A long tail
How two filmmakers dug deep into gaming’s past with Man Vs Snake
Two filmmakers dig deep into gaming’s past with Man Vs Snake
The melodrama of 2007’s King Of Kong casts a long shadow over videogame documentaries, especially those focused on vintage games, but that didn’t stop Andy Seklir and Tim Kinzy from completing their own contribution to the genre in the shape of Man Vs Snake. Drawing on eight years’ worth of interviews and record attempts to tell a story of spirited triumph and tragedy with a real, humane warmth, the film centres on one man’s quest to record a new high score on an ancient arcade cabinet. Crucially, the film displays an integrity and rigour that serves its subject admirably, which helps offset the fact that the game at the centre of it all, Rock-Ola’s 1983 coin-op Nibbler, does not have the profile of the likes of Donkey Kong and PacMan. What it lacks in fame, though, the game makes up for by being the first example to allow players to record a score of a billion points before rolling over to zero. The grand challenge of clocking the score – a 40-hour mission – provides fertile ground for gaming drama. Add Tim McVey – the first person to ever hit the billion mark, in 1984 – and document him attempting to do it again after a 25-year break, and you have the seeds of a true successor to King Of Kong.
Man Vs Snake started with a MAME cabinet built by Seklir. The hardware was moved into the studio where he worked alongside Kinzy in their day jobs editing for TV, and Nibbler came to attention as a random choice. As Seklir recounts, “We were trading high scores and Tim stumbled upon the ‘Tim McVey Day’ poster and the billion score.” Kinzy printed the poster and stuck it to the door of Seklir’s office. “I thought, ‘What the hell’? How could anyone possibly get over a billion points?’” Seklir says. “We were struggling to get 100,000!” From that discovery came research into the story behind this rare feat of skill and endurance. As they discovered the history of Walter Day’s Twin Galaxies arcade and the scene he cultivated, Seklir became inspired. “I had always been interested in doing a film set in the arcade culture of the ’80s,” he explains. “You have all these hotshots descending on this town and setting records. And there was Tim, the local kid, who did this thing that everybody thought was impossible”. In 2008, Seklir and Kinzy visited McVey to research the backstory, but it wasn’t until McVey announced that he wanted to break the world record again that Man Vs Snake became a full-fledged documentary.
Seklir and Kinzy’s treatment is a more rounded and personal one than King Of Kong’s, which helps to set it apart, but the earlier film had a deep influence on their approach, having premiered just after the pair had shot the first round of interviews. Seklir: “We saw King Of Kong and thought, ‘Wow. It’s so well done and so entertaining. How can a Nibbler documentary possibly compete with that?’” However, as professional editors with knowledge of how to edit for story, they were aware of how creative King Of Kong’s makers had been with the truth. “They really said, ‘Let’s make one guy the black hat and the other guy the white hat,’” Seklir notes. Man Vs Snake took on a different dimension. “We decided that we were going to treat the material differently,” Seklir explains. “We weren’t going to try and paint anybody black and white. We were going to go into the grey areas and see the ups and downs”. This spirit of rigour meant including moments where McVey isn’t at his best, at one point showing him simply giving up in the middle of a record attempt. “[That section is] completely unheroic and it’s really downbeat,” Seklir says. “The audience loses a bit of faith in him, but we wanted to keep all of that”.
The duo’s ethos extended to how it approached other key players among the vintage gaming scene for their input. “There was a backlash from King Of Kong, and people were reluctant to talk to us,” Kinzy explains. “We had to assure them that we would treat the material fairly, so I felt an obligation to represent them in the best way possible.”
