A documentary about one of video game history’s most enduring urban legends should be out later this year. In a deal with Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios, gaming firm Fuel Entertainment and production company LightBox Entertainment have been commissioned to make a 60-minute documentary film exploring “the great video game burial of 1983.” Legend has it that millions of cartridges of the Atari video game E.T. were buried in a New Mexico landfill. The filmmakers are struggling to get the necessary permissions to dig in the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. The latest news is that, pending a state-approved waste excavation plan, the project will continue.
Digging around in a landfill for 30-year-old Atari video game cartridges might not sound like the most riveting subject matter for a documentary, and the film’s would-be producers were initially thinking along the same lines. Cousins Simon and Jonathan Chinn of Lightbox Entertainment wondered “whether this story had legs as a documentary film,” but the two soon became convinced by Fuel and their own research. Jonathan Chinn even took to a SXSW stage with Fuel’s Mike Burns to discuss the project, which they called the “El Dorado” of gaming culture. But the Atari video game burial seems to be the mirror opposite of the El Dorado legend.
Instead of a “Lost City of Gold,” the documentary hopes to present viewers with the long-hidden cache of E.T. video games that Atari buried out of shame. The game was a commercial, technical, and critical failure that marked the beginning of the end for Atari, a company many opine would be the Apple of today had the corporation reigned in its greed and arrogance. Here is a summary of the great burial’s backstory: Atari, seeking to coast on the popularity of the movie E.T., plunked down $20 to $25 million dollars in 1982 to secure the film’s game rights. Atari wanted the game ready for the Christmas rush, so they cranked out one of the most expensive and highly-anticipated video games of that time in the space of five weeks. The game sold 1.5 million units out of the gate, but word quickly got around about how horrendous the gameplay, graphics, and story were, and sales all but halted. To this day, E.T. is known as one of the worst video games in existence. Eventually, the 3.5 million unsold units that no one knew what to do with were trucked out to a New Mexico landfill and buried. A layer of concrete was later poured on top of the games to discourage children from getting hurt from digging in the dump. The game ultimately cost the company $500 million, and Atari never quite recovered. It has been said that no one at the company was surprised at E.T.’s failure except the suits.
As has been pointed out buy Nathan Rabin of A.V. Club, there is something “poetically apt” about a game that caused extreme frustration by stranding its players in pits, which were extremely difficult to get out of, being buried itself in a pit, and then being dug out of that pit 30 years later. Rabin also points out an interesting counterpoint: E.T. was both the most commercially successful film of the time and the least-successful video game of all time. All of a sudden, it sounds like it would make for an interesting documentary, no?
The film has been commissioned by Microsoft as part of a six to 10 episode television series that will be available to owners of Xbox 360 and Xbox One consoles. The other episodes will look into music piracy, citizen journalism, and other “pivotal moments in the digital revolution.” Jonathan Chinn talks about how the E.T. debacle created “a major pop culture shift” that affected gaming’s future. The documentary is about corporate business practices and coping, which Chinn put in the following way: “Trying to bury your mistakes is questionable.” The film, said Chinn, “transcends gaming.” Perhaps in its ability to provoke thought, the “great video game burial of 1983” and its accompanying documentary represents the El Dorado of the gaming culture after all.
By Donna Westlund