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Director Zak Penn Proved There Was Atari Games in Them Thar Hills

Legend had it that a treasure was buried in the 1980s, deep in the New Mexican desert, a treasure that contained a stigma which made it both desirable and yet ridiculed mercilessly. Its burial also, according to this legend, spelled the end of a once-great titan of industry, but the real question for decades was: did the treasure actually exist? All of this is, of course, referring to the great internet theory that a huge stockpile of Atari games were buried in a landfill and that they were all E.T., considered by many, after the fact, to be the worst game ever made.

As part of the series Signal to Noise on the Xbox Live Network, director Zak Penn, who is predominantly a writer for some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, decided to tackle this mystery head-on and get to the bottom of two things: are there really E.T. games in the desert, and were they buried because Atari was ashamed of them? The film, entitled Atari: Game Over is available now, and Penn was nice enough to chat with us about going on this hunt, about Atari and video games in general, and about his desire to find monsters with Werner Herzog.

NERDIST: I really enjoyed your film. I knew none of that. First and foremost, how did you get involved in the making of it?

ZAK PENN: Well, in this case, I got hired by the Chinns, by Simon and Jonathan Chinn, and Xbox. They had already gotten the rights to go film at this excavation, so they basically said “Hey, we’ve got the rights to do this, it’s about the Atari video game burial,” and I said, “Sold, I’m in, I’ll do it.” It was kind of handed to me on a silver platter.

As to why I chose to, I mean, I grew up on Atari, I love video games, I spent way too much time playing them, I love tracking out urban legends … It just … it was right up my alley. You know what I mean? Sometimes someone just says something, and you’re like, “Yes! I don’t care that it’s a one-hour documentary, I would love to do it.”

N: I grew up in a house with Colecovision, so we completely missed out on the Atari craze. What was your experience with Atari when it was at the height of its power, back in the ’80s?

ZP: Well, Atari … It’s almost hard to describe to people of the younger generation, like when I try to talk to my kids about it. It was so much more advanced than the other game systems, and the games were so much better, they just … Intellivision had some good games too, I am not trying to disparage them, but it was just … If you played video games, you HAD to have Atari, and there were just a number of games on the Atari system that were so cool that they actually rivaled the arcades, which was my second favorite thing to do … I mean, actually maybe my favorite was to go to the arcades and play them, but then as Atari started to mature, and you started getting really good games … Even Adventurer was one that obviously you couldn’t play in an arcade, and it was just … As they say in the movie, it seems crazy now, but at the time, it was really kind of mind-blowing, you know?

N: Looking back, do you think those old Atari games could stand the test of time now? Like if they were up-resed and spiffified, would they still be fun to gamers?

ZP: Well, I think it’s more that they would stand up as independent games, or games that you play on different platforms. If nobody had ever invented “Asteroids”, and you came out with Asteroids tomorrow, people would stop playing Flypaper, you know what I mean? They would play Asteroids.

Many of the games on the 2600 are still better than whatever the versions of them are today, you know? There’s some new games that are excellent, but in terms of scaling them up? You certainly could imagine scaling up something like Defender. I actually even could kind of imagine scaling up Yars’ Revenge or E.T. or Indiana Jones. The thing is, all of these things have already been ripped off … I mean, Indiana Jones has been done in so many different video games, it’s just basically … Tomb Raider is just a version of Indiana Jones and Drake’s Fortune is another version of Indiana … To a certain extent, that’s exactly what people have been doing, is taking … And granted, that’s a movie license, but I think people already have been taking basically the heart of Atari games, and using it to create a whole other iteration of video games. I think that’s been going on for twenty-five years now.

N: Do you think that without Atari we wouldn’t have gaming as we know it today because they were so ahead of their time?

ZP: Do I think someone else would have invented it? Absolutely. But they were the first, so … Someone would have invented the iPhone if it hadn’t been Apple. It would look slightly different, but they would have done it. But these guys were the first, and they pioneered the industry, and they … I don’t know that it wouldn’t have happened, but they are the Alexander Graham Bell, or Marconi, of their industry.

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N: What do you remember about the E.T. game? Did you play it when it came out in 1982?

ZP: I did, but I remember very little about it. I think that’s because … Quite honestly, I think I was like, fourteen, fifteen when I got it … Maybe fourteen, I forget … For me, I liked Close Encounters more than E.T., that’s just where I was in my life, and so, I wasn’t as psyched to sit down and play E.T., I think, as I was some of the other games.

N: When did you become aware of the legend that the games had been buried in the desert?

ZP: Not until much later, because the truth is … It didn’t really all start to come out in a very overt way until past the turn of the millennium. I certainly didn’t know about it until sometime in the 2000s. I just knew it enough that, when it was brought up, I knew what people were talking about.

Even though, if you asked me to do a movie simply about Atari, it’s not like I already don’t know stuff; I know a lot about Atari. But the actual legend of the burial was kind of new to me, like the details of it. I certainly hadn’t been studying it. I had kind of a skeptical eye towards it, which I think was helpful at points.

