How to bury over 3 million games

Zak Penn documents the discovery of Atari’s E.T. game – buried in a landfill and thought lost forever. The director and creator discuss its legacy

Zak Penn isn’t the first filmmaker to bring a camera to the desert in search of alien remains. But he is the only one who found them. Last year, Penn and a makeshift team that included archaeologist Andrew Reinhard and former garbage disposal magnate Joe Lewandowski, trekked into the New Mexico desert to solve a mystery 30 years in the making.

In 1983, when Atari was at the peak of its powers, it released E.T the Extra-Terrestrial – a slapdash game that was so poorly received, it’s often blamed for the ensuing collapse of the video game industry. According to legend, Atari then buried millions of leftover cartridges in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and washed themselves clean of what many consider to be the worst game ever made.

In his new documentary Atari: Game Over, Penn documents the rise and fall of Atari, the role E.T. played, and the infamous urban legend of the burial that followed. Through a series of revealing interviews with the people who were actually there – including the game’s designer Howard Scott Warshaw – Penn has crafted a fascinating essay on human ingenuity, corporate greed, and good old fashioned myth-making.

Here, Penn and Warshaw – both of whom have worked on a number of docs – reveal what makes a good documentary, and why the legend of Atari’s E.T the Extra-Terrestrial was the perfect subject matter.

PICK A SUBJECT NEAR AND DEAR TO YOU

Zak Penn: I loved the confluence of it being about Atari and video games, which is something that’s really close to my heart, and also the crazy urban legend/hoax/myth quality to it, which is a pet obsession of mine. How did these multiple strands of this story combine in this perfect storm of legend? If they hadn’t buried it, I don’t think we’d be talking about it. If Atari hadn’t collapsed, I don’t think we’d be talking about it. I think basically what happened is the fact that E.T. was a bad game, that Atari collapsed, and this true story about it being buried was just too juicy not to put atop each 'listicle.' If you were writing an article about the worst games of all time, how can you not include this game that destroyed Atari and was so bad it had to be buried? It’s too good of a story, and it gets perpetuated; it takes on a life of its own. Pretty soon the burial of a game turns into the burial of 5 million games, and a cover up, and all sorts of things.

Howard Scott Warshaw: What really impressed me about Zak Penn was that he’s a true gamer and he’s a real storyteller. You see both, but you rarely see them together. He’s someone who really has a concept of ‘What is the lore? What does it mean?’ Here’s a story that’s going on – what does it mean to the public, and what does it mean to the people who were involved? He’s very good at asking the kind of questions that really get down to the heart of the matter and really bring out what’s significant about the story.

“If you were writing an article about the worst games of all time, how can you not include this game that destroyed Atari and was so bad it had to be buried?” – Zak Penn

FIND A TRUE DETECTIVE

Zak Penn: I thought I was going to be the detective, and then I met Joe Lewandowski, who was really the guy doing all the detective work. There were moments when we did some of it. We got this guy on the phone who was actually the one who buried the games, which was a thrilling moment to get to the bottom of everything. We ended up being more bystanders to the detective.

KNOW WHEN TO STEP BACK

Zak Penn: You have to be an observer and organizer. You have to put whatever preconceived notions you have aside, and be open to whatever’s coming at you. You’re not trying to force the story, you’re trying to let things come to you, which occasionally puts you in a more passive role. And editing is the exact opposite.

Howard Scott Warshaw: What makes a good documentary filmmaker is someone who starts with a question as opposed to a story. A good documentary is something that happens in post-production. It’s all about the voyage of discovery. It’s about someone who has an interesting perspective, has an interesting question that they’re exploring, and they don’t know the answer to that question when they start. Their objective is to find the answer, then portray it in as clear and clean and hopefully as interesting a way as possible, and Zak did that in this film.

RESPECT YOUR SUBJECT MATTER

Zak Penn: I think the question of whether or not video games are an art form is past the point of discussion. It’s not just that there are so many games made today that have more in common with art than they do with games, it’s just that the form has matured to the point where you could look back at the earliest games and recognize their artistry. One of the things that came out of making this movie is recognizing the simple brilliance of those early games, and the incredible degree of difficulty in making them, that most people can’t even fathom.

Howard Scott Warshaw: I (created) the E.T. game in a five week period, which was just ridiculously aggressive. It was a very intense, very draining experience. I didn’t get any feedback about the game for months. Then, the feedback that I got was very positive. All they told me was that it was at the top of the Billboard sales list. Initially, the game was a huge success. Months later there started to be a hint of something off because some carts were being returned. The feedback was very indirect. Even after returns the game sold well over a million units, so it’s hard to look at that as a dramatic failure. It’s definitely not the best VCS game, but it’s the best five week VCS game and I’ll stand by that.

LEAVE ROOM FOR SURPRISE

Zak Penn: I thought it would be a bunch of hipsters ironically showing up in the desert to watch a futile dig, but instead, which kind of shocked me, there were hundreds of people who genuinely love Atari and who don’t play it because it’s ironic. They drove 25 hours to be there, and their kids play it – they love these games.

“The feedback that I got (on E.T.) was very positive. It was at the top of the Billboard sales list. Months later there started to be a hint of something off because some carts were being returned” – Howard Scott Warshaw

INTERVIEW MAD GENIUSES

Zak Penn: I didn’t know how nuts the actual people at Atari were, and I also didn’t realise how smart all of them were. As I started to meet these people, I realised that a lot of them were literally rocket scientists, or physicists, or really, really accomplished engineers. So that was definitely surprising. I always knew that it was a free-wheeling place, but I certainly didn’t know the specifics of the recruitment tactics they used, or that they were high all the time.

Howard Scott Warshaw: Atari was an amazing place to be and an amazing place to work. It was an extraordinary experience. Most of us were young and not that far out of college, and it was an unbelievable set point for your expectations about employment and what a work environment was, and what a job was. And it was wild. There really aren’t enough column inches to describe what made it different. It had nothing to do with the average office. You’re talking about an office where you had a bunch of young to mid-twenty-somethings, creative, smart, technically astute people who got to do whatever they wanted to do, while their managers just waited for them to produce. And they got paid a lot of money for it. So you had complete technical freedom, complete creative freedom, and if you did something that really hit, you made a lot of money. Not many people fresh out of school have that opportunity. There were no rules. We could do whatever we wanted. The only rule was that you had to make a decent game. If you weren’t on the road to doing that, you fell by the wayside and disappeared. But people who could do that could do anything they wanted. The experience at Atari was so intense, so unbelievable, it took me years to come down from.

Atari: Game Over is now available on VOD

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