Once Upon Atari (2003)
Once Upon Atari is a documentary exploring the meteoric success of the Atari company during the seventies and eighties. It consists mainly of interviews with many original Atari 2600 game development staff. Made by Howard Scott Warshaw, a programmer and author of titles such as Yar’s Revenge, Indiana Jones and the infamous E.T. the documentary provides a fascinating insight into day-to-day life at what was one of the most iconic companies of its era. The work environment as described by those who laboured there is the polar opposite of the way many businesses are structured today. This was the age of the game auteur, where successful coders were indulged.
Once Upon Atari features informal but in-depth interviews with the likes of Larry Kaplan (Kaboom! ), Rob Fulop (Missile Command ), Tod Frye (Pac-Man ) as well as Atari co-founder, Nolan Bushnell. The documentary format is predominantly "talking head" interviews intercut with some game clips and a wealth of personal photos. If you're at all interested in the significance of Atari and its place in the annals of gaming history then you'll be extremely satisfied. This is an honest snapshot of how the game industry worked over three decades ago. It certainly paints a vivid picture of the organised chaos that occurred daily at the Atari office.
Once Upon Atari is filled with anecdotes such as “the hot tub, the sprinkler lobotomy, the flying frog, walking on walls”. Many were fuelled by the use of recreational drug. It’s amazing how these talented individuals were given creative freedom and fiscal responsibility at such a young age. It reminds me of the similar culture that existed in dot-com “companies” of the late nineties. The programmers essentially worked their own hours, eschewed the conventional formality of the business world and were known for their hijinks both in and out of the office. As with dot-com “millionaires”, the programmers often made their fortunes, only to lose them shortly thereafter.
Although very simply made Once Upon Atari highlights the unique situation at Atari and how through synchronicity, it brought an eclectic group of talented freethinkers together at the right time. It’s amazing to think that during the eighties, a hit game could be conceived, written and lovingly crafted by just a single developer. A freedom that I’m sure many who currently work in the gaming industry would view with envy today. If you are a gamer who is at all interested in the history of the medium or have fond memories of the Atari 2600, then you need to watch this documentary. It’s funny, informative and compelling.