‘High Score’ Review: Netflix Video Game History Series Has a Lot of Empty Pixels

Each episode of the new gaming history series “High Score” could sustain a much larger tale all its own. Sometimes that can be a benefit in nonfiction storytelling, but there are always pitfalls in responding to a wealth of ideas by overstuffing them into a particular predetermined structure.

Such is the problem with “High Score,” a show that sets out to look at the early decades of gaming, from arcade glory days through to the advent of 3D graphics. With pivotal figures from that evolution as the viewer’s guides, tiny snippets of coding, design and manufacturing history all blend together over distinct eras. The early-’90s console wars, the rise of digital RPGs, and the general cultural intensity of Nintendo each get their own tidy overviews.

But with those testimonies and an influx of timeline markers, “High Score” is either unequipped or uninterested in providing a rigorous history of early video game companies and the people they comprised. Instead, these cherry-picked pieces of gaming lore are told with an overwhelming enthusiasm that often seems misplaced. The primary goal of “High Score” is not as much to inform as to present a neat and tidy narrative, a largely uncritical mythologizing meant to sell the perpetual worth of gaming as a whole.

The handful of times “High Score” actually focuses on the details and logistics bringing these games to life, there’s a sense of inspiration simmering underneath the glossy surface. As “Space Invaders” designer Tomohiro Nishikado pores over his original sketches for the monsters of Space Invaders, the show doesn’t have the patience to dig deeper into the artistic evolution of that design. A sequence talking about crafting the sound elements of Mario’s movements in the original “Donkey Kong” is drowned out by explanation rather than hearing the fruits of that labor. When presented with a chance to truly revel in the technique and craft of these games, “High Score” continually defers instead to individuals positioning themselves in a curated glance back at history.

One of the series’ main sources of contradiction is its connective narration. Maybe in a different context, bringing in iconic voice artist Charles Martinet (the man who gave birth to Mario’s signature catchphrase) to narrate a gaming history series would be a helpful thematic addition. But here, he’s used as an omniscient dispenser of information who painstakingly delivers and reframes context for an audience assumed to have a cultural knowledge that barely stretches back a decade. Every new introduction of a particular game or the person behind it is teed up with the same winking reveals (“….called…The Internet.”)

The design approach of “High Score” tries to create the same propulsive visual atmosphere for its stories that you might experience playing one of the games it’s describing. That sense of forced urgency means that it’s combining talking head interview segments with physical recreations and animated retellings and the occasional hybrid that brings in a bit of 8-bit flavor to hover around a particular interview subject. When coupled with that narration, moving between these modes can often get chaotic. Especially when it’s working in full-on explainer video mode, the cheeky animated interludes rarely work in tandem with whatever a subject might be explaining in a given moment. Like so much of the rest of the series, the end goal seems more to maintain your attention than to help you process any of the information on display.


“High Score”

Netflix

It’s a shame because there’s clearly a lot of care that went into setting up some of these elements. The opening title animation is a rollicking journey through the early origins of the artform, rendered in fonts and colors that serve as an effective ‘80s nostalgia portal. On their own, some of these storytelling choices seem interesting in theory. But there really isn’t much justification for the occasional Detective Pikachu-esque melding of video game characters in a bustling metropolis other than it being something to catch your eye. Over time, that sacrificing of coherence for visuals just turns “High Score” into just another product to be absorbed.

For a show that’s ostensibly about celebrating the triumph of the artistic spirit, it’s all the more jarring that “High Score” frames game success almost exclusively in financial terms: how much revenue a game generated, how much prize money a contest winner earned, how many units a console sold in any corner of the global market. As that feeling adds up over the course of the series, “High Score” feels an awful lot like a corporate orientation video, designed to instill in the viewer the idea that the companies behind these games are purveyors of magic doing an essential service for a thankful consumer base.

There’s a lack of self-awareness in “High Score,” particularly in how it presents the commodification of the industry in such glowing terms. Whenever some development of the past has the potential to speak to a more modern concern in the gaming community, we’re whisked away to the next profile. The series’ willingness to address racial disparities in certain contexts and its indictment of right-wing policymaking during the AIDS crisis makes the relative lack of cultural engagement elsewhere all the more baffling. One sequence outlining the 1993 Congressional hearings spurred in part by response to violence in Mortal Kombat treats those developments with a shrugging removal, as if these kinds of overblown culture war objections were purely a product of the early Clinton administration.

The overriding smoothness of this history leaves it sapped of any dramatic tension. All of the successes are a foregone conclusion. The appearance of “doc series as branding initiative” isn’t new, or even a stranger to Netflix menus. The unquestioning spotlight approach is what powered most installments of the recent season of “Abstract: The Art of Design” (albeit there with more clarity of purpose and vision). The bizarre addition here is that the history “High Score” is detailing lines up pretty well with the ascendance of Netflix itself. As designers smile at the innovations driving consumer frenzies — introducing the concept of a high score or crafting a game with multiple component parts that players would have to buy each time — their engaging with the same content churn-ideas that have dogged Netflix for years. Martinet explains, “People weren’t playing video games, they were playing Nintendo” without a hint of irony that the platform delivering this to viewers is striving for that same intended brand takeover/saturation.

What’s maybe most bizarre is the way that “High Score” functions as both a gaming hagiography and a project that has the faux sheen of obliviousness to anything that came to the industry post-N64. The general “get a load of these eSports!!” attitude is delivered with the same tenor as the bewildered “They’re called computer games” nightly news reports the show wants to glance sideways at. That lack of curiosity results in a handful of gaming pioneers relaying their successes in some shiny, aesthetically jumbled packaging. The pieces are there to make something that actually conveys a greater appreciation of what went into building these dominant cultural forces, to fill in that mystery gap between a revolutionary idea and plenty of dollar signs. But investigating that insightful middle ground just isn’t one of this show’s objectives.

Grade: C

“High Score” is now available to stream on Netflix. 

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