N: Were you surprised by what you found? Were you sitting there thinking this whole thing might end in finding absolutely nothing?

ZP: Not only was there a chance, it was actually fairly likely that we would miss it. I mean, I knew they were there … I actually think that’s one of the funny things about the legend – there was really no question; it was just very obvious. Blatant evidence exists, and we found actually one of the extras, the guy who actually buried the games. He told us, “They are there,” you know? We knew the guy from Atari who was responsible.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how complicated it was to find them, and how when they told me, “If we dig five feet to the right, we’re not going to find them,” and I said, “Well, why not? Why wouldn’t you just dig in every direction?” And they said, “You don’t understand, it’s a huge space.” It was kind of like one of those statistical things, where you look at it, and say, “Wow, statistically, this really might not work out.”

I kind of went into being pretty optimistic, saying “Of course we’ll find something,” and then, once I got there, I thought “Wait! We very well might not find anything at all, even if they let us do it.” So, it was pretty nerve-wracking once … Once things really kind of revved up, that’s when it really started to hit all of us that this really could be a really, really shitty documentary!

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N: Your movie ends up being a kind of redemption story for Howard Warshaw [the programmer at Atari who created the E.T. game in five weeks as instructed]. Do you think the film will give people the opportunity to reevaluate his work? Because it did me.

ZP: Well, then the answer is yes because you just said it. I didn’t think, you know, even as I was working on it, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, everyone’s going to change their mind about Howard.” When we showed it at Comic-Con, and brought Howard out, and he got a standing ovation, and people were crying, I kind of realized, “Oh my God! This is going to change things for him!”

By the way, sometimes I worry … I am friends with Howard now, and I worry a little bit, because he had really put it out of his mind. He had come to grips with it, you know? He really was over it. And now, the irony of people recognizing his talents is that also, it probably makes some of the negative feelings more acute as well, you know? He had learned to just not think about it, and now people want to talk about it.

That said, the sense I get, from the people I have spoken to, not just yourself, but people within the movie industry, or even just reading the responses I have gotten on Twitter and Facebook and other places, it seems like it is having that effect, which … It’s amazingly gratifying.

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N: Shifting gears slightly, your movie Incident at Loch Ness was one of my favorites of the last several years. It’s a movie that I saw and then told people about for weeks after, like “you gotta check out Incident at Loch Ness! It’s crazy! How was the making of that film, with Werner Herzog and all of that, and how did it help you for this film, which is also about finding an urban legend?

ZP: Well, first of all, thank you. Any time somebody says they like Incident at Loch Ness it warms my heart, because you only get a couple of chances to make something that’s entirely yours. So thanks.

Part of the reason why they hired me for this is because they had seen Incident at Loch Ness. Granted, so much more of Incident at Loch Ness is staged than people realize … I mean, everyone knows it’s a mockumentary, and it is improvised, but so much of it is staged, and if you ever get a chance to look at the DVD extras, which reveal everything … There’s like two levels of the DVD menus, one that’s fake, and one that’s real, and we worked really hard to create this kind of fictional documentary.

We did shoot it like a documentary – We had a real documentary crew, and I was following them around as they shot. That’s why there’s people … You know, Gabby Beristain, and the other people, the DP and the sound guy were all real people. So, in that sense, it prepared me for this. I think it helped me, but the main thing is, I like … I am really interested in how stories come together. How is it that a narrative gains power, and kind of sticks in our minds? I mean, Loch Ness, that’s why it interested both me and Werner is “Why? Why are people coming here, and saying they are seeing this thing?”

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The Atari story, the whole notion of … If the game was so bad that they buried, which is ludicrous! I mean, it’s ludicrous, right? It’s ludicrous to imagine a CEO saying, “You know what? This game is embarrassing! Bury it! Literally put it in the ground!” That’s what people think, and that’s what people have thought for a long time, and it’s completely absurd, right? It’s as absurd as the Loch Ness monster.

N: Do you have the desire to do a third movie in this same kind of vein, finding legends and the like? Or do you have any legends you’d want to do a movie about?

ZP: You know, I don’t off the top of my head. I jokingly said that, “I’m hoping someone steals the games and buries them someplace else, so we can go dig them up again”, and then I would bring Werner with me, for sure! I think if I can, if I can ever find Werner, when he is free for a minute – you know, he is always making a movie – I would love to grab him, and do something else with him, that’s in the vein of Loch Ness, but not necessarily following exactly the same format.

Put it this way – I would like to do something where, once again, people will say, “Wait a second – That guy said, in that interview with Nerdist that he was going to do another thing with Werner Herzog, but this actually seems real! Is this real, or is it another bullshit thing from these two?” That would be my goal, so hopefully, when I come up with the idea, you won’t even know that it’s happening.

And we certainly hope it happens. Atari: Game Over is available now on the Xbox Live Network and is definitely worth a watch.

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