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Game On: Netflix docuseries ‘High Score’ is a disjointed mess

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 20, 2020

A promotional image for the Netflix docuseries “High Score.”  (Netflix/Great Big Story)
A promotional image for the Netflix docuseries “High Score.” (Netflix/Great Big Story)

On Aug. 19, “High Score” landed on Netflix. It’s a docuseries featuring interviews with early video game developers, pros and other figures. The concept excited me – I love documentaries, I love video games, and I love history – but much to my surprise, the series left me oddly flustered due to its poor focus, confusing pacing and clunky transitions.

The series kicks off covering the transition from arcade games to home consoles led by Atari, and further episodes detail the explosive growth of Nintendo, role-playing games, the Nintendo vs. Sega rivalry, fighting games and finally the transition from 2D to 3D graphics. Obviously, six 45-minute episodes can’t possibly offer a comprehensive history of 1980s- and 1990s-era video gaming, but they do a serviceable job.

“High Score” seeks to offer more than a cursory glance at gaming history, however. In the words of creator France Costrel, “A lot of the focus on other documentary series have been more on the games themselves, and we felt like this was a good opportunity to go through more behind-the-scenes stories with these people and explore their creativity.”

The trouble is, if I hadn’t stumbled upon that quote, I would have never guessed that was Costrel’s intent. Every time I found myself engaged in the interviews with the dozens of early video game visionaries, something would detract from the flow – unnecessary visual flair, narration or, worst of all, jump cuts to new subject matter with no explanation whatsoever.

The latter is the docuseries’ greatest strike against it. I understand nearly all documentaries jump from person to person to weave together a story, but in the case of “High Score,” many of the jumps were arbitrary and unexplained, detracting from the overall narrative. It fails to commit to a consistent angle. Is it a comprehensive history of different gaming trends? A highlight reel? An attempt to shed light on marginalized figures in the industry?

All of these would’ve been valid approaches to the subject matter, but by merely teasing each angle, the overall presentation is disjointed and unsatisfying despite the excellent content. Truly, Costrel’s team nabbed interviews I envy – what I wouldn’t give to talk to former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske or “Doom” creator John Romero. The docuseries is at its best when it grants the spotlight to such people, but too often it cuts away to a quirky retro animation or painfully unfunny narrative quips.

The only exception is episode five, which focuses on fighting games “Street Fighter” and “Mortal Kombat” and the controversies and esports scenes they inadvertently created. Due to their graphic violent presentations, “Mortal Kombat” and obscure full-motion video game “Night Trap” found themselves at the heart of U.S. congressional hearings that ultimately led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Meanwhile, “Street Fighter” set the basis for modern-day esports competitions.

Most of this information is communicated directly by the interviewees, with only brief narrative segues deployed when necessary. “Fight!” is a satisfying and informative episode, and if I had to recommend any episode in particular, it would be that one. As a Sega kid through and through, I also enjoyed the episode focused on the early-’90s Sega vs. Nintendo console war, but I only kept up with its disjointed presentation because of my already-existing knowledge of that era.

I can’t recommend “High Score” to those unfamiliar with video games because too many technical aspects of the profession go unexplained. I can’t recommend it to gaming aficionados, either, because it’s more poorly paced than the hundreds of well-researched YouTube videos dedicated to the same subject. “High Score” offers higher production costs and incredible access to industry figureheads, but the vast majority of those interviews are spent retreading ground that’s been covered time and again.

“High Score” has genuinely enjoyable and uncommon moments – the flashy, pixelated intro complete with a synthwave jingle composed by the band Power Glove, or Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado showing off his original alien ship sketches that were translated into the tiny 8x10 sprites that are iconic today. But these blips of brilliance are too rare to justify the 4-hour plunge into the entire series.

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