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If you heard arcade sound effects while taking the Universal Studios backlot tour in the early ’80s, that might have been Steven Spielberg unknowingly preparing himself to direct the ultimate love letter to video games more than 35 years later.
“This is a serious filmmaker here working in the office,” Spielberg joked in 1982, quickly turning back to the Donkey Kong arcade game in front of him and narrating the rest of his level. “Well, the gorilla took the lady, broke my heart, and went up into the sky.” ET was paying a visit to the 35-year-old director’s office just as he was coming off the success of the previous year’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and working in post-production on two other now-classic films -- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist -- butSpielberg’s attention was fully focused on the game at hand.
So, what was so captivating that it distracted him from the cameras in his office? Instant satisfaction that delivers in a way filmmaking can’t, Spielberg explained. “It’s a quick thrill. It takes me a year to have a quick thrill with a movie.”
Typically, making movies can be a long, exhaustive process, something Spielberg discovered doesn’t pay off until the project is completely finished. “I peak a lot during the year and I have a couple highs, but essentially it's only when the movie is done that you're able to look at it and say, ‘Finally. It's over. I'm satisfied,’” he said.
“With a video game, I can play Tempest, and in 10 minutes I can probably feel totally like I've accomplished something today when in fact I haven't,” Spielberg continued. “All the machine does is essentially massage my ego and say, 'Gee, you've got a good reaction time. You can beat me. Now try again on the next level.’”
An ardent gamer, Spielberg’s passion for the genre was made widely known over a decade ago, when he partnered with Electronic Arts to develop a series of original video games. Yet, one only had to look around the young filmmaker’s office, which featured a full-sized arcade cabinet for Donkey Kong -- a gaming franchise that was only introduced in 1981 -- some 20 years earlier to know just how much they meant to him. Speaking to theL.A. Times last year, Ready Player One author Ernest Cline encapsulated Spielberg’s proclivity for video games during this era in a single anecdote.
“[Spielberg] used to have a little arcade at Amblin back in the ‘80s, and he was obsessed with breaking a million points on Missile Command,” said Cline. Did he ever succeed? Yes, but only after his preoccupation led him to hook the arcade cabinet up to generators while filming on location for E.T.
In late 1982, an Atari video game based on E.T. was green-lit, designed and released all within the span of a five weeks. Before it hit shelves, an Atari executive told Entertainment Tonight there was a chance its popularity might even surpass their bestselling game at that time, Pac-Man. That is not what transpired. Instead, it vastly underperformed in sales, and the release coincided with Atari’s eventual collapse as a company, along with a sharp decline in the video game industry overall. Years later, boxes of unsold cartridges would be discovered in a New Mexico landfill. The documentary Atari: Game Over -- directed by Ready Player One co-screenwriter Zak Penn -- goes on to tell the full story behind the popular video game and argues that the E.T. game was unjustly blamed at the time for Atari’s downfall.
By the ‘90s, Spielberg’s love of gaming turned into a business opportunity when one of his ideas served as the inspiration for The Dig, a 1995 point-and-click adventure developed by LucasArts. Around the turn of the millennium, he initiated development of Medal of Honor, a WWII-era first person shooter. That game spawned a popular franchise and helped establish a genre that gave way to the juggernaut that is Call of Duty (fun fact: Medal of Honor was scored by Michael Giacchino, future go-to composer for Spielberg protege J.J Abrams.) His collaboration with EA included the production of Boom Blox for Nintendo Wii, which became a modest hit with critics upon its release in 2008. Not too long ago, it seemed like a match made in heaven when Microsoft announced that Spielberg was helping develop a TV adaptation of Halo for Showtime. While updates on the production have been few and far between since that announcement in 2013, the network confirmed in January that it’s “still in very active development.”
Now, perhaps bringing both filmmaking and video games together for the first time for Spielberg is Ready Player One. In the year 2045, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time within the OASIS, a massive VR universe. Its designer, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), unleashes a Willy Wonka-like treasure hunt within the 3-D world upon his death, with the winner gaining complete control over the OASIS. Watts teams up with fellow gamers and ’80s pop culture devotees (played by Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe) to snare this grand prize. The stakes are high as they’re also up against a corporation and its CEO (Ben Mendelsohn), who wishes to exploit the virtual landscape.
Not only is Cline’s book a tribute to gamers and video game history, it’s also a hodgepodge of nods and references to Spielberg’s work. Not wanting to get the high score in cinematic self-reflexivity, the director only ended up putting a handful of these artifacts into the film; Watts drives the time machine DeLorean from Back to the Future, while in the movie’s trailer we also catch a familiar glimpse of the flare-obsessed T. rex from Jurassic Park.
Within the big screen pop culture mosaic, Spielberg has also created a Halliday-esque challenge of his own. The director told ET ahead of the Ready Player One release that he’s inserted about a half-dozen “personal favorite” Easter eggs into the film. But don’t bother asking him where to look. As both an O.G. gamer and world-class filmmaker, Spielberg wanted Ready Player One to be about more than the quick thrills he knows all too well. He explained, “You have to find them, because if I give them to you, you will go right there immediately, and you’ll forget to watch the movie.”