THE ARTISTS is the story of the creators that were at the forefront of the early video game revolution. It is a deep-dive documentary into the first three decades of video game history through the lens of the designers, developers, and programmers. The 10-part documentary web-series explores the intersection of creativity and technology of a medium that would go on to redefine pop culture.

The series includes Trip Hawkins (EA), John Romero (Doom), Chris Crawford, Bill Budge (EA)

Tom Hall (Doom), Warren Robinett (EA), Brian Moriarty (Dani Bunten/ LucasArts/Zork), Tim Schafer (LucasArts), Sid Meier (Civilization) and many more.  – Topic.com

I had the chance to discuss THE ARTISTS with its director, Peter Mishara.

CV: What made you decide to direct THE ARTISTS?

Peter: I’ve been around video games my entire life. I’m a child of the 80’s, early PC, NES, that stuff. I’m also a really hardcore film guy, right? I went to USC grad school for film. For a large part of my life, that’s what moved me in terms of an emotional experience, films. Especially earlier films, like 60’s, 70’s.

A lot of that I just love, but even modern stuff. But strange things started happening to me, I would say like the mid-2000’s, I don’t know what it was. I started sort of detaching myself from the experience like I could relate to it intellectually, but not from an emotional standpoint. Definitely some exceptions along the way, but overall, it was this weird thing. I’m still — sort of — in that mindset.

I’ll see these movies and say, “Oh, that’s amazing!” but I don’t connect to it emotionally.

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CV: What changed?

I was starting to play these games around this time. Stuff like Shadow of the Colossus when it first came out, Red Dead Redemption, it’s a little obvious, but The Last of Us. I started having these emotional experiences that used to be filled in by film always. Something strange is happening with how I was relating stories and characters and having that interactive experience.

It really started me thinking about this path, “Why is this? How has this come to be? How can I have this experience in a game that is so unique and emotional that is sort of a natural extension of where films were?” I don’t know, it just had me thinking a lot about that.

And then the flip side is, there hasn’t been this discussion as video games as art. As an artistic medium. There’s been a lot of writing on it, a lot of beautiful writing, but not from a film or video standpoint. Talking about it and discussing video games, going in-depth, there really isn’t much out there. I found it as an opportunity to explore these things.

I know, sort of a long answer, but that was the mindset, getting me into this world and this path. In my mind, it hasn’t been explored from a documentary standpoint. There’s beautiful stuff out there, no doubt, in terms of video game movies and films, but it hasn’t really focused on this. That’s where my mindset was going into it.

CV: The factor of interactivity makes it that much more of a connection. As games become more narrative-driven, it’s essentially you’re a part of the movie as opposed to just watching the movie I feel like.

Peter: Have you played The Last of Us?

CV: I actually just got the HD version right here!

Peter: Right! The opening of that game is like a tour de force to me. The fact that you are the daughter and you can control her right off the bat, connects you to her in a way that no other medium can. Maybe to a certain extent, but that fact that we are inhabiting her character and she dies ten minutes later, it just blew my mind with what they were doing from a narrative standpoint. Much in the same way, I would approach a film, why did Scorsese choose to do certain things in Taxi Driver. I wanted to do the same thing with video games and work from the foundation and see what the reasoning and context were in creating these games in this sort of original-era they all came out of.

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What’s your own history with the content? What games did you grow up with yourself?

Peter: I was one of those kids that were on the PC side, even before that I had the old texas instruments that you can type stuff out in basic. You would get these books, you can type out an entire program off them. You’d write out like a hundred lines of code and hit enter and have this little experience on the computer, I remember that very very well. Which is insane to think about it now.

CV: What was that terrible game where you go across America and die of dysentery?

Peter: Oh yeah! Oregon Trail! That’s funny. I actually wanted to do, and I still might, a story on that one too, at a later date. There’s sort of a collective consciousness around that game. People of a certain era all know it. You know what I mean? But definitely that one.

I didn’t have the early consoles like the Atari 2600. I had friends I’d play Intellivision with, but the one I had in the home for the first time was the NES. Crazy vivid memories for me. After that, Sega Genesis was huge, that was high school for me. All the while I was lucky to have access to a PC, playing games on that. Wing Commander was a big one. I also played around with early text adventures. One of the episodes we did was Zork, but those were always so tough when I was a little kid.

CV: Definitely not meant for a little kid.

Peter: There’s something interesting about that too, evening trying to navigate that stuff was sort of magical at the time.

“Can a computer make you cry?” – Jeff Goodby. Why did that stick out to you as a sort of tagline and intro for THE ARTISTS?

Peter: There was a book that I was reading, a narrative called You: A Novel by Austin Grossman. It’s about a bunch of kids around this era in the early 80’s, video game designers and programmers. There’s a scene in that book where one of those kids holds up this ad and starts talking about it.

I started researching what this ad campaign was. Everyone knows Electronic Arts and the reputation they have today. But to see where that company was and how it started, the philosophy, sort of just blew my mind. That ad is so wild to me because it’s so prescient in terms of where the industry is going to go. I think at the time it flew over everyone’s head. People in the industry sort of got it, but at the time it didn’t resonate, because it was such a different way of thinking. But looking back, it was very powerful. That’s why I started with that. The words and the approach were beautiful. That photo of these 7 or 8 programmers, so 80’s.

The Artists
Image courtesy of Topic.com

CV: The rock stars

Peter: The rock stars! There’s something I just loved about that. Even in its failure, to look back on it and say that these guys were really onto something was fascinating. To talk to these guys was mind-blowing too. Talking to Trip Hawkins and Bill Budge and all these guys was wild.

