['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is a documentary that chronicles a world record attempt.]


This is the story of man vs machine. The machine in question is the arcade classic Missile Command, and the man is Bill Carlton, an average run-of-the-mill kind of guy.

High Score

Its perhaps safe to say that when most people hear about some expert game player, or at least someone who is obsessed with video games, they immediately make assumptions: among other traits, this person more than likely has zero friends, let alone a girlfriend, is perhaps unemployed, has poor hygiene, and maybe even "talks funny". But not Bill. He has a decent job, friends, even a girlfriend, who may not understand Bill's obsession but is nonetheless supportive.

He's not some ball of angst like many diehard gamers but instead a rather charming, laid-back, and even genuinely funny guy. So as we follow along his quest to attain the record for highest score ever, instead of wincing whenever Bill hits a stumbling block, we, the viewers are actually sympathetic and even hopeful for his success. Though its Bill's apparent normalcy that makes his obsession all the more intriguing and perplexing, since one must ask: what's a normal guy like that doing stuff like this?

Man On A Mission

As a kid, Bill was given advice from the resident expert game-playing adult, or 'the neighborhood kids' god' as he is described, and that is to be as good as him, all one needs to do is excel at just one thing, whatever that might be, and then apply that same passion to anything else. And Bill applied this advice and it worked for him, though he was a bit of a late bloomer; it wasn't until the games that he wanted to be great at as a kid had become "classics", some fifteen years later, that Bill made his mark. In an interview with a local retro arcade operator, we learn that Bill first gained attention when he noticed by the end of each day, someone had set the highest possible score for Asteroids before the numbers would roll over.

Bill's first attempt at getting the highest score in a game, with Asteroids, is what put him on the map, at least among others who are obsessed with breaking such records, many of which were established years ago, when classic arcade games were still contemporary. The previous high score took one person eighty hours to achieve, and Bill in 2003 was on his way to replicate and surpass such a feat, but at the twenty seven hour mark the machine died on him. And this unfortunate technical mishap would set the tone for Bill's story throughout the film. Not once is there any doubt, from either Bill himself, his friends, his girlfriend, or even the experts that Bill is capable of setting the high score for Missile Command. The only thing anyone worries about is if the machine will hold up.

Early on in the documentary, we see Bill happily unload a freshly purchased, vintage Missile Command unit, and not too long afterwards he's already flexing his skills. Watching him play with complete confidence and joy is like watching a musical virtuoso take a dusty old violin that's been ignored and neglected, and in just a matter of moments, breathe new life into it, making the machine hum like it has never hummed before. Unfortunately, after a few rounds (one must assume that he's lasted longer than most other mortal players), the machine resets itself.

It’s discovered that some of the connections on the motherboard are loose and dusty, and after an adjustment, things appear to be in fine working order. But that's thing; that machine, like all other classic games, was made many years ago. They were never intended to withstand marathon sessions to begin with, so to ask of it over two decades later is a tall order. As the obligatory Twin Galaxies rep (the folks that oversee all the records of gaming's past) that appears in the documentary explains, there are a host of technical issues that can pop up that can cause the machine to die and reset itself, and all of which are just uncontrollable factors that one most face when doing a marathon run. A few hours later, Bill gets about 3.5 million points from his second game; it is estimated that he will need approximately 54-56 hours to break the 80.3 million point record. Bill's personal best is 29.7, which is the 10th highest in the books (and Bill actually fell asleep while setting it, so one has to wonder if it could have been more).

As for the top record, it was set by over 25 years ago, and remains one of the longest held records to date.

You've Got Either Video Games, Alcohol, or Drugs

The machine continues to reset itself in subsequent practice sessions, and without explanation. A few weeks before the record attempt, the game is moved to the site where history will presumably go down, Galaxy Games, a small game store located in a nearby city in Bill's home-state of Oregon, which also happens to be one of the few places for kids in the sleepy little town. Not long into his first on-site trial marathon run, the first of many to build up his endurance, the machine again resets itself. After this, as well as every other time it happened, Bill would simply go outside for some fresh air and a quick smoke, then went back to play the game till it couldn't handle it anymore.

