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Netflix’s High Score tells the stories of gaming’s golden age

High Score is a new documentary series on Netflix that debuted today. The show looks at the history of the medium through its golden age, which the series roughly defines as the years from Pac-Man to Doom. As an avid retro gamer, I love seeing this story told on such a big platform, and I was curious to learn more about the creation of the show.

That’s why I was so happy to chat with France Costrel, High Score‘s director and executive prouder, and executive producer Melissa Wood. I was able to ask them about their goals for this Netflix show, as well as talk about a bit about how this project came into existence.

The series covers events like the fall of Atari, the rise of Nintendo, the ’90s console wars, and the rise of online and 3D gaming over six episodes. It’s an ambitious task for one show, but Costrel and Wood didn’t balk at the challenge.

Above: Nintendo Power was a U.S. staple for gamers in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Image Credit: Netflix

Golden age

GamesBeat: Why were you drawn to this subject for a series?

France Costrel: I worked for Great Big Story, where we did a miniseries called 8-Bit Legacy, doing six short episodes about the people behind video games. I realized there was a crazy amount of amazing stories behind the games we think we know. That was a pivotal — almost a pilot idea. Then we said, all right, we need to make a long form series about this, because we know video games. All these games are pretty known, legendary. But we don’t know that much about the people behind them.

GamesBeat: How do you define where that golden age begins?

Costrel: We decided to start with the early days. I remember we were thinking, oh, if we start with Pac-Man and that era — the players are asked to be that little character inside the game. They’re participants in gaming. That would be a great way into it. Then we could take the series to the beginning of the third dimension, where you’re literally in it, and also adopting the perspective of the game. But also the multiplayer games, where you’re suddenly a part of a community. It was going through that arc, from the early ‘80s, getting into Doom and the early ‘90s.

Melissa Wood: Obviously we know that developers are playing around with the idea of video games before our timeline begins in episode one. Although we do go back in history at the end of the series to explode Space War and Pong and all that. But really what we’re exploring is the invention of the new medium that became mainstream over time. For us, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, those are the things that had people talking about video games and made them mainstream. What drove our decision-making about the games we went with, the characters we focused on, the stories we told, were really — what were the stories behind these games? Who were the people behind them? We wanted to explore both games that everyone will recognize, and people that gamers may know of, but also explore lesser-known people behind games, who may not have had their stories told yet either.

GamesBeat: On the other side of that question, how did you pick the ending point for this story?

Costrel: When we’re entering this new dimension, 3D for games, as well as the idea of multiplayer games, which is about the sense of community — we felt it would make a natural ending, a new kind of stepping stone in the history of gaming. That would be a good ending point. We know there’s much more coming as well, but it’s different.

GamesBeat: The series has these focal point characters that are put up front through each episode. How did you decide on which people to follow so prominently?

Wood: We had a very long development period where we did a lot of research. We read a lot. We talked a lot. We had a lot of phone calls. It was a lot of digging around to find where the strongest stories were. There were stories we knew we had to tell, of course, like Pac-Man, and fortunately there’s an interesting story behind that. But there were also other stories where we felt like, well, this is just a good story, and this is important, but people haven’t heard of it. We were driven by the characters who had something to say, and who we felt were important in the picture that we were building about the history of games.

Costrel: It was important to us that we had a diverse cast of participants, and also stories. We wanted the series to appeal to more casual gamers as well, and people who just might remember it, getting to it more through the nostalgia, but then realize that there was a fascinating story behind the creation of the game that was rooted in the time back then.

Above: Gail Tilden spearheaded the launch of the NES in America.

Image Credit: Netflix

Toys for boys?

GamesBeat: That’s interesting, because I remember being a kid then, and it seems like games were exclusively marketed to boys and young men. When you delved into the creation of these things, did you find it was more diverse than that in terms of the people who were in charge of making these games?

Wood: Certainly people like Roberta Williams — people always assumed that the people behind Sierra On-Line were a bunch of men. But no, Roberta Williams had a pivotal role in creating that company. It was diverse, and so were the players. Pac-Man, they created that to get a female audience.

Costrel: We looked at the games themselves as well, and so when we looked at Street Fighter, for example, we thought it was interesting that there was a woman in the game for the first time that could appeal to women players as well. But women were definitely trailblazers. They were outnumbered in their companies and in what they were doing, but the beauty of games is that they saw it as a tool to appeal to everyone, because it didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman. A video game has the ability to unify players. But Pac-Man was one game where the creator did say, we did this for a women audience. They didn’t want it to feel cliche, but they definitely wanted to appeal to women with that game.

GamesBeat: In this period you were covering, gaming was growing so fast. You talked about how you start with Pac-Man, simple pixels, and get to more complex 3D games. Is it challenging to cover the subject with how much growth there was in such a short period?

Wood: Oh, yeah. We had a really hard time narrowing down the stories that we wanted to tell. I’m sure there are hardcore gamers out there that will — the game that they’re hoping we profile may not be included. But we’re hoping that we found stories that both hardcore gamers and more casual gamers will learn something from and find interesting. If we could have done 20 hours on this, we would have had plenty of stories to tell. But unfortunately have a limited time, and so we had to just zero in on what we thought would tell the stories that appealed to the broadest audience.

