August 17, 2007 12:02 AM |
A few weeks back, I was able to check out The King Of Kong, a brand new documentary that centers on one man (an every-man, actually!) by the name of Steve Wiebe, and his attempt to nab the highest score possible in Donkey Kong, as well as the challenges he faces. Not from the game itself, which in itself is quite difficult (perhaps one of the harshest from its era) but from the one person who laid claim to the record, that being the enigma known as Billy Mitchell - one of the competitive gaming scene's most infamous figures, as well as his devoted followers.
For those who missed it, my review of it can be found here, though the bottom line was I found it to a totally fantastic and absolutely engrossing film, and easily one of the finest documentaries to be crafted on the subject of video games yet produced.
The tale it spins is a fascinating one, especially because it's "real"; what happened really happened, and the characters are actual people, though some are still very much "characters" in every sense of the word. Yet, even the best documentaries don't tell the entire story. They often simply can't due to various reasons; there's not enough time, the camera can't be everywhere, you can't bore the audience, etc. But immediately afterwards, I thought back to something that I personally witnessed that conflicted with the narrative of the story....
Without getting into too many details, because it would both spoil the movie and take too long to explain, I actually met the film's "star", Billy Mitchell (Wiebe might be the center of the story, but Mitchell is clearly the star) a few years ago in New York City at a film festival that had a video game component. He was on-hand with footage of himself playing Donkey Kong and breaking the world record. He then presented the videotape to Walter Day, head of the Twin Galaxies, the word's recognized authority of video game score keeping. Little did I know then that it would lead to doubts about a movie years later down the road.
I later explained this to my friend, MTV News' Stephen Totilo, who was also wondering about a few things, primarily stemming from his interview with one of the featured individuals from the movie, Robert Mruczek, who was the referee that verified another tape that Mitchell produced in the movie. Was it the same one that I saw in real life? There was no mention of it, and the timeline that was laid out doesn't allow for it. Both myself and Stephen decided to investigate, and in the process came up with a different timeline. The people over at Twin Galaxies, who have since day one doubted Weibe’s abilities, which is made crystal clear in the movie almost immediately, also created their own.
And then Stephen scored the ultimate coup: the first post-documentary interview with Mitchell, who, needless to say was not happy with how he was portrayed in the film, which could be best described as "the bad guy". Though it needs to be pointed out that he hadn't seen the film... and still hasn't, despite numerous attempts by the film's director and producer to make it so. Anyhow, even more places and events were brought up, which were not mentioned in the movie. And I myself began to wonder if what I enjoyed and wanted to see do well deserved such support.
Yesterday morning I got the chance to sit down with Seth Gordon, the director, Ed Cunningham, the producer, and Steve Wiebe, the center of it all.
The first thing I had to ask was the reaction King of Kong has received, and the resulting controversy. And apparently, everyone who has seen the movie has loved it, or so says Ed (it is true... I have yet to encounter a negative review, at least in the press). But more importantly, it was mentioned that Walter Day, one of the major faces in the film enjoyed it immensely as well (despite the fact that his organization doesn’t really come off so well, let alone their king supreme). It would seem that those who hate it have yet to see it. Again, including Billy Mitchell himself.
When asked about how certain events took place but were not portrayed (again, I hate to be cryptic, but I want to refrain from spoilers, though what I am alluding to can be tracked down by checking out Stephen’s articles), as expected, I was told that the entire story could not be told because the cameras were not there to capture it all. Plus certain elements were ultimately not incorporated or mentioned simply because it didn't relate or effect the core narrative. But more importantly, as Seth explained "We presented what we witnessed... we presented the facts as they happened." There was no twisting of reality, as some have claimed or have been lead to believed. In fact, the ones accusing the filmmakers of such an act might in fact be doing it themselves.
