A long tail

How two film­mak­ers dug deep into gam­ing’s past with Man Vs Snake

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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”

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