['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that spotlights movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with an emphasis on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is a documentary that explores the world of art that has sprung forth from the medium of video games and which will have its world premiere later this weekend.]


http://www.gamesetwatch.com/8bit01.jpgVideo games have been around long enough that most of us can't even remember a time when they weren't. Everyone has either grown up with a 2600, NES, or whatever else machine in our homes, or at least knew someone who had one, and more than likely when we weren't playing games, each of us were talking and thinking about them well after the power was turned off. Looking back, we now have fuzzy warm memories of our favorite games and all the things relating to them, hence why video games have become a part of us, our identities, even our culture. Naturally, anything so pervasive in people's lives will become the subject of analysis and self-expression via art, and that is what 8 BIT is all about.

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8 BIT is one of the first real documentaries of its kind; previously there's only been assorted offerings from PBS and other cable channels that tried examining the medium, but most are nothing more than just sloppy, factually inaccurate, and at times downright condescending infomercials produced by people who seemingly have zero grasp of the subject matter. This new film on the other hand simply presents to the viewer individuals who either grew up with video games, or are intrigued by them on a certain level, and have thus created works to express their attachment and/or fascination.

Hacker's Delight

Things are kicked off by a brief but fairly decent rundown of the history of video games, and immediately transitions to an explanation of the demo scene, tracing the humble early years of software piracy, which led to game publishers to employ copy protection methods, and said hackers finding means to overcome such measures. Along the way they decided to create electronic calling cards to go with each cracked game, such as an intro screen that included their name (often a pseudonym since the practice was all very much illegal) and some bits of flashy graphics and sound. Over time these bits, or "demos", become increasingly elaborate, until folks began just creating them by themselves, which somewhat resembled music videos. This would also serve as the root of the art from video game scene as we know it today.

From there the film goes into the chiptunes scene, which consists of people who create music from Game Boys, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, Commodore 64s and other electronic devices, which is pretty old and archaic tech by today's standards. The definite highlight of the entire film are its interviews, which are particularly enjoyable in this early part; presenting the story of chiptunes are a number of key figures from it's world, including those from the New York scene, such as Bit Shifter, Glomag, Bubblyfish, and Nullsleep (real name Jeremiah Johnson, who's also a GSW contributor), and even performers from other parts of the world, like Bodenstandig 2000 from Germany and Team Tendo from France (who wear furry costumes.. one is a cougar, the other a groundhog... even when performing).

The appropriation of children's toys to produce music for kids that still haven't grown up is both fun to hear about and even watch; aside from the interviews, 8 BIT features performance footage from various shows. It even includes a glimpse at the crowd, which are mostly pastey white kids more than happy to bop their heads up and down in the dark to beeps and boops from a Game Boy. And aside from hearing their work, the audience are taught how its created: Coray Arcangel goes over all the differences in sounds between all the classic systems (also pointing how they are all so technically superior to the much sought after Moog synthesizer among the musically hip, but are no where near as expensive), Nullsleep explains how a piece of chiptune is composed, Bit Shifter demonstrates how to execute a tune via Little Sound DJ, one of the primary pieces of software that Game Boy chiptunes artists utilize, and even its creator Johan Kotlinski is spotlighted (he even plays a song).

So What Is Art?

The movie then decides to dig deeper into the realm of video games as "art". Things start off fine with Cory Arcangel (who's the mind behind Super Mario Clouds, which is a hacked Super Mario Bros cartridge with all the graphics erased except for the clouds) as he explains the process involved in modifying NES carts. But soon we begin to hear more from hardcore artsy types, and even though their message and work are for the most part quite compelling, much of it comes off rather cold and even a bit condescending. It's a direct contrast to Arcangel and all the chiptunes folks, whose work are much more warm and approachable (despite the tinny sounds an old NES makes), because ultimately the artists themselves are considerably more relatable. It also helps that they don't feel the need to be overly verbose when expressing their thoughts, like Tom Moody, who again makes some excellent points, but comes off so stuffy and highfalutin he causes eyes to roll and his words to go in one ear and directly out the other. Though Tom does end up providing one of the films funniest moments when he describes chiptunes as "tuneless" and "not interesting melodically" and the film instantly cuts to Nullsleep in-between songs at a performance mentioning how some guy on his blog complaining about the previous evening's show by stating that the music had no tune, with more than a hint of annoyance in his tone. To conclude Tom's character assassination, it should also be noted that in the film he is listed as both a visual artist and a "blogger".

