Ecstasy of Order has an unlikely documentary topic: some people love a videogame so much that it’s an important part of their life. EoO is a cool piece about a 1980′s phenomenon – Tetris, the Russian-made game that’s fun, relentless, and compelling.
For anyone who can’t recall the last 25 years: Tetris is like solitaire, but with quick reflexes and even faster thinking. 5 shapes fall from above in a randomized sequence; you must guide the shapes to the bottom. To score points, place the shapes so they complete one horizontal row. As levels progress, the building blocks fall more quickly.
Tetris was released in arcades to great acclaim, then on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, where it was a big hit. This video game was what Sudoku is.
This film does a great job of presenting its subject, showing why it appeals to a range of people. EoO gives a good amount of time to several players, letting them say what drew them in to the game and then to the tournament. Hell, the woman with the 4th highest score learns a lot about the game by talking to her competitors; they can’t believe she did so well without knowing any advanced strategies.
But Ecstasy of Order is smart to give a little extra time to the player with the best story. Thor Aackerlund, who’s the “Bobby Fisher” of this game: 2 decades ago, at 14, the boy mastered Tetris at the Nintendo World Championships. That story alone might be interesting enough, but we also learn that Thor got so much attention, so young, and this combined with personal tragedies to make him just disappear. A part of this documentary looks into the grown-up man who’s lived in the wake of youthful trauma. All of the interviewees are compelling, like Dana, Ben, and Harry, but Thor stands out.
Just a little attention is given to the quirks that incline people towards intense gaming. Several players admit they have OCD, while others state that they’re not very socially-developed. The makers of Ecstasy of Order use straight-forward Q&A, as well as smaller personal moments, to give you a real sense of its topic, as well as the real people behind it.
I was very impressed by the quality of the camerawork – which can get a bit rough, but is clearly very professional. I was also surprised by the doc’s mix of thoroughness and focus. The director breezes right through the story of Tetris’ creator, but they give us a good look at its players.
If I have any big complaint, I would say that the classic song from the game should be used much, much more often. It’s a fun, catchy tune that pulls me right back to my youth, but you only hear it on occasion (and muted, at that). And I don’t know if the narrator should read the text aloud at the film’s start; it’s awkward since it’s already up on screen.
I didn’t expect to be engaged by a documentary about a video game. At most, I thought it might be interesting because it’s about this specific game. Ecstasy of Order impressed me a lot, surprising me with its personal focus and smart presentation. Ecstasy is about a quest for excellence in a past-time that is very intellectual, while being physical enough to require quick reflexes.
Through smart interviews, well-done infographics and fx, the audience has little choice but to be pulled in to the world of the rare people who excel at a game that I love, but suck at. This doc has tight editing, which helps progress the story neatly. I also enjoyed the retro soundtrack, all synths like a John Carpenter flick. I stumbled into a documentary that makes Tetris a somehow-competitive venture that draws the dedication of intelligent people. And I enjoyed every minute of it.
I strongly recommend you check out EoO. It’s available on ITunes, and I’ll look for more online purchase options, which I’ll update later tonight.