mention that you start out the game unarmed, and the included instruction/hint book helpfully suggests a complicated combo move (or whatever gamers call it… you have to move the joystick up and to the left, press a dozen buttons in a complex sequence, turn around three times and toss salt over your shoulder) to sneak up on somebody and break their neck.

Now let me say here that I am against censorship in all forms, and all the talk about banning or even creating a rating system for violent videogames sets off all my liberal alarms. But when a game like this actually encourages the player to sneak up on an innocent human being just doing his job (as opposed to a non-sentient but malicious computer program, as the Matrix mythos call a villain) and break his neck instead of confronting them head-on and potentially costing you health points in a fist-fight… well, I nearly had the urge to call my representatives in Congress.

So my Playstation gathered dust for a good long while. I would occasionally take a stab at other games, but wound up selling most of them back. I did enjoy one quite a lot: The Simpsons Hit & Run, a sort of Grand Theft Auto (or so I’m led to believe it’s like) without the hookers and whacking and stuff. Great fun! Seriously, you should try it.

But then I read about Katamari Damacy in Time Magazine, and was intrigued. Partly that the media would focus on a game for any reason other than to decry its poisoning our nation’s children’s precious bodily fluids, but also by it sounding totally unique. And it is, as far as I know. Basically, you roll a big sticky ball around the place and pick things up. The bigger your clump gets, the bigger things you can pick up. Soon it becomes clear that if you play long enough, everything around you is pick-uppable, including people, skyscrapers, and even clouds. It’s insane! Totally weird! Addictive!

I just picked up the sequel We Love Katamari this weekend and have fallen in love all over again. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge conceptual advance over the original, but there are many more worlds to explore, more complex goals, and more general loonyness all around. Yay! I’m a gamer!

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