But still, Moody and others manage to bring up several excellent points about the art scene's usage of video games as a source of inspiration, even language; it's pointed out how the 8-bit "look", referring to the visual stylings of early video games, which was borne out of technical limitations and necessity back in the day, is now a conscious choice by contemporary artists. There's also plenty of discussions behind the meanings and emotions behind the style; for some, its mostly a means of conjuring up nostalgia for the viewer while for artists it offers self-imposed restrictions. The role of the player in relation to the game, such as game identity and narrative, is examined up as well. John Klima asks rather bluntly "Do you play the game or does the game play you?" which defines the challenges that game designers, and artists, must face in terms of presenting a definitive experience, which often clashes with player's actions since they are not always in line with what was intended.

The realm of Machinima, which is the use of a gaming engine to illustrate a story, much like a movie, is brought up unsurprisingly, yet what actually was is Eddo Stern's analysis, mainly because it's quite refreshing, yet a bit puzzling given his background and his own attempts to play around with the gaming space to create art. Also interesting was hearing about the hard core gamers’ reaction to one particular piece, in which an artist goes around a game of Counter Strike, and instead of attack enemies he runs around posting anti-war propaganda. It was noted that they didn't "appreciate" the exercise, and it really would have been nice to follow up on that sentiment, but sadly it is not.

Yeah... That's Art Alright

Around this point, the film is either going to connect or perhaps annoy the viewers. There's a sentiment that the gaming masses are like the general public, unable to comprehend or appreciate art, and this documentary might add credence to such a notion for some; a piece called Prepared PlayStation is presented, in which Alex Galloway takes a regular off the shelf PlayStation 2 and an off the shelf PS2 game, turns the game on, applies some rubber bands to the controller, and lets the game "run itself", which mostly means a game's character running around in an endless loop, is sure to get more than a few "Well I could have done that..." reactions. Another piece by Mary Flanagan called Domestic, in which she modded Unreal to resemble a childhood structure on fire which the player must attempt to extinguish via coping mechanisms from her own childhood (such as romance novels for example) will either grab people or make them scratch their heads.

8 BIT does not ask its viewers to judge the artists or their work, but given the framework in which everything is presented, especially near the end when a slowly increasing stream of dense technical terminology and arty-farty babble begins overwhelm, to the point that word "postmodern" is literally used eleven times in just one single sentence (or at least it feels like it), and especially when you compare it to the more down to earth offerings from earlier, one almost can't help feel a bit disappointed and frustrated.

Still, there are some fascinating elements sprinkled about, yet there's often no follow-up at these pivotal moments either, such as when Paul Johnson mentions how one of his first game related pieces in a museum was dismissed by critics due to its medium, and is also mentioned that people played the games just for the sake of playing, which Paul sounded almost disappointed by, hence why his later games involved just the gaming playing against itself.

Final Score…

Plus there's more to the game/art scene than just just chiptunes and fine artists hacking games to express a point of view. You have video game inspired comics, graffiti, even fashion, to name just a few. But that's obviously asking for a lot, and the filmmakers should be commended for covering as much ground as they did, as well as the manner in which they went about in doing so. The entire film is very easy to follow, with concepts and ideas flowing and connecting to each other seamlessly. And you honestly can't say about most films and television specials that have come before it. The editing is excellent, as is the use of illustrations and footage from games to paint various pictures, and each of the interviews, despite one's personal opinions of what is said, help to drive the filmmaker's intent. And that is to catalogue and document this emerging art scene. In the end, despite its problems, the good definitely outweigh the bad. 8 BIT is the start of something, and a very good one at that.


8 BIT premiers this Saturday, October 7th. in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art. For more information, such as purchasing tickets or to find out if the movie might be coming to your city (according to Justin Strawhand, one of the film's creators, it is hoped that a tour may occur in the future), check out the official website for the film.

[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.]