Netflix’s ‘High Score’ Spotlights Classic Video Games in a New Way

Katie Elsaesser
TV Games
TV Games Streaming Animation Netflix

Debuting on Netflix this week, Melissa Wood and France Costrel’s documentary series High Score is likely to be your newest obsession. The series follows the genesis of video games and the developers that brought them to popularity, but this is no ordinary, humdrum docu-series.

Accentuated by entertaining, animated reenactments, evoking the style of classic games, High Score brings the joy of gaming to life throughout the series. The show follows not only the production side of video games but also the gamers that made a name for themselves by playing those iconic early titles. It digs into stories from all sides of gaming, and you can check out an exclusive clip from the series above to see the path artist Yoshitaka Amano ‘s work took as he played a key role in developing the original Final Fantasy game.

High Score sheds light on all the classic video game stories – The production and failure of the ET Atari game, the Universal vs. Nintendo Donkey Kong lawsuit, and the incredible inception of Doom. But they do not stop there.

Fandom spoke to Executive Producers Wood and Costrel to learn more about how they approached their docu-series in a way that would be entertaining even for those already familiar with some of these stories.

Meet the Makers

France Costrel, Director and Executive Producer of High Score, had previously worked for the company Great Big Story, producing and showrunning digital content, which included 8 Bit Legacy: The Curious History of Video Games, an Emmy-nominated web series about the curious untold history of video games. During her time creating 8 Bit Legacy, she realized that these short stories had the potential to be something much bigger, which led to the idea for High Score. 

As Costrel put it, “There are no shortage of stories to tell when it comes to video games and the people behind them. So we put together a pitch deck, and eventually it was something Netflix was interested in.” Costrel and Wood had previously collaborated on the Showtime series Dark Net, where they’d formed a great working dynamic, and as soon as High Score was greenlit, Costrel knew exactly who to call to help her with the project.

Copyright image from Netflix's High Score
Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado and his Magic Hat

Melissa Wood worked alongside Costrel as Executive Producer and showrunner for High Score, telling Fandom she was, “overseeing the day to day creative, and the whole shebang to make sure that we were making the strongest series that we could.” Wood’s main goal was to tell the best story,  “in a way that was visually interesting and compelling and with high journalistic standards.”

A Unique Documentary Approach

High Score is far from a plodding historical account of video games. “I really wanted it to be extremely fun and dynamic and not like this slow, historical documentary,” explained Costrel. Both Costrel and Wood wanted the documentary to be colorful and just as engaging as the games themselves. Admittedly they had a ton to work with. And in some cases, almost a little too much to work with.

One of the most engaging elements of the series is the use of animation for reenactments. Both filmmakers admitted that the task was a bit of an undertaking but give quite a bit of praise to their design team.

Costrel explained, “Philip Robibero is one of the art directors on the series. And he has worked with me on 8 Bit Legacy, and he’s really into video games as well. So it was about finding a way to incorporate some of this video game aesthetic into his animation, while making sure that this animation and their own little mini stories had some cinematic angles, and that they cut so well with the footage and really belong to the series. And not thinking like, oh this is just wallpaper.”

Copyrighted image from Netflix series High Score
The Lawson family plays with the Channel F console, which the late Jerry Lawson helped create

There were an overabundance of stories to tell, but not necessarily the archival footage available at their disposal. For instance, Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, the late engineer who pioneered the first home video game system in the 1970s, had passed away in 2011, but his was a story that still needed to be told. So Wood and Costrel set out to recreate scenes through animation and reenactments.

Said Wood, “If we weren’t able to film with that person, for instance, with Jerry Lawson, we still went for the story. And it just kind of felt like, well, we’ll find another way to tell it, either through animation or through a recreation… And so it fell to our animation department to sort of figure that out. We asked a lot of them for sure. But they really brought another level to the work. “

It was important to get the animation right, and at one point Wood even wondered if doing a fully animated documentary was possible. But after talking to her team she realized that would be an incredibly time-consuming endeavor, and the team realized they may have bitten off more than they could chew. In a rush to make sure deadlines were met, Wood even had to step in to help with coloring the animation in post-production.

Copyright image from Netflix's High Score
An animated recreation of how the first Madden game was developed

Phil Robibero, Joel Plosz, and Chris Fequiere all worked tirelessly to make the animation come to life, with impressive results. The team had accomplished a herculean effort with unique animations that encapsulate the excitement of their stories.  “We wanted to tell the best stories we could, whether we would be able to build something for it or not,” Wood noted.

An Emphasis on Rule Breakers

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Sega had a battle plan.

One of the running themes of High Score is about the many people that broke the rules in order to advance gaming. One episode covers the bold marketing strategy to make Sega as big (if not more so) as Nintendo, while another covers how a group of college students hacked arcade games to make them more difficult, and turn a profit for themselves in the process. Melissa Wood noted that this was the wild west for gaming, and there were no set rules in place.

“These developers were driven by their passion and their creativity. And I think that the kind of person who is interested in games and technology and creating something who’s driven by that creativity is not going to follow rules, anyway. It’s what’s so interesting about these stories, what we try to capture is that these are intensely creative people who are these innovators who were driven by their passion and not not by money or by history, or industry.”

As the 1980s progressed and developed into the video game craze of the 1990s, developers were finding newer ways to take risks. One of the best episodes is the fifth, entitled “Fight,” where Wood and Costrel cover the genesis of graphic violence in video games. The story is fascinating and covers the insanely overblown outrage over the interactive game Night Trap, which gained a lot of media coverage as it became the hilariously misplaced poster boy for violence in video games.

A Second Player Has
Entered the Game

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Video game developer Richard Garriott: A Dungeon Master, and man of many hats.

High Score not only covers the fascinating people behind the games, but also the players who enjoy them. Each episode features a world champion or a deep enthusiast for one of the games featured. This, along with the animation, are truly what set this documentary apart from the rest. The filmmakers invite the audience in, knowing that those who make the game aren’t the only ones to be glorified. Costrel described the decision as a move to include all aspects of gaming.

“We really wanted it to humanize video games and show that there were so many people involved in making them what they are today. And that was also not just the people and their creation, but the people who make the video games come alive as a player, so that’s why I decided to involve the voice of the players as well. And that was also a great way to dive into that nostalgia, and see them competing back then… As much as I love producing TV, and this is my passion, the viewers are more passive looking at it. But with video games, you’re intrinsically engaged in it and there’s a unique connection. And nowadays, we all have the internet and, you know, the computer in our pocket, but back then creating connections like this was so different, and that’s why I love interviewing.”

Melissa Wood and France Costrel’s docu-series High Score is available on Netflix starting Wednesday, August 19th. This series should not be missed, and if there was only one gripe to be had, it’s that there could easily be more episodes. Hopefully, a Part 2 is in the future, but for now, the initial six episodes are here to enjoy.

Katie Elsaesser
Katie is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Will do almost anything for pizza. Almost.