Doc Series 'Outerlands' Aims To Chronicle Video Game Culture

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

"It's still really hard to sell people on the idea that video games are more than just a toy and a pastime," Matt Chandronait said to me from across the table of a Santa Monica cafe, "but that they are actually a culture."

Chandronait (@talkingorange), who works in San Francisco as part of the game industry focused video production company Area 5, was in Los Angeles last week to promote his group's newest project: a documentary series called Outerlands. The project launched a fundraising cycle on Kickstarter on Janurary 16th.

Area 5 wants to tell the hidden stories of video game culture, overleaping (IS THAT A WORD?) the business and consumer review-focused game coverage and landing on a formula that draws inspiration from public media programs like This American Life and Radiolab.

The pitch video for the series focuses on the theme of one of the proposed episodes: the preservation of video games. Prominently featured are Shawn & Meg Livernoche, members of the preservation movement who own the "arcade museum" High Scores in Alameda, California. According to Chandronait, the "museum" label isn't a misnomer.

"They consider themselves archivists and they consider themselves a museum. So their machines are in top notch condition, just like a museum should be," said Chandronait. "But they have a really great philosophy in that yes, they are a museum, but you can't preserve an arcade unless you preserve the ability to play video games in an arcade. It's sort of like putting an arcade and all your machines behind glass completely defeats the purpose of preserving an arcade in their mind."

For readers who are familiar with the practice of running classic arcade games in emulators, or buying ports of those games on mobile devices and consoles, the idea of preserving the arcade experience might seem pointless. What's missing from emulated versions of the games, however, is part of the artistic intent. That's because the early arcade games were meant to be played on Cathode Ray Tube monitors, which render images in entirely different ways than modern monitors.

"The artists understood these technical limitations and they designed for them," said Chandronait. "When you look at a classic game--like Robotron--and you see it on an LCD TV through an emulator, you're not seeing the art the way the artist knew it would be portrayed on a screen. It's like you're taking an oil painting and reproducing it in watercolor and trying to say it looks the same."

Chandronait points out that CRTs are now a finite resource, as they are no longer being manufactured. That issue, he believes, could make up a whole episode of Outerlands.

The members of Area 5 have a long history of telling stories in the video game industry.

The team got their start as the video production team behind The 1Up Show during the heyday of the Ziff Davis-owned Each weekly episode was around 45 minutes long. When 1Up was sold, Area 5 produced a similar program, Co-Op, for the Bay Area based Revision3 network.

They now make their bread-and-butter money creating long form videos for game publishers on properties like The Last of Us and Street Fighter. The team's work gets included in the "extras" of the games themselves, in the manner of behind-the-scenes featurettes on DVDs. While the team has managed to stick together, the nature of client-based media work means that they've never had a big enough war chest to pull off their dream project.

"We always hoped that we could bring in enough money to just be able to do something like Outerlands our of pocket Just like fund it and have it done. Not even have to go and ask anybody to back a Kickstarter. That would have been an ideal situation for us. But I think that now that we went ahead with the Kickstarter I think that was a mistake to think that way."

Chandronait points to the outpouring of support the project saw in it's first week. He now believes Kickstarter isn't just a way to raise money, but a way of connecting with the audience for work that traditional media outlets have a hard time reaching.

"There's like what? Seven to eight billion people in the world? Four hundred million in this country alone? There's at least three or four thousand people out there that want to see something like Outerlands made. All we have to do is find those people."

Chandronait told me that he's confident that Area 5 will reach its initial goal for Outerlands, but that he worries about the stretch goals. These are the funding levels beyond "get the thing made" that represent an opportunity to bring a higher level of production value to the project. An original soundtrack is one stretch goal, another is funds to bring more producers on board.

"We have the freelancer stretch goal so that we can pay segment producers what they are actually worth to go out there and help us find and build stories. Again, that's another This American Life or RadioLab model where they have segment producers who are freelancers that go out and find stories for them. We want Outerlands to be an outlet for those stories that don't get told anywhere else."

With Outerlands taking the form of a series and not a feature-length documentary, I asked Chandronait why the team went with the "all or nothing" Kickstarter, as opposed to using the flexible funding model offered by IndieGoGo. After all, two-time Kickstarter success Freddie Wong launched his third project on the more forgiving IndieGoGo.

"This is an 'all or nothing' project," said Chandronait. "Our vision for it is either going to be what it is, or it's not going to be. We know what we want to make, and we don't want to make anything short of that."

Outerlands: Season One is funding through February 15th, 2014.

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