Gordon and Cunningham did not set out to make Wiebe a good guy, nor did they intend to make Mitchell a bad guy. They simply presented what happened; how people acted as they did and it was simply caught on film. Though that's contrary to what Mitchell believes, who has been going around telling folks his side of story, which is largely "that’s not what happened" and "they did tell you about this…"
All three men were clearly frustrated with Mitchell’s own smear campaign, though Cunningham was the most vocal. He explained that Mitchell and his supporters have been going around telling their version of how things went down to the press, forcing Cunningham to re-state the facts. Making things especially difficult is now there’s not one version to refute but "twenty different versions, all constantly changing." Again, this I can somewhat attest to; hard facts have been difficult to track down since there are so many different takes, and few sources that could be considered. Much of it stems from Twin Galaxies themselves, but considering the shadow of doubt the film casts in terms of their reliability and credibility, you simply don’t know who to believe.
Mitchell is a person who plays games, and plays them well. Plus he’s also a puppeteer as Cunningham described him, as portrayed in the film, and his behavior leading up to its releases somewhat supports this. Yet, as frustrated as they are, those behind the film have tried their best to get into a war of words since that would be "besides the point." If anything, they want the movie to start dialogue, which is why everyone, especially Weibe, is frustrated with a direct acknowledgment of the facts presented.
In fact, Mitchell has refused to refer to Wiebe by name in interviews. Yet in the end, Wiebe still respects Mitchell, for being an excellent player. One who he wishes he could one day play against, face to face. The funny thing is that it was Mitchell’s refusal to actually play is what cemented his chief rival’s story in the first place.
Gordon explained that originally they were following many top-notch players going after high scores in a variety of games. In the beginning, he wanted a complicated narrative that went back and forth between several ace gamers, to lead to one dramatic conclusion, sort of like a video game version of Cheap, Fast, and Out of Control. The concept was to present a diverse tapestry of dynamic, and extreme, personalities with competitive gaming as their means to come to grips with reality or their demons.
Aside from Wiebe there was Donald Hayes and Abdner Ashman and many others. In fact, initially, Wiebe’s story was not much of interest, simply because, as Gordon explained "Steve was such a nice guy that he wasn’t very interesting." But when Wiebe set the highest score, which prompted two men to barge into his home and investigate the Donkey Kong board, the filmmakers' interest were piqued, and Mitchell’s reaction to the man who stole his crown sealed the deal.
It’s also worth noting that some of the “new blood” in competitive gaming were also interviewed, such as Fatal1ty, but in the end, his story was not compelling. Primarily due to his age. Since he’s relatively young, he hasn’t gone through the hardship that Weibe has gone through, which in the end not only makes him so likeable but relatable. Even if you’re still a teenager, who will you relate to more? Some hotshot gamer that has managed to use his leet skills for fame and fortune, or an everyday guy just trying to get by and be a good husband and father, who unfortunately gets sand kicked in his face? BTW, when asked if he was happy with the way he was portrayed, ”even if I do come off as a negligent father” Weibe chuckled.
At times, the film was even wider in scope. Gordon and Cunningham wanted to touch upon how pervasive video games had become in society, such as the military. An interview with Colin Powel was planned, but never happened. But in the end, it was the human story that they felt was the most interesting and worth following. With the true irony being the tale of a man who went towards video games as a source of happiness and release because as Cunnigham put it, "video games don’t judge you." Yet in the end, Wiebe found himself being constantly scrutinized by his doubters, all due to video games. In fact, at this very moment, his achievements are still being analyzed by certain people in the Twin Galaxies universes.
Yet Wiebe is not offended. If he has to prove himself, he will prove himself once again. One supposes to helps that, at the end of the day, he still loves playing Donkey Kong. And his rivalry with Mitchell has forced both men to elevate their games. Hence why later that evening, Weibe would attempt once again to break the record that Mitchell had recently set a few weekends ago.
Two quick factoids from the roundtable: the voice of KITT was at one point going to narrate the film, due to its 80’s association. Also, when asked who Weibe would like to portray him in the fictionalized re-telling of the story that is currently planned (Gordon is set to direct that as well), his answer was Mark Hamill.
