'The King of Kong' Worked Because It Had a Compelling Villain

'The King of Kong' is as much a map of power as it is a game about competitive Donkey Kong.
July 21, 2017, 10:37pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

"If I have all this good fortune, if everything's rolling my way, if all these balls have bounced in my favor, there's some poor bastard out there who's getting the screws put to him." That's Billy Mitchell in the documentary The King of Kong. He's explaining where he came from, how he's become so successful as a businessman, and I'm absolutely entranced by it.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters released in 2007, and I don't hear much about it these days, ten years later. I once had it pitched to me as a glimpse into a very strange a particular part of the gaming world, as something that you just couldn't get through other media. For a time, it was unique and strange.

Now we have Indie Game: The Movie or the various Double Fine documentaries or Game Loading: Rise of the Indies. These are straight-up documentaries in a very contemporary style that bleed out all the narrative building for showing you what happened. They are trying their hardest to appear to be documents rather than films, to tell you about something amazing that you wouldn't have had access to before. I think we might be poorer for it.

The King of Kong is sliced together in such a way that you have two sides, good and bad: Steve Wiebe, the downtrodded victim of personal failure over and over again, and Billy Mitchell, an established Donkey Kong player with the highest score and also a hot sauce magnate. The little guy versus the establishment. The authentic human versus the slick, smooth-talking devil with laughing eyes. Steve Wiebe's biography in the film is edited to The Cure's "Pictures of You." We're supposed to be on his side.

The real brilliance in King is that we always have Mitchell to run up against. Steve Wiebe submits a score, and Mitchell is standing in the way. We learn that Billy Mitchell has a "master plan" around his Donkey Kong score. We're told, in hushed tones by his greatest enemy, that Mitchell has done things that have spun others off the rails before. He's tanked careers. He's the lead conspirator. If we delved deep enough, we'd probably find out that he's behind the Iron Crisis.

From Mitchell's perspective in the film, this is all just the way things work. "There's a level of difference between people," he says in his gravest and most serious voice, "and it translates into some games." But what the documentary puts forth is that this world isn't some libertarian fantasy of pure difference and rational actors. Instead, it's a world of structures that compete for power. More than that, the institution from which Mitchell draws his power, the Twin Galaxies arcade and score-keeping entity, is biased against some players and score makers.

The King of Kong can only get here by having clear heroes and villains. There is no ambiguous structure here in the way that you see "blockbuster" games in a generic sense are thrown up against the unalloyed creative good of independent game creators in some of the films I mentioned above. There are people, and those people stand in the way of a kind of justice being done. The world turns, and there are people with power, and there are people without it.

"He's a very devious person. He works things out to his ends very well," the elderly Q*bert player tells us. A member of the Greatest Generation is explaining to us that Billy Mitchell might not be the best person, and we have to take it seriously. These people took Europe. They can ascertain the goodness of Billy Mitchell.

Look, I'm refreshed by this decade-old documentary. I'm refreshed by the fact that it doesn't attempt to portray abstract forces via abstraction. There isn't someone outside this universe of the film that is pressing in on the characters in a particular way. We watch Billy Mitchell's scratchy, warping VHS tape intercut with his conversation with the owner of Twin Galaxies, and intercut with that is the head referee talking about how the score keeper must have integrity about anything else.

This isn't an accident. This isn't just a confluence of good footage. It's director Seth Gordon making sure that we understand the hypocrisy at play. He's showing us, through three different people and footage of the tape playing, how structures warp to exclude and include participants. We are watching manipulation occur, and we're being manipulated so that we can better see that manipulation.

We're meant to hate him, and even knowing the intended effect, it's hard not to at the end of the film's runtime.

"Well maybe they'd like it if I lose. I should try losing sometime." That's Mitchell at the climax of the film, the kind of practiced throwaway line that he's definitely been saying for the past 20 years. For those last few minutes of the film, we see him as this flailing manipulator. We never see him as a fallible human. Crucially, he's not the hero of his own story. He's the roadblock to others finding their success. He's a pit trap along the road to success. We're meant to hate him, and even knowing the intended effect, it's hard not to at the end of the film's runtime.

The King of Kong is as much a map of power as it is a game about competitive Donkey Kong. I think we need more of these kinds of maps, told forcefully and with a clear and direct perspective. We need documentaries about games that you can get behind, that give you an ethics, instead of ones that gesture at some dotted historical pattern of waxing and waning success through some very small lenses. Give me more King of Kongs, I beg you, please.

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