High Score, Netflix’s new documentary series about the early history of video games, is filled with fascinating characters, flickering arcade cabinets, gorgeous pixel animations, flashy graphics, loosely woven yarns, and an aw-shucks sense that video games are just the best. Like another recent hit docuseries, ESPN’s The Last Dance, it delivers hit after hit of 1980s and ’90s nostalgia, a powerful and, lately, especially welcome drug. But also like that documentary, it’s unlikely to transform the viewer’s perception of its central subject. It’s a show obsessed with loving games, not understanding them.
Each of High Score’s six episodes (which all premiere on Netflix on Wednesday) is a rough account of a specific period or genre in early gaming culture, told through a series of interlocking character profiles. Because of this focus on character, each episode is less the story of a particular era in gaming and more a collection of stories of notable personalities associated with that era, strung together with the help of narrator Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario himself, who ties it all up in a cheerful bow.
Sometimes this works well. In the show’s best episode, “Role Players,” we follow some of the figures that gaming connoisseurs might expect: the charming King’s Quest designers Roberta and Ken Williams, who pioneered graphic adventure games in the early ’80s, and the eccentric creator of 1981’s open-world RPG Ultima, Richard Garriott. But the episode also features some less expected detours, including one into the studio of Yoshitaka Amano, the legendary illustrator for the early installments of Final Fantasy. At one point, the story pivots to Ryan Best, developer of 1992’s GayBlade. GayBlade was among the first queer games, and featured an adventure “to rescue Empress Nelda from the disgusting right-wing creatures inhabiting the dungeon” and ultimately take down final boss Lord Nanahcub. (That’s “Buchanan” backwards, as in Pat.) Sadly, GayBlade is now lost to time, but Best’s story is genuinely moving, and by featuring his story, High Score will hopefully drive a breakthrough in locating a copy of the game. It’s a gentle reminder of how ephemeral digital art can be, and it’s one of several moments in the series that may remind viewers how diverse the art form’s pioneers actually were.
But even as “Role Players” succeeds as a series of intertwined character pieces, the early history of the genre is left a patchwork. By concentrating on Richard Garriott and Ultima, the episode sidelines the equally important role-playing game Wizardry, which was released the same year. And as thrilling as it is to see Amano watercolor a sketch of Terra from Final Fantasy VI, High Score doesn’t get into the story of how Final Fantasy’s creators were working from a template set by Yuji Horii’s earlier Dragon Quest series, which had its own star illustrator in Akira Toriyama. Or how Dragon Quest was directly influenced by Horii’s encounter with Wizardry in San Francisco in the early ’80s. By dealing with the complexity of this international chain of influence, High Score’s story could be not only more accurate but more rich. Instead, it’s happy to just hang out with the characters it has on hand. Luckily, other documentaries have chronicled the early history of the RPG more comprehensively.
This character-centric approach likely grew out of High Score’s pedigree from production house Great Big Story. Great Big Story is an independent web-native spinoff of CNN originally designed to produce short YouTube-friendly (read: advertiser-friendly) documentary content. Their series are short, punchy, stylish, and satisfying. Great Big Story co-founder Chris Berend once described its editorial outlook as “fundamentally optimistic, but not naive or sunshine-y.” But in translating Great Big Story’s optimistic shortform approach to six 40-plus–minute episodes, that optimism starts to look facile, especially against the intense amount of production design used to prop everything up.
This is most egregious when the series asks its subjects to participate in its gimmicky reenactments. Sometimes this just involves playing games for the camera in a dark room as strobing lights ripple over them. Other times, it means full-on, scripted skits. The worst of these is probably from the second episode, which spends an inordinate amount of time following the extremely mundane story of Shaun Bloom, a former teenage Nintendo game play counselor (basically a call-in center employee tasked with giving out tips for Nintendo games). At one point, Bloom stars in a fake training video for said counseling service, complete with a Ron Duguay–esque mullet, ripped jeans, a hokey script, and faux ’80s VHS video effects. The cumulative effect of this skit and Bloom’s storyline is nothing more than to remind us that Nintendo game play counselors were a thing.
And above all High Score is interested in reliving gaming’s youth. Insofar as it’s a history at all, it’s the history of consuming games—the story of what it was like to unwrap that Atari on Christmas, to experience Nintendo and Sega’s ’90s rivalry, to debate violence in video games while you played Mortal Kombat with friends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of approach, but I wish the series attempted more often to break ground, rather than retread it. After all, these events all happened within the past few decades, well within the living memory of many adult gamers.
It’s a shame, because the series is at its best when it’s focused less on what it was like to see these games come out, and more on what it was like to design them. In the first episode we watch Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado flip through his original design journals, seeing his sketches for what would become the iconic pixelated aliens. In the strong final episode, we also get a history of the development of Doom and the birth of the competitive first-person shooter, along with the story of early 3D games.
In our current year, it is unnecessary for a documentary series to tell us that the largest entertainment medium in the world is cool and fun. And while High Score is worth watching for many of its individual parts, those parts don’t add up to much of a whole. In fixating largely on what it felt like to make and consume these products at the time, High Score largely avoids modern parallels, and thus avoids the hard questions those parallels bring. The optimism inherent in Great Big Story’s approach means it’s not interested in exploring how the origins of video games, and Silicon Valley attitudes about labor, would eventually bring us to our current video game labor hellscape. Nor is it interested in examining how early fan culture and console warmongering contributed to bringing about the toxicity that poisons so much of the discourse around gaming. Maybe it’s too much to expect these kinds of interrogations in a show designed as one long huff of nostalgia, but it can’t help feel like a missed opportunity for a show with this level of budget and sourcing to not try for something more challenging. Like the games it worships, High Score is an amusing way to pass the time, but one can’t help but feel like it’s set to easy mode.