“I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame, I wanted the pretty girls coming up and saying, ‘Hi, I see you’re good at Centipede.’” – Walter Day
“When I have to watch that pile of eight tapes over there for Dwayne Richards’ two-day Nibbler performance, that’s 48 straight hours of paying attention and making sure he’s doing everything correctly.” – Robert Mruczek
Those are just two of the astonishing number of rhetorical jewels in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which chronicles one man’s pursuit of the Donkey Kong world record. And as absurdly entertaining as the proclamations by the various gamers are, the thematic undercurrents are deceptively potent. Right off the bat, video games are described as the embodiment of man’s search for perfection, mastery, dominance, and even immortality (the record books!). For some, they function as an irrefutable measure of personal value; for others, a bastion of comfort and control in a world that’s thrown them for a loop; for a few, they may even represent an addiction. It would be compelling even if King of Kong didn’t contain what may be the most colorful cast of characters ever assembled in one film, documentary or otherwise. Yet while director Seth Gordon is clearly aware of how amusing some of his subjects’ personalities are, he thankfully avoids making it a 90-minutes exercise in condescension. Indeed, he finds a wealth of humanity lurking beneath the nerdy veneer, which makes for an affectionate and even rather emotional film.
Rarely do non-fiction villains come as perfectly packaged as legendary gamer (and at the time of filming, reigning Donkey Kong world champion) Billy Mitchell. Doubtless the editing does him no favors, and he certainly seems like a nice enough guy, but man oh man, the stuff that come out of his mouth is simply astounding… Billy is well aware that he has fulfilled all righteousness; some might even say that he gives whole new meaning to the “scorekeeping” analogy we so frequently employ on this site–in both its basic silliness and unrelenting cruelty. In fact, Billy’s friend and fellow gamer Steve Sanders pays Billy quite the revealing–and backhanded–compliment when he quotes Proverbs (“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”) and admits that, “Bill made me a better person, and did so by basically making me confess [to fabricating a record-breaking Donkey Kong score].” So while referee and all around sweetie Walter Day may lament that he’s been cast in the role of “policeman,” the real gavel appears to be wielded by Mr. Mitchell. (In a wonderful bit of irony, Day is actually a bit of Christ figure in the gamer community, oozing compassion for “the least of these” out of every pore and constantly–and thanklessly–brokering peace at a cost to himself).
Then there’s the underdog hero of the story, Mr. Steve Wiebe, the soft-spoken contender from
Nazareth Redmond, WA, who comes to the world of gaming very much from the outside, and from a place of real personal weakness/vulnerability. His first lines are:
“With this, it’s me and the machine, it doesn’t matter if you let me down, or someone else doesn’t come through, I’m in control… When I got laid off, and I had time on my hands, [and I wondered] what could I do to feel like I’ve got control of something. I typed in ‘Donkey Kong world record’ to my computer. A spreadsheet came up, and it said it was held by Billy Mitchell–874,000–and I thought ‘Hey, I can beat that.'”
We then find out a few things about Steve. His dream was to be a musician, but for whatever reason, it didn’t pan out. He was a star athlete in high school who choked at the key moment. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer at Boeing, but again, things did not go that way. One friend says, “I’ve probably seen Steve with tears in his eyes more than any other guy I know… He never has quite reached that pinnacle…” His wife then tells us that Steve lost his job the day they signed the papers on their house, summing it all up by saying, “He’s come up short in a lot of things in his life. And I just think, nobody wants to do that all the time.” It’s heartbreaking, and you immediately start rooting for the guy. There appears to be something redemptive about playing Donkey Kong for Steve, something therapeutic, something, well, beautiful. We watch as he tries to break in to the gaming world and is met with suspicion and contempt. He is cast out by the outcasts, who themselves are dealing with their own defeats. It’s pretty poignant.
I won’t tell you what happens. Suffice it to say, the thirst for glory is not quenched. At least not until it no longer matters. And Gordon’s camera catches everything: the human spirit in all its nobility, frailty, insecurity, determination, child-likeness (and childishness), conniving and justifying, absurdity and seriousness, and, ultimately, yes, beauty. The outlandish scenario acts as a perfect, unexpected mirror for non-gamers like you and me, who are equally caught up in the pursuit of validation. In that sense, one loves King of Kong and one is loved by King of Kong. Sort of like, you know, the King of Kings…
Plenty of documentaries are truthful. ‘Human interest’ documentaries tend to be curious, sometimes cute, usually more character studies than anything else. Delightful is harder to come by, especially when there’s anything at stake. And there’s the rarest of all, the genuinely heartwarming doc in which something actually happens. They are almost never all these things at once. But King of Kong belongs to that illustrious club (alongside American Movie). The icing on top of the digital scaffolding comes in one of extra features on the DVD (which are all must-see), where Steve is interviewed about his music. A powerful subtext emerges by accident and recasts much of the larger narrative. It’s what some people call an Ah-Ha moment, and it comes around the 3 minute mark: