Yes, we know, video game documentaries are suddenly everywhere after “The King of Kong” took off, but “The Ecstasy of Order” is something substantially different.
For one thing, instead of tracking just one champion, it instead follows several Tetris masters over two decades. Starting with Harry Hong, a current Tetris master, it explores the popularity of the game, what drives people to master a game that’s seemingly impossible to conquer, and how even a little bit of gamer fame can make a person reluctant to seek the spotlight again.
The director, Adam Cornelius, graciously took a little time to answer a few questions about where this documentary got started, and the challenges he faced putting it together.
How’d you get started on this? Did you seek it out, stumble across it, or did someone bring it to you?
I had previously been interested in doing a doc about video game champs. When I started researching, I found out that multiple such documentaries were already being made, such as Chasing Ghosts and King of Kong. So I shelved the idea and moved onto something else.
Over the years, the only game I had really tried to master as an adult had been Tetris. I followed the scores on Twin Galaxies, and started watching Youtube videos posted by the top players, such as Harry Hong. I realized watching videos of the masters was really helping my game, so I kept at it. Then, in April 2009, Harry posted the first ever perfect game of NES Tetris to Twin Galaxies. That’s what inspired me to begin a documentary about Tetris Masters. To me, he had achieved the hardest thing in gaming history and I thought it warranted documentation.
Then I posted a preview starring Harry that portrayed him as the best player called “Max-Out!”. At that point, I started getting emails mentioning other players who had claimed to max-out the game, namely Jonas Neubauer and 1990 Nintendo World Champ Thor Aackerlund. So I realized I had a whole story on my hands and it unfolded from there.
Were there any interviews in particular that were hard to nail down? Thor seems like he was a bit elusive.
Everyone was very eager to participate other than Thor. I have noticed in the past that people who have never had any fame really want some, and people who have had it are sometimes the ones who are reluctant to put themselves through it again. In any case, I try to let Thor’s appearance in the film speak for itself.
How long was the shooting process?
The shoot was very sporadic until summer of 2010. Just weekends, a gaming con here or there. Finally once funding and crew were in place, we shot for about one month leading up to the tournament. A very short shoot for a feature documentary, but we got more footage then we needed in that time. I was very systematic in my approach. In the end I knew if we got everyone together and had a tournament, something good would happen in front of the camera.
How have audiences been receiving the film?
The reception has blown me away. We won an audience award at the Austin Film Festival, so that tells the story. People are seeing a lot of humor in it that I didn’t even realize was there. Honestly, people always tell me I’m a funny guy, but I don’t always laugh much myself. So the film is the same. I laugh in places no one else does, so I guess humor is just really subjective. In the end its a very positive vibe, and all the characters come across as quite likable.
More importantly, there are audible gasps and oohs and ahhs during some of the great Tetris playing moments. The great thing about the film is elite Tetris playing really translates well to the screen. The premise is so basic, that even people who’ve never played can get a sense of how the game works over the course of the film. Unlike, say, SF 2, where I could watch two average players going at it, and to my eyes it looks similar to the two best players in the world. But with Tetris, the high skill level is immediately evident and amazes audiences.
Did shooting video games present any challenges for you as a documentarian?
Well, you are presented with the problem of how far do you go as far as explaining the game itself? I thought we had a rare opportunity to actually try and explain the game in-depth, since so many people have played it. And also since I am pretty good, probably as good a Tetris-playing documentarian as you will find, that’s also an odd thing that should be taken advantage of. So when you watch our film, you’ll learn how the masters think, and you really will learn about the high-level of the game. And I think you’re seeing the film from the perspective of someone who takes the game very seriously, which gives the film a whole different feel, rather than a more aloof, “isn’t this novel that these people take this so seriously” approach that might be more common.
Obviously, it can’t be a full-on tutorial, although I’ve been tempted to go ahead and make one at some point. Problem is I’m not quite good enough; it would have to be a collaboration with the stars of the film.
Keep an eye on Facebook; “The Ecstasy of Order” is currently making the rounds at film festivals, and new screenings are posted as they’re scheduled.