Halt and Catch Fire Is The Only TV Show That Ever Got Video Games Right

By Gareth Monk on at

If it’s a bit before your time, it’s hard to conceive of just how big an impact games like DOOM and Mario Kart had when they were first released - not in terms of how good they are or copies sold, but the impact on wider cultural consciousness. The video game industry is from one angle a story about the relentless forward march of progress, human drama and vivid personalities; documentaries may try to capture these (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Atari: Game Over), but ultimately there’s only so much you can do with archive footage and interviews. What video games lack are films or television shows like Disaster Artist or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — dramatic works that try to recapture an era, catch lightning in a bottle, and give a sense of just what it was like to live and work on one of these grand undertakings.

Then again, there's Halt and Catch Fire, one of the best television portrayals of every aspect of games. Wrapping in late 2017 with a svelte four seasons to its name, the show follows a core cast of four characters who work within computing during the late 1980s. Over a 10-year period we see these characters navigate the turbulent waters of the fast-moving tech industry, which is portrayed as a purely capitalist entity; a relentless machine that chews through people and innovation. The show treats the industry in its entirety with disdain, judging in the end the human cost to be too great. It is in video games, then, that we see where the show’s true affection lies - and it's the only real field of innovation consistently portrayed as a force for good.

Nowhere is this affection more evident than in MUTINY, the fictional game development company established by Cameron (a young punk programming genius) and Donna (an experienced computer engineer) at the beginning of season two. The company mirrors some of the most significant developments of the time such as network gaming and first-person shooters, and just happens to be led by two women in 1980s America. Many of those we consider pioneers from that time were men: John Romero, Shigeru Miyamto, and Eugene Jarvis to name a few. While placing Cameron and Donna in these positions of power is a more optimistic view of the industry than we’re used to, the show rightly does not paint the past as a technicolour fairytale. Donna and Cameron fight endlessly against the deeply entrenched and widespread sexism that often leads to them having their ideas copied or outright stolen. Halt and Catch Fire recognises the games industry as an ongoing battlefield, one that is still struggling to include diversity and that is still lacking the ideas and perspectives such diversity brings. It’s a lesson the show delivers from place of love; we’re being given a glimpse as to how things might get better but also just how much work there is still left to do.

It’s primarily through Cameron's struggles and her creative drive that Halt and Catch Fire explores both the creative and developmental processes: the crunch, the emotional strife, the joy of creating. Towards the end of the show’s run, Cameron becomes a one-woman development studio in order to create Pilgrim, an immersive puzzle-driven exploration game. Pilgrim is a flop and is pulled before going on sale, yet somehow still finds a dedicated audience amongst a select few. The lovingly constructed in-universe fan site dedicated to Cameron, found here, gives it a lovely touch of tangibility. Rendered in all its adorable Geocities-like wonder, the show treats the site as a time capsule to an age when creators held a far more mythical status. It’s a love for those halcyon days of youth, when we sat down and knew that something like Super Mario World could only have been created by wizards.

Halt and Catch Fire reflects on our attitudes towards failure, and challenges the idea that a game must be perfect in both function and form. Through Cameron’s strife as a developer, and the commercial failure of Pilgrim, it reminds us that actual people are behind the creation of these electronic marvels. They struggle, they develop their talent and abilities, they get better - and they show that very few creators make a perfect game right off the bat. In 2018, when low review scores and negative criticism are seen by some as a cardinal sin, Halt and Catch Fire reminds us that value can still be found in 'failure'. Deadly Premonition wasn’t exactly warmly received upon its release, but it said so much about its creator and was such an unusual delight that I’d never consider its failings as detracting from the magic.

The show homes in on this, the indescribable spark that makes games a unique medium. Nowhere in Halt and Catch Fire are there characters criticising the violence on show in games or calling them a lesser art form as you might see in other shows (I’m looking at you Law and Order episode starring Logan Paul). Throughout the show’s four seasons, Cameron and Gordon (Donna’s husband) are shown bonding over games: a pad-swapping playthrough of Super Mario Bros., LAN games of DOOM, multiplayer tank games created by MUTINY. That games are at the heart of their friendship makes the relationship feel genuine and real; many of us have made lasting friendships through games, even if the game itself is just an excuse to be in the same room together.

All this elevates Halt and Catch Fire above shows that only use games as set dressing to a show explicitly about games. It's a show that understands the people that both make and play them. It’s clear the creators had a huge appreciation for the medium as a whole: where games came from, the exciting places they might go to, and a true love for the fascinating, flawed human beings that have brought us from then to now.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to register www.geocities.com/<3DeadlyPrem.