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'Atari: Game Over': The true story behind the 'ET' video game debacle

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Zak Penn, director of the documentary "Atari: Game Over," talks about unearthing the end of the company and restoring the legacy of its maligned designer, Howard Scott Warshaw.

In 1983 the video game industry crashed, and it crashed hard.

Over the course of two years, revenue for the industry fell 97 percent, and the company that was hit hardest by the crash was Atari — at that point the fastest-growing U.S. company in history.

The catastrophic downfall of Atari and the gaming industry was generally due to a combination of market saturation and overproduction of game cartridges. But that didn't stop people from finding a different scapegoat: Atari developer Howard Scott Warshaw and his final game, 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." 

The urban legend surrounding the game was that Atari made so many cartridges and that the game was so bad that the company buried millions of cartridges in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Director/writer Zak Penn wanted to literally get to the bottom of the Atari video game burial, and his new documentary, "Atari: Game Over," explores both the history of the company and the process of excavating a dump in New Mexico.

When Penn visited The Frame, we talked to him about balancing the multiple stories in "Atari: Game Over," the pitfalls of video games that follow successful movies, and what it feels like to help rewrite history.

Interview Highlights:

So, what exactly is the urban legend of the Atari video game burial, and what actually caused it?

The "urban legend" is that Atari dumped millions of "E.T." game cartridges in the desert because the game was so bad that they had to bury it. The movie is very much about how that story came to be, that's one of the subplots. Atari did bury quite a bit of stuff — 750,000 cartridges, to be precise — but the story is filled with inaccuracies and everything's kind of upside-down about it, including "E.T." being the worst game ever, which it is absolutely not.

They had less than five weeks [to] get it out for Christmas. Because back then, and I still think it's true, that if it doesn't come out for Christmas, then it's not worth doing. And the movie was obviously still in theaters, too. So it was this impossible task that nobody else at Atari wanted to take, and Howard Scott Warshaw had designed "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for Spielberg, who really loved him, and he said, "I'll do it, what the hell." And he just worked on it 24 hours a day.

How did you balance the story of the excavation with Howard's story? Did you always know that you really wanted to involve him, or did his story develop as you were filming?

Even when I came on it was obvious that Howard would be a big part of the story, and frankly —and I think Howard would admit this — in the first interview I did with him it was very hard to get him to admit that he really was upset about any of this. He just has developed this really good coping mechanism of, I don't mind.

And the way I got through to him was by saying, "Listen, I wrote a movie. The first movie I ever wrote, 'Last Action Hero,' I was fired the day they bought it. And then the movie comes out a year later that my friends and family hated. And everyone hated and it was called an enormous bomb. And I can tell you that, 20 years later, when people started re-evaluating the movie, and particularly when they say, 'It's a great concept,' or, 'I read your original draft,' it's crazy. Yeah, I've gotten over it, but of course I feel better." And I think once I started to share my experience, he opened up and was like, "Yeah, it's annoying. No one else in the world could build a game in five weeks, and I did it."

So what were the complaints with the game? Why was it considered bad?

First of all, it was never bug-tested because he did it in five weeks, so there are bugs in the game, one of them being that you keep falling into pits. Everyone said, Why are there pits? There's no pits in the movie. But actually E.T. does end up in a drainage pit of sorts. But because of these glitches in the game, you used to fall in the hole if your head even passed the hole.

What people don't realize is, no one had made a fully-3D game like this before, so there's a reason Howard didn't consider that. Nobody had done it before, so he wasn't thinking about the fact that when your head crosses the plane of a hole, of course you're not going to fall in.

But there were other things, too. The game was too hard, the timer went too fast, and even in the instructions it kind of told you when to stop playing because there was no natural end — you just played it over and over. So there were a lot of legitimate problems that never got bug-tested.

Was there a point during the actual excavation where you thought, What the hell am I doing here?

I think that point began the first day I got out of a car and realized I was shooting a movie in a landfill, and that continued up through the horrible sandstorm, which practically blinded people. It looks bad in the movie, but it was worse. [laughs] It really was insane. We had to stop shooting because the excavator we were using was about to tip over from the winds, and that's a heavy piece of machinery. So we all had to go take cover, go off in cars and was apocalyptic out there.

There were moments all the way through, but particularly the day of [the dig], where I thought, These people have come out here for nothing. It's my fault. What the hell am I doing? Can I leave? I find that often goes through my head; the couple times I've directed I've always had these moments of, Could I get fired, or leave? And you just have to fight through it.

It feels like "E.T." almost set the precedent for lackluster video games coming on the heels of successful movies. Are they always just shotgun marriages?

Having worked on some adaptations of movie games, I think they often are a shotgun marriage, and I think it has more to do with the production pipeline and the way things have to be linked up. One of the things about video games that's equally true of movies: if either of them are put on a rushed track, they will suffer. Once in a while, a great movie comes out of being rushed, and once in a while a great game comes out of it, but in general the best games are the ones that are developed until they're right, Pixar-style. Like, We work on it until it's great. But I think, for the most part, it's pretty hard to adapt a movie to a video game well. It takes a lot of time.

Why did the myth of the Atari video game burial last so long in pop culture? And how does it feel to help rewrite history?

One of the most interesting things is how this story came about. Where does — call it a legend or call it a meme — this idea that "E.T." is the worst game ever come from? That didn't start until way, way after the game was ever released; 20 years later is when people started saying it was the worst game ever, which is kind of interesting. Howard's explanation was that an industry has to be around for 20 years before people can start making lists about it.

I also think it has to do with the rise of the Internet. What's interesting about this story is that, unlike the Loch Ness Monster — which is something else I spent some time studying and which started with a sighting that was probably not true and ... turned into the legend it is today — this myth kind of went backwards. "E.T." came out and it was a disaster and it wasn't a great game, and the industry did fall apart. And it was buried. And then many years later people started saying, Wait a second, this game was buried because it was so bad. That must be the story here. The story kind of coalesced in the most natural way that it could, and that's what became the legend now. And as a screenwriter that's partly what fascinated me about the whole thing.

"Atari: Game Over" premieres tonight on Xbox.

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