What shocked you as you were doing research for THE ARTISTS?

Peter: A lot of these stories sort of developed organically. Dani Bunten is a great example, she was originally just part of the EA story. I knew of her work, I have vague memories of playing M.U.L.E., but it wasn’t a massive part of my life. She just had such a powerful story, this has to be a full episode to investigate, and even that doesn’t feel enough to me. It’s interesting to me to see who sort of stayed in the industry and who stepped back and why. Just like life, some of them couldn’t figure it out. Others so involved, like Sid Meier, so involved in doing his stuff. I don’t know if it’s shocking to me, but it’s just really interesting to see the paths of all these people and where they ended up

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The ongoing theme of corporation versus art. Was this the idea from the beginning? And where do you think video games stand now?

Peter: That’s sort of a constant in any sort of art form. The idea of the true artist versus selling out. In any art, people need money to survive. How does that affect the medium? With video games, all of that heightened. There is so much money and things involved. I don’t know if there’s a simple answer. It’s not like these corporations came in, diluted everything and killed that art form.

Not to be a dead horse, but The Last of Us, a triple-A game, hundreds if not thousands of people working on that game. But there’s obviously an art behind it, right? I like exploring and investigating what that means. Can you create art in this corporate environment? What did Atari do initially to create this world where people can create and what was lost when they were bought by Warner Bros. I think there are levels to it.

Chris Crawford, what was it like getting to know such a legend in the industry?

Peter: Chris was mind-blowing, simply because I was researching him. You see these videos of him, he wrote so much stuff on game theory. He actually lives up to the hype in personality. We made a really long trip to meet him in the backwoods of Oregon, seeing him there and his environment, seeing how he works.

He’s fascinating too because he’s a flawed individual. He’ll readily admit to it, his flaws and his failures, and he’s still trying to figure it out. For me that’s the most compelling thing, it speaks to all of us. We all have our failures and flaws, it’s dealing with and confronting them. Is he gonna figure it out? I don’t know. I have no idea, but to experience him in that environment, it was crazy and really fun.

Image courtesy of Topic.com

The Dani Bunten episode of THE ARTISTS really tugged at my heartstrings. Was it a struggle filming that with so few that kept in contact with them?

Peter: Dani Bunten for me was sort of the pinnacle of what, in my mind, the series could be and should be. She puts so much of her life and experiences in the work that she did. Very early on, this is 1982-83, her experiences directly related to the work she was doing and the games she was designing. Her foresight of multiplayer and online gaming is mind-blowing. She did games like Modern Wars in 1988, online only. It barely sold, people didn’t know what this thing was. She was so far ahead of the curb in her approach, I really responded to that.

And then her personal journey! The way people don’t know her as well as they should today and what a tragedy that is. I hope this is a small step in acknowledging her legacy and what she brought. The idea of legacy and what she represents. Talking to her daughter and seeing her still struggle. For her daughter, Melanie, Dani is still Dan, still her father.

It’s interesting in today’s society, we question that. She was very honest with me. We had an amazing conversation about it. I don’t think she discounts the path that Dani went on, but at the same time, she’s still struggling with it. I like that messiness of life. There’s no easy answers or huge redemption. We have to figure these things out. It was a story that’s still evolving to me. Sort of a long answer.

CV: It definitely deserved a long answer, I can see that as a movie!

Peter: Totally! I felt like that could be a feature, just on her life. Maybe it will be. There’s a lot I still want to explore with her life. These are like 10 or 11 minutes, it’s a lot to pack in. We’ll see.

Image courtesy of Topic.com
Image courtesy of Topic.com

The final quotes “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.” – Roger EbertAre games art or aren’t they? Nobody need answers. Games are beautiful and important, we can leave it there and know we are right.” Keith Stuart. Two leviathans in their own right. What made you choose these two last quotes for the THE ARTISTS?

Peter: My editor, Omar, we just have a great synergy through this whole process. He initially put those quotes in. We always talked about Roger Ebert. He had the idea of putting two quotes at the end and it references one of my favorite movies of all time, Do the Right Thing. There’s a dual quote with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of that. I don’t know if what we’re doing is on the same level as that. I think it shows both sides of the coin. To show both sides of that is an important thing.

For Ebert, who wrote the blog entries a couple years ago, there was a huge uproar. I love Ebert and his legacy and I think he was very upfront about not understanding what he was talking about, after the fact. I think it’s a worthwhile conversation. Him saying they cannot be art forces us to say, “Yes it is” and why? It forces us to really validate it. Of course in my mind it really is an art form, but why? Why can they be considered art? I like the duality of these two competing thoughts, especially at the end.

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Any future projects we can look forward to? Video game or other?

Peter: Yeah! Well, short term, we’re re-cutting THE ARTISTS into a feature. I’m kinda curious to see how that plays. The web-series is already up, but if people would want to come back and look at it as a feature, we’re trying to get that out over the summer. That’s going to be through topic.com as well.

THE ARTISTS launches in Canada in April. Then I’m hopeful I can do a season 2 or more of these things. I hope the response is robust enough. My dream is to do Japan, I think that’s a huge component missing. The Japanese voice and approach to game-making. THE ARTISTS is never meant to be a definitive history of games, it’s very curated. There are still so many stories.

I would also love to do a story set in this world, from a narrative standpoint. That’s a little more long-term but set in the 80’s with video games. Exploring the designers and developers though a narrative. We’ll see how that all pans out.

If you’re an avid gamer who wants to learn more about these early rock stars of the video game world and their incredible journeys, be sure to check out THE ARTISTS at topic.com.

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