Monday, May 4, 2009

Analysis: "The King of Kong" and the Self-Feeding Monster of Egotism

"The King of Kong" (2007) is a Seth Gordon documentary about the culture of competitive classic video games. The story revolves around two men, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, the rivalry between them and the struggle to be the world record holder of the highest achieved score on Nintendo's arcade video game "Donkey Kong" (1981).

This movie is not about video games. This is not a video game movie. A viewer can watch this movie and walk away never learning how to play Donkey Kong. There are no long, extended scenes of an entire level completed, nor any in-depth tutorials explaining how the controls work nor the proper path through the notorious elevator level.

It's a good thing that this movie is not about video games because then it wouldn't be interesting and as a result no one would watch it. Instead, this is a movie that uses video games as a backdrop to tell an engrossing story that appeals to everyone. "King of Kong" uses video games as a microcosm to relate to people on a deeper level to which everyone can connect. To call "King of Kong" a "video game movie" is like calling Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) a "gay cowboy movie". Instead, "Brokeback Mountain" is a story of love and denial; it tells a story of never being able to achieve/obtain that one thing you always needed your entire life - homosexuality and sheep herding were just literal devices for the story to paint upon.

"King of Kong" is a movie that appeals to everyone. It tells an affecting story of two very different individuals that involve us and invokes large themes and issues; in fact, the best way to put it is that the story of "King of Kong" is more interesting than just about any video game; well, at least any of the video games seen or played in the movie.

I'll tell you what it's about, sure, but I won't deny it any longer that I loved this movie especially from my perspective as a hardcore gamer. I found it so funny and so emotionally affecting that I had to get up and walk around the room to shake off the egregious feeling that these people were portraying the story of my life. What made it really scary is how scary everybody appears in this movie. We see scene after scene appears of people emphatically explaining passionate philosophies and historically significant world events; we are then reminded that this zealous intensity concerns video games, and then wonder how a game can transcend its simple roots as a pastime for recreation and enjoyment to mean a clear case of life or death.

The audience listens to their obsession, and we note that some of these people don't blink when they talk. It scares me, so I listen harder. If nothing else, this movie has taught me to blink more and to take breaths inbetween sentences when I'm talking about video games; also, remind me if my mouth is open when I'm paying especially close attention to something/one.

"King of Kong" is a movie about how different people deal with obsession, and the role it plays in their lives. Competitive classic gaming is an illusion of importance, and in the case of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell this illusion has separate significances to each individual. To us "laymen" of competitive classic gaming the movie offers us a glimpse to witness the cost of what it takes to be "great".

To Steve Wiebe, the film's underdog and hero, achieving the world record high score for Donkey Kong underscores the humility of this soft spoken family man. Portrayed as a wayward talent who possesses skill and ability but has never found a proper outlet in which to channel them, Wiebe is a likable guy and so we sympathize with him since all he wants from being a Donkey Kong champion is recognition as well as a confirmation of his rarely-recognized talents. However, the film shows us his obsession with Donkey Kong imparts a toll on his long-suffering family. Having both he and the Donkey Kong machine banished to the garage (his wife puts up with alot, I agree, but garages are where cars and teenage angst in the form of poor punk bands are parked), we see him neglect his duties as a dutiful father: in his first world record-setting videotape, we hear the anguished cries of his son calling for his dad who is too busy smashing barrels with a hammer with a joystick.

And while his son should learn how to wipe his own bottom, at which we laughed/cried, Wiebe's daughter Jillian has some of the best lines in the movie; when told having a high score in the Guiness World Record book was a big deal, she told her father, "Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there." If that scathing indictment of her father wasn't enough, she earlier had stated pointedly from a quote on a Billy Mitchell hot sauce bottle: "Work is for people who don't know how to play video games."

It's difficult to watch a man have priorities over his family, but we do see a man dedicated to his dream who doen't do the irresponsible act of putting his dreams on his children's shoulders. Also, in this current social climate of mass mediocrity and focus on celebrity, it can be important for an everyman like Wiebe to be best in the world at one thing. A simple man, a simple plan.

Unfortunately, this plan is not of the hatching of Billy Mitchell, a competitive classic video gaming champion who was on top of the scene back when it wasn't "classic" gaming but state of the art and hip. A known celebrity even amongst competitive classic video gaming champions, Mitchell enjoys fame and has used it as a means to achieve his goals and as a end goal to be the well-known name he is. Holder of the Donkey Kong world record high score since the eighties (there's some other guy but he's not in the movies), Mitchell is shown to be a shadowy Machiavellian character who attempts to thwart the efforts of upstart Wiebe to break his record.

Mitchell is shown accomplishing his nefarious deeds by the power of his cult of personality; Mitchell is a charismatic and egotistical personality who draws others to him to support his own fame and narcissism. The obsession that has made him successful now drives him to scheme against Wiebe using all his influence.