GamesBeat: Was it hard to get the companies that were prominent during this time to contribute to the show?

Costrel: A lot of our characters and participants don’t always work anymore in these companies, so we didn’t always have to go directly to the PR of the company, but more going through the creators themselves. Generally, though, the companies are excited to have good publicity about their games. There’s a big nostalgic aspect. You see so many of the retro games coming, these mini retro consoles that are released all the time. They already know about that appeal, and they were quite willing to let us come in. Some were more secretive, and we decided, well, that’s fine. We had so many stories, so we did the ones where we were able to make sure the participants also were excited about it.

Above: Tom Kalinske was president of Sega of America during its battles against Nintendo in the ’90s.

Image Credit: Netflix

Gaming stories

GamesBeat: Talking about some of the stories, what are the ones you’re most excited for people to see?

Costrel: All of them? [laughs] Let me think for a second. For example, obviously there are games that we all know about, but we profiled people and games that are lesser known, yet they have a big resonance with their stories. In episode one you have the story of Jerry Lawson, and I’m pretty sure that very few people would have heard about that. He actually passed away, so we went to film with his family. It’s a short little story, but we think it’s important to profile his work in the history of gaming. It’s the same with the story behind Gay Blade, which I think is in episode three. These are probably lesser known stories, but we felt that we were amazing and we should definitely include them, find a way to weave them in with more iconic, legendary games.

Wood: I also feel like some stories that may not be lesser known, like Nishikado’s development of Space Invaders — the fact that he shared with us his original drawings that have not been seen by anybody for 40 years — we were so lucky that when we met with these creators in person, they were so willing to share the original documents that inspired them to create these games. Those are also going to be exciting for people to see.

Costrel: I think he had showed them once at a conference, so it might not be fair to say that this is the first time anyone has seen them. But definitely, it was huge to have him show this stuff on camera and spend the time describing it. There’s a treasure trove of so many archives and original drawings that we thought were fantastic.

GamesBeat: Now that you’ve looked into this period, what do you think are some of the most pivotal moments in this age of gaming that transformed the industry?

Wood: It’s all symbiotic and organic. In some ways it was hard for us to pull apart these stories, because it all grows together, all these influences flowing from one thing to the next. It’s hard to say one person or one innovation creates the industry or changes it forever. It was a confluence of events and innovations that were driven by people who were curious, who wanted to play with computers or figure out a new way to play games. We’re really not — while the show, obviously, is about video games, and about these innovations, we really wanted to focus on the creativity of people who were thinking outside the box and tell their stories. It’s not — we could talk about online gaming and Doom or first-person shooters or how that might have changed the industry, but it’s really more about human creativity and innovation than that.

Costrel: It would have been hard to just talk about the technological advances. When it comes to the Japanese creators especially, they really think so poetically about their games and the intent behind each game and how they were thinking. With Amano, for instance, it’s all about art. And you’re like, wait, what? These little pixels were these amazing paintings before. We wanted to show that process, how they had so much more than the technology going on. We all know that eventually it’s a matter of the computer history behind it.

GamesBeat: After someone watches all the episodes of this show, what do you hope will be the big takeaway from the series?

Costrel: I’d hope that people realize that video games are much more what they knew when they started watching this. Obviously this is a show that’s geared toward a very wide audience, whether it’s casual gamers or hardcore gamers, but also maybe the people who — maybe their brother had a Nintendo and they remember that. Or they simply enjoy this because of the nostalgia. But I think video games can also have a certain reputation or be seen in a certain way. Our goal is to show the human stories behind them, to humanize the games and make people understand that this is a form of art. It’s very creative. There’s a lot of work behind it. Real people were putting their thoughts and craft into it. We try to also show the different types of craft, whether it’s music composition or pure coding or just the desire, as we discussed before, to bring women to the arcades. It’s funny to see — it’s not just about making money and building an industry. There was real creative intent, and also sometimes reactions to current events, like with Gay Blade and other games like that. For me I hope that people realize, wait, I didn’t realize video games had that much going on behind them. It’s such a craft. It’s a celebration of that creativity.

Wood: It’s that video games have value. They’re not just a way to waste time. There’s a real way for people to connect with games and experience. The designers behind them always have that player in mind. And there is real poetry behind these creations.

Costrel: That’s also why we put players into it. We didn’t want to just have the creators. We felt like a video game comes to life once it’s being played. The connection between the player and the game designer is so important.

GamesBeat: What is your favorite game ever?

Costrel: I played a lot of Street Fighter II with my brother. He would beat me at it, but I guess it’s my final revenge, to work on this show about it.

Wood: I have a hard time thinking of one. I played Dr. Mario in college, so I’d say that’s the game I’m the best at?

Costrel: She’s very good at it. We had video game Fridays, every Friday evening, and she was crushing it.

Wood: My husband won’t play against me in that game. But now I’m more playing with my daughter, so I’m playing more Roblox or Farm Together or Animal Crossing. My tastes and my priorities have changed a bit when it comes to gaming as a parent.

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