From a time when everything was new and nothing was off the table.
Great Big Story’s Netflix Original docu-series, High Score, has taken over the streaming platform with a delightful selection of gaming’s biggest moments at the birth of the industry. Spanning six 40-minute episodes and hosted by the legendary Charles Martinet (also known as the voice of Super Mario and a slew of other characters), High Score looks at the “golden age” of video game development with a series of interviews and with key figures that have shaped the gaming landscape that we all enjoy today.
One of High Score’s more powerful and artfully-delivered messages is just how integral Queer identities and People of Colour were in developing the systems and the culture that we know and love. The series opens by celebrating Rebecca Heineman, a trans woman who, by all accounts, was the very first champion of a national video game competition — that game being Space Invaders. The High Score team focuses entirely on what’s truly important and relevant to the show: how Heineman engaged with, and felt liberated by playing, Space Invaders. The show takes a great step in normalising trans identities by spending absolutely no time discussing Rebecca’s transition and only ever referring to her as Rebecca (or, rightfully, Champion).
High Score’s next moment of triumph celebrates a man who revolutionised the arcade industry by striving to create a platform that would allow interchangeable cartridges on the one console. Jerry Lawson was the only Black man involved in the early formation of what High Score depicts as a very rural Silicon Valley. For what inevitably evolved into the handheld generation and even the Nintendo Switch’s stalwart stance on cartridges, I can only say a deep thank you to Mr. Lawson for paving the way to the many, many times my parents yelled at me to put down my Game Boy.
In what is easily my favourite moment of 2020 (not that that’s a high bar), High Score shines a light on how early game development served as a method of Queer protest and identity by interviewing Ryan Best, who developed one of the very first LGBTQIA+-themed video games — GayBlade. An action role-playing adventure released on Macintosh back in 1992 and based on Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop adventures, GayBlade has you battle the forces of homophobia with a team of drag queens, gays and lesbians with unique powers and saucy items. During the interview, Best revealed that he lost GayBlade’s source code during a move, but High Score’s profile is such that the LGBTQ Video Game Archive was able to find it; it’s now available for all to play on the Internet Archive!
I could sit here and talk about every single interview the High Score team conducted, because they’re all amazing, but the final highlight I’ll share here is the interview with Gordon Bellamy, a man whose sheer determination to be involved with the Madden NFL franchise saw him become an icon for representation. A gay Black man, Gordon worked his way onto Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL team and strove to ensure that the franchise began representing Black NFL players accurately, rather than white-washing them all. Bellamy’s work was seen as provocative, because it resulted in the first major video game title to feature a Black character on the cover. Since then, Bellamy has gone on to have a stint at the helm of the International Game Developers Association, and to found the GGP: Gay Gaming Professionals — a group I follow — which serves to connect and support professional LGBTQIA+ individuals in the video games industry. It was wonderful to hear Gordon’s story from his own mouth, and to see his passion shine through.
Aside from those examples, High Score features powerful interviews with trail-blazing developers and executives who went on to develop little-known companies like Atari, Nintendo and SEGA, and also cultural landmarks like DOOM and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. These interviews are woven in along with heavily stylised pixel-art sequences, CGI overlays and excellent retro footage with equally retro-styled scripting choices that fortunately pay off as corny rather than painful. All of this comes together to produce a game-like level of entertainment, rather than the educational “information dump” to be found in other documentaries; it all fuelled my long-held belief that the only way to properly and effectively discuss and engage in games media is to employ the same entertainment values as video games themselves.
The entertainment value is one thing, but the series does an outstanding job of combining that with brief but solid insights into the thought processes that went into the foundational games, characters, personalities and trends that make up gaming’s monolithic history. Truthfully, anyone with any kind of ties to the video game industry would be hard pressed to be uninterested in the titans of the industry High Score shines a light on, but the history and accounts provided are open and engaging enough that anyone — even the least gaming-inclined — can sit down and learn. I was definitely guilty of getting a little too invested in it and shouting “THE MAN MADE SPACE INVADERS! SHOW SOME RESPECT!” at my housemate at least once.
In an unbiased and representative depiction of what led us to Fortnite, Fall Guys and the PlayStation 5, High Score hits what it needs to without droning on. The slight criticism exists that the nostalgic tones are perhaps somewhat rose-coloured, given that the series glosses over some of the concerning legal battles and even romanticises clear instances of developer crunch that the industry is fighting so hard to combat. Of course, there’s plenty of time to focus on the negatives in future instalments of the series; the games industry and the spaces it creates are, of course, still areas of marginalisation with a history of inequalities and stereotypical representation, but it’s a welcome experience to have a balanced representation of the peoples involved at the start of it all.
Although Castlevania still takes the cake, High Score has shot up through the ranks to become my second-favourite gaming television series and so I’m eager to see it come back for round two. The justice that it shows towards the games industry’s history has me excited to see how the team will tackle more contemporary trends and digital obstacles, and how High Score will stand as a beacon of intelligent, representative discussion of video game culture.
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