Co-starring with McVey
are scene stalwarts Walter Day and Billy Mitchell, alongside Nibbler fans Enrico Zanetti and Dwayne Richard. Zanetti’s unofficial 1984 score is a bone of contention, but also a target to beat; Richard arrives as a competitor with a wilder edge. A pivotal faceoff double attempt in 2009 was to serve as the film’s climax, but typically for a documentary that grew beyond its original format, things didn’t tie up neatly. “We really thought it would be the end of the film,” Seklir explains. “We thought, ‘Well, one of them’s going to get it – one will pass out, something will happen, and we’ll wrap this story up’. But it kept going on longer, because we kept getting strokes of luck. We stumbled on [ Nibbler’s] programmers by accident, so of course we had to interview them, and then we found Enrico, and things kept unfolding. I guess at any point you can
“You have all these hotshots and then Tim, the local kid, who did this thing everybody thought was impossible”
“I think gaming marathons are more dramatic. I honestly thought someone might drop dead!”
decide you’ve got enough story and stop, but we didn’t feel we had enough story.”
“Finding the narrative structure was a key struggle,” Kinzy says. “It really came together when Andy and I took time off work and dedicated ourselves to getting this movie done.” Other issues arose when the team considered using Kickstarter. Kinzy: “One of the challenges was Kickstarter itself. Is it worth it? Should we spend the time editing? How much should we ask for?” The Kickstarter turned out to be a success, exceeding its target funding while generating valuable publicity. With new funding on board, the team commissioned animation from Studio Joho in order to convey exposition and backstories. “For a long time, we had cards where the animation should be,” Seklir explains. “Once the sequences were inserted, the whole feeling of the film changed”. With the film now resembling a more rounded piece of modern docutainment, Seklir and Kinzy needed to navigate the tricky world of distribution. “We premiered at Fantastic Fest 2015, and won Best Documentary, so we had a bunch of interest,” Seklir says. “We had to quickly educate ourselves on deal terms and what kinds of distribution there are, whether to get a sales agent, or just get a lawyer”. It was here that Seklir’s day job came in handy: “I edited Atari: Game Over in the middle of all of this. I learned a little bit while working on that, which helped me understand what deal we should be looking for. Having industry contacts really helped.” A deal was struck with Filmbuff, setting up Man Vs Snake for launch on June 24 via on-demand platforms in over 17 territories. Blu-ray and DVD releases with extra content are to follow.
Tim McVey is
an unusual choice as a subject for a documentary that took so much time to complete. A quiet man well on the way to middle age, he lacks any overt ego or traits ripe for caricature, so Man Vs Snake had little choice but to portray him simply as a human being. It’s this lack of the sensational, and the relationships between him, his gaming pals and his ever-supportive wife Tina, that gives the film its warmth. Kinzy found McVey to be inspirational: “He said, ‘Think of all the things that we wouldn’t have if someone tried once and quit’. There’s something about his epiphanies that blew me away. It inspired me to finish this film, whatever it took.” The loneliness of the longdistance high-score runner was another aspect the filmmakers sought to capture. “I think marathons are more dramatic,” Seklir says. “I honestly thought someone might drop dead! You don’t think about that when someone’s just playing three hours of Pac-Man.”
Seklir and Kinzy have a ‘never say never’ approach to making another gaming documentary. As long-time videogame fans, both see a need for more work in these areas. “I hope that there are more great videogame documentaries to be made,” Siklir says. “People shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, well, it’s been done’. There’s room for different kinds of stories, and I think ours is a different story”.
With its sprawling timeline and its desire to play everything truthfully, Man Vs Snake demonstrates what people with passion and skill can do in telling stories from gaming’s rich cultural history. As games become more universal and their influence continues to grow, the audience for such carefully curated slices of players’ lives is only growing.
FROM TOP Andy Seklir and Tim Kinzy have production credits on shows such as Battlestar Galactica, and worked on Man Vs Snake in addition to their day jobs
Kinzy and Seklir filming McVey during one of his stabs at setting a new Nibbler high score. The duo have been keeping a close eye on other record attempts. “Joel West wants to do 60 hours on [1982 Stern coin-op] Frenzy,” Kinzy says. “If he sat down and did it in one game, and didn’t take 12 attempts, that might be interesting”