The documentary isn't particularly action packed or eventful (though it does become suspenseful as things progress) - it's just a nice leisurely look at one man with a goal, and all the trials and tribulations involved in achieving it. As silly as it sounds, playing a video game nonstop is rather demanding, both mentally and physically, requiring quite a deal of conditioning, which Bill is able to deal with via the aid of his "ninja list", as well as resolve, which Bill also exhibits.

He's quite confident that the task at hand is more than achievable, and because potential problems are more or less out of his hands, instead of getting all worked up over nothing, Bill plays it calm and cool. One wonders why others on the cusp of making history can't act the same. One nice moment is when Bill ponders what he'll do once he finally breaks the record: celebrate or just keep playing and set the bar even higher (enough to scare anyone else away from ever trying). As he says, "No one ever made history being a big puss."

We also get to hear from the people that inhabit Bill's world, like the pair of teens playing EverQuest in the back of the store during his first midnight run, that attest to how boring it can be. "You've Got Either Video Games, Alcohol, or Drugs" explains one of the them, and he choose video games, even though he confesses that Everquest was itself a pretty boring game in which you just did the same thing over and over again. Another interesting casual observer is some guy that's just a customer to the store, someone who used to play Missile Command back in the day as a kid, and wasn't too bad at it. He now has kids, and can't keep up with what they play. Bill and him go head to head, and this person actually provides a decent challenge. Through this we see the embers of his youth aflame once more in his eyes and words.

We even get to meet Victor Ali, the boy, who is now a man, that set the record in the first place, so basically wishes anyone luck that's crazy enough to stay up 80 plus hours to demolish some crazy, youthful record. There's even a brief chat with the crazy kid who's not a regular guy who still holds the record that Bill is gunning for.

After a new board has been installed, Bill makes his record attempt. Everything starts out well... Bill is in good sprits, as expected at that point. Near the five million point, Alison, Bill's girlfriend shows up, and what other world records can one think of in which the record breaker can chit-chat and brag to their lady while they're in an attempt? She of course thinks its "crazy" but is still supportive nonetheless.

At the around four hours and forty-four minutes, Bill has almost 7.3 million points, and he tells that he's looking about about another todays "if everything goes fine... otherwise we're looking at another ten minutes if things don't go fine."

Ten Minutes Later...

The machine reset itself, at the 8.6 million mark. Is Bill angry? Sad? No. Just calm, cool, and collected. So the scene is not particularity heart-breaking. Bill is mostly not surprised, because "its what happens every-time." So he is disappointed, even though its not too obvious. Yet he tries his best to keep things in perspective, and even look at the positives, such as how not having to worrying about going to bathroom in some "nasty" game room for that weekend.

Two months later, another board is ordered and installed and another attempt is scheduled. At this point, Bill is more confident in the machine and more nervous about something going wrong on his end, such as making a stupid mistake in the game early on, or getting diarrhea. And on Friday, May 28th, 2005, we watch Bill's third attempt - "and I want it to be the last" - as he says a few hours beforehand. Does he succeed?

I won't say, partly for obvious spoiler issues, but partly because it's just not important. Those who are curious can find out what the end result is if they wish, but the movie isn't about whether he gets the high score, but the journey towards it. And Bill's journey is something we've all have gone through, or aspire to, or maybe even currently are in the middle of. Not to give too much away, but the ending is bittersweet. In the end, Bill's tale is like anyone else's. It's about believing in yourself (or fooling yourself, depending on your cynical point of view), and following your passions, no matter how silly they might be.

Final Score

High Score is a fantastic addition to the growing ranks of video game documentaries, which includes the recently screened at Sundance Chasing Ghosts and The King Of Kong, as well as the recently featured in this column 8 Bit. High Score is short, and sweet, and well worth catching if you ever get the chance. The movie is shown here and there, so keep an eye out at the official homepage and hope that it plays near you someday.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]