Weibe’s attempt took place last night in Times Square, in the heart of New York City, at the Dave & Buster’s located on 42nd, between 7th and 8th Avenue. The plan was for him to make his attempt around 8:30; right next door was a final preview screening of the movie, which had begun at 7. The crowd would then be led to D&B and witness the man who’s story they had just witness attempt a happy ending before their eyes.
I arrived on the scene at exactly 7:14, knowing that Weibe was going to do a test run, so I figured it would be fun to watch him warm up. I wasn’t quite expecting him to be at the 555,100 already. Three minutes later, at 7:17, he was up to 568,200.
Seeing Weibe play Donkey Kong in person was like watching a an actor whom you’ve admired in film and television on a Broadway stage. There he was, the talent, right in front of you. And anyone who has given the original DK game a spin can tell you it takes fierce talent, as well as genuine guts, to not only trudge ahead, but be able to do so.
At 615,000 points, which was 7:22, I asked Gordon, who was trying to set the camcorder set-up to record the actual run if he thought Weibe might actually best the record (which was 1,050,200) right then and there. I was casually explained that, unfortunately, since it hadn’t been recorded from the very beginning, and no official referee was present, it couldn’t be counted… and at that precise moment, he looked at the score and went "This is the practice run? Steve’s already in the top three!"
I asked Cunningham about the machine Weibe was playing, not simply because the hardware was a primary point of controversy in King of Kong, but because in the other documentary I had seen that featured a record attempt, the game being Missile Command and the movie being High Score, the main problem there was how the game kept on shutting down. And that was due to the game’s age… many machines from the golden age of the arcade was never meant to live this long. So I wondered if a similar problem could possibly occur with Weibe and Donkey Kong.
Not at all. The machine was on loan from The Museum of Moving Images permanent collection. Apparently, when the Queens, NY based museum decided to start preserving video games’ past, they purchased a whole slew of classic gaming machines… about 300 according to Cunningham. They have five Donkey Kongs that they swap in and out (at the museum the public can play assorted classic games from over the years).
Once it hit 7:46, Weibe was already at 866,900 points. Cunningham immediately started asking questions, almost like a parent to his child. "How’s your hands?" was the most sensible. ”Do we need to go potty, Steve?” was the most humorous. ”Do you want to do a kill screen?” was the most unexpected. To that, I heard the response: ”Sure.”
Around 8:00, Weibe was near the end… literally. The kill screen was coming up. This is when Mario simply croaks out of the blue. It’s the 22nd screen, and as it was coming up, excitement was in the air. Cunningham explained to everyone in attendance, which included myself and a small handful of press, PR people, and associates, that this was the 4th only public viewing of a Donkey Kong kill screen ever to take place. He also exclaimed "You’ve got five seconds before Mario dies!"
Once the 22nd board began, Mario walked to the right, Weibe made him jump, and all of sudden, he spun around, and was simply dead. Everyone cheered. The score was 946,500.
So close, yet no cigar. But you could tell that Weibe was just enjoying himself. Not just the game, but the adulation, and that must have been nice. Eventually, after many pictures were taken and some interviews, Steve was led to the cheeseburger platter that was set for him. Soon, it was clear that the movie had been let out, because the room became packed. Much food was eaten, and a few drinks were drunk.
Around 8:45-ish, the second attempt had begun. And by 481,500… it was over. ”Made a few mistakes… but its still an average run for me.” And again, that score is well above average for you and me. Some wondered if he would give it another shot, but by 9:30, it was clear that Wiebe was done for the day. He simply wanted to rest and relax and talk to his fans (including one group that made shirts that had Steve’s face with "WieBelieve" embossed), and he deserved it.
In the end. Billy Mitchell still has his high score, but he didn’t have the journey that Steve Wiebe had. And Wiebe is more than content with where is right now. Because, as plainly stated, "Donkey Kong served its purpose."
For those interested in seeing King of Kong, it opens in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Austin this weekend, and in other select markets each following weekend. It will then go nationwide sometime in September. For more information, check out the official site.
[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.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso