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Q&A: "Atari: Game Over" Director Zak Penn on Digging Up the Past

How "a documentary about the failure to find a good documentary" turned into a meditation on history.

Twitter / @zakpenn

Zak Penn went to Alamogordo, N.M., thinking he’d been hired for a 90-minute joke.

Penn, best known as a story writer for “Last Action Hero,” “X-Men 2” and “The Avengers,” had already directed “Incident at Loch Ness,” a 2004 documentary about a search for the Loch Ness Monster led by Werner Herzog. When he signed on for a documentary about the search for buried videogame cartridges in the New Mexico desert, he thought he would once again be making “a documentary about the failure to find a good documentary.”

And then this happened.

At the core of the urban legend is that one of the games buried in the desert, Howard Scott Warshaw’s game adaptation of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” was so bad that it destroyed Atari’s fortunes. In a interview with Re/code, though, Penn said that’s a grand oversimplification of the truth, and reflected on the other surprises in making “Atari: Game Over,” which will be released by Xbox this fall.

Re/code: Going into it, was your opinion that E.T. was the worst game of all time?

Zak Penn: No. One thing I knew going into it was that there was no way E.T. was the worst game of all time because there are so many games that are so bad on levels that people can’t imagine. I knew that had to be inherently exaggerated. Even today, there are games that are just bad on a whole other level. It’s like when people called “Last Action Hero” the worst movie of all time. I’m as critical of that movie as anyone, but to call it the worst movie is insane.

But whatever type of bad E.T. was, the notoriety around the game seems to have lived on outside of the generation that owned and played Atari.

That, to me, is the interesting part. It’s not so much whether it’s the worst game of all time. That, theoretically, could be a pretty quick documentary. The question is: Why? Why has this weird legend grown? Why do people keep telling the story about this burial and how terrible this game is and all the other components? Why has that turned into an urban legend?

What about the process of following the dig or producing the documentary was most surprising to you?

Certainly, in the days leading up to it, most of my surprises were what I was discovering about the actual story. First of all, I had my own kid-like understanding of what happened to Atari, which was kind of a vague notion of somehow some stupid people destroyed this incredible company, which proved to be not true. But also, I was surprised by the level of work that had gone into figuring out where the games were and also the level of intellectual work that had gone into the games themselves. “Oh, wait. This story is upside down.”

Almost immediately, my ironic sense of humor started to drift away because I started to talk to Joe [the leader of the Atari dig], and it wasn’t just some guy who had an excavating machine and who kinda knew where he was going to dig. It was this guy who spent years doing complicated research, and he had a garage full of information. And then when I met [E.T. creator] Howard Warshaw, I realized: This guy is actually a really interesting person, period. It’s not ironic at all. There’s nothing to make fun of here. He’s got a good story to tell.

What was Howard’s reaction when you said, “I want to make a movie about this game that you’ve put in your past?”

I think Howard, because he also made some very good games and is used to getting attention for his work, I actually expected that he would be a bit more horrified by the prospect than he was. I think he’s developed a good ironic distance from it, and certainly puts a good face on it. It’s not like he’s walking around with a huge chip on his shoulder. It was pretty hard to get him to admit that it was frustrating to him at all, what he had gone through. Once he got out there and experienced what was happening, he was able to say, “You know what? I think it has been bugging me, and I’m glad I came out.” The events that happened provoked some real emotion that was great to get on camera.

By the time you were done, what did you want the audience to take away from the documentary?

Look at this age. Look at what happened here. Seamus Blackley says [in the documentary], “three lives was invented by a person.” That’s something really profound. This is an art form that’s not fully recognized. Yes, people do know it’s an art form now, but they don’t acknowledge who was the da Vinci and Michelangelo. And what is the process of digging something up? What is archaeology? First of all, it’s usually garbage. You go and dig something up and it gives you an appreciation for what actually happened. Not what their garbage was like, but what the people were like and what their accomplishments were. This is not that different.

There’s a story here that we’ve maybe lost track of, and you can apply that to pretty much your whole life. What kind of beautiful, simple thing are you not appreciating that, once you do, makes your life richer? I don’t want to get too high-falutin’ here. …

So it’s not specific to videogames. This philosophy can apply to other stuff as well.

Absolutely. You could do this about film, you could do this about any art form, you could do this about things that are not art forms. When you think about the comment, “three lives was invented by a person”… Brush strokes were invented by a person, 24-frames-per-second was invented by a person. The wheel was invented by a person. It’s fascinating stuff and it makes you realize: “Oh, yeah. I take for granted that there was a time when people didn’t do that.”

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