Atari: Game Over

Year: 2014
Production Co: Fuel Entertainment
Director: Zak Penn

Screenwriter and professional nerd Zak Penn takes a very particular event in the history of gaming – the search for the long-rumoured resting place of countless copies of the ill-fated ET Atari game at a New Mexico rubbish dump – and uses it as a framing device and backdrop to construct an interesting documentary about the history of the titular games company and its reach over pop culture that endures to this day.

The talking heads he collects paint a picture straight out of what you imagine the early days of Silicon Valley were like – epic parties, a constant supply of weed, ridiculous hours and gonzo creativity that morphed into a million dollar company and spawned a global industry despite itself. If you were a kid anywhere in the Western world at the time you'll know the Atari 2600 8 bit game system was everywhere, and it raised a number of other companies right up with it (like Activision, who are still around today).

In between talking to everybody from the co-founder to the overseer at Warner Bros Entertainment once the company was acquired, Penn follows the progress of the Alomogordo dig. A former waste disposal worker who's now a historian uses old records and his knowledge of the local topology to pinpoint where he thinks the cartridges of the ET game are buried (rumoured to be truckloads of them after it failed to sell).

They go through the endless red tape with the city governments and layers of environmental protection, huge digging machines roll in, and the day of the dig sees an atmosphere usually reserved for comic or pop culture cons as crowds in cosplay line the barriers waiting for the team of archaeologists to comb through old store catalogues, car parts and banana skins looking for the intact cartridges.

The first interesting thing the film highlights (aside from the obvious story of the dig itself) is that while we think of archaeology as being about jewels and stone figures of ancient gods under the sands of Egypt or Israel for thousands of years, the Alomogordo dig is looking for stuff that was only buried in the early 1980s.

That might seem ridiculous, but you only have to look at the actions of digital archaeologists who've preserved the contents of The Park, Geocities or other early web-era services that don't exist anymore. Because it's been long enough ago for the reason they buried a million game cartridges in the desert to apparently be forgotten, it can tell us about our history as a society no different than some ancient amulet – even if it's the history of comparatively recent pop culture or 20th century commerce.

But there's a deeper subtext. At the risk of spoiling the surprise and deflating the grand mythology behind the Alomogordo burial (although if you're reading this you're probably interested enough in the topic to know they found the cartridges, right where the waste disposal guy said they'd be), Atari didn't – as the urban legend says – bury a million copies of ET because they expected a hit, made too many and the sales never materialised.

In fact there were only a few hundred copies of the game – along with several other titles – and the burial was traced to the actions of a distributor who went broke and had to empty their warehouse, so they simply chucked the stuff away.

But like the films of Lucas and Spielberg, Choose Your Own Adventure books and a hundred other entertainment and cultural properties of the era, the Atari 2600 taught a generation to love stories in new forms, to look for them, and – in the case of the Alomogordo dig – even to invent them to make something much more exciting out of the mundane details the real world is usually comprised of.

The point isn't that a million copies of ET were buried in New Mexico, it's the fact that so many people believed it, loved the thought of it and came together to celebrate it.Atari: Game Over isn't about a game system, it's about us and who we are.

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