The examples are many: Mitchell prompts Brian Kuh and Perry Rodgers to gain access to Wiebe's garage as "unwelcome guests" to dismantle his machine for photography of his circuit board; Mitchell, being on the board of evalutors, used his vote and influence to use these photographs to discredit Wiebe's home-taped million point score; receiving live updates via telephone during Wiebe's attempt at Funcom to break the record, Mitchell has his "disciple" (quoted from the movie) Brian Kuh attempt to distract and "psyche out" Wiebe, as Kuh is seen anxiously giving nervous interviews that would "jinx" Wiebe, as well as rounding up a crowd to witness the inevitable "kill screen"; scheming to steal Wiebe's thunder by submitting a taped game that reveals a million-plus score; prompting head judge Walter Day to input this score as the new official one, despite Mitchell's own claims that only "live scores matter"; and in the film's climax, Mitchell finally answers Wiebe's request for a head-to-head showdown for a Guiness World Record attempt after repeated snubbings, but arrived at the venue where the competition occured only to snub Wiebe again.

Some people have pointed out that I am long-winded in my writing; in this case, too many examples only justify that assertation. However, it has come to light that many facts are distorted to skew perspectives and give the story a definite bias. That said, the examples listed above appear to be true enough to prove Mitchell's plotting against Wiebe as well as to show the extent of the cult of his personality.

It also stands to note that the one detractor in the movie to Mitchell is the film's craziest - Roy Shildt, aka "Mr Awesome", depicted nude flexing his muscles with a similarily nude woman at his heels, as well as giving a pep talk on picking up woman with references to "gnarly poontang". Shildt is a man obviously jealous of Mitchell, having missed out on the fame Shildt believes he deserves, and is also a man depicted as being a dangerous, excessive personality. However, Shildt is able to surpass the first impression of him as an extremist and take the place as Wiebe's supporter properly since it clear that as Mitchell's "nemesis" (quote from the movie) he is outside his influence unlike every other competitive classic video gamer. While Shildt is armed with a spiteful grudge years in the making, Shildt is shown as a maniac with the deadliest weapon on his side - the truth.

Let's conclude: classic video gaming is very difficult and requires deft skills and steel nerves; all the people who compete in classic video gaming are obsessive personalities who are never seen to have any life outside of competitive gaming, like a family; Mitchell did not want his Donkey Kong score to be broken and schemed against Wiebe; and Mitchell enjoys fame and requires the submission of other personalities to bolster his own. The movie doesn't have to work hard to paint Mitchell in a negative light as he does it so well on his own, as most arrogent pricks like to do on their own accord.

While the movie ends with the claim that Wiebe would break Mitchell's million-plus score on a taped game (a score Mitchell would reclaim soon after) the real ending happens earlier with the acceptance of Wiebe by Walter Day and Twin Galaxies with an apology; this is due to the breaking of the cult of Mitchell's personality amongst the competitive gamer community. The one thing that Wiebe craved - acceptance - comes at the cost of the waning of Mitchell's influence. Day capitulated to logic and manners when accepting Wiebe into the community and acknowledged all the hardship - exacted by Mitchell - Wiebe had to endure to be recognized. Another telling conversation is when Steve Sanders warmly acknowledges Wiebe's skill and importance to classic gaming culture much to the visible displeasure and chagrin of Mitchell, sitting next to Sanders in the interview. This is coming from a man who Mitchell himself described as being "the person he is today because he came under the wrath of Billy Mitchell," meaning Sanders was once deeply ensconced in the Mitchell camp.

It goes on. In the credits, Robert Mruczek is shown to have quit Twin Galaxies as Head Referee after the controversy. Walter Day also seems to have turned over a new leaf and is releasing his first album and writing a new book. It's clear Wiebe's task wasn't just to break a world record for Donkey Kong; no, it had to be much more difficult than that because in order for Wiebe to do so, he had to break down Mitchell's cult of personality and not just change his life, but the lives of everybody involved.

That's why this became the "video game rivalry of the century": because Mitchell could not accept the damage to his established world, and not for any reason from Wiebe except to do the right thing. Instead of gracefully allowing some other guy to take the spotlight away from him, Mitchell is revealled as the insidious megalomaniac who hides behind his celebrity. In this conflict the highest score doesn't ultimately matter because it is Wiebe who wins for having the integrity to follow his dreams and stand up for himself. He isn't a hero for playing a video game well; he's a hero for being a good man in terrible circumstances - the backstabbing, unscrupulous world of competitive classic video gaming.

Quick analogy, as provided by my girlfriend: Wiebe is Mario/Jumpman. Mitchell is Kong. Mitchell's followers are the girder he stands on (which fall in the girder level). The barrels and fireballs are all the nefarious scheming Mitchell plots against Wiebe. The hammer is the truth that will set Wiebe free. And the damsel in distress that will never actually be rescued is the pointless competition of playing video games for a high score.

Dudes: playing video games doesn't win babes anymore. It's not the eighties, and people: chicks know that video games aren't that important. Cool, interesting maybe; but man, don't listen to that Mr. Awesome, whatever you do.

Rated: Three out of 3 stars. Highly recommended, but may influence a negative view of video games.

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