‘Man Vs. Snake’ Is the Documentary Every Video-Game Lover Should See
Everyone wants to believe they’re special. When I was in second grade, I was a multiplication table genius. A gift for rote memorization and an intense competitive streak turned me into the Michael Jordan of Math Class Around the World. Almost 30 years later, I still remember playing and winning, probably because that was the last time in my life I really felt truly superior to everyone around me.
That hunger to be the best lies at the heart of most human endeavors, including the superb new documentary Man Vs. Snake, which is about an obscure video game and the men who try to conquer it. The game is called Nibbler, a 1982 arcade cabinet where players assume the role of a snake winding its way through a maze. The object is to collect all the dots in the maze before time runs out, a quest made more difficult by the fact that each time you eat a dot, your snake grows in size. If the player eats all the dots, they move on to the next level; if the player’s snake eats its own tail, they die.
Like the ouroboros that symbolizes perpetual renewal and cycles of death and rebirth, the Nibbler snake has been the subject of a endless competition for more than 30 years. Though never more than a footnote in the history of arcade gaming, Nibbler was notable for the fact that it was the first video game with a nine-digit score, meaning it was also the first video game to make it possible for a player to achieve 1 billion points. 16-year-old Tim McVey of Ottumwa, Iowa (not to be confused with the similarly named domestic terrorist) became the first person to cross that threshold in 1984. For many years, McVey was considered the undisputed Nibbler champion. But in the mid-2000s, a new high-score emerges, from Italy of all places, sending the now middle-aged McVey on a journey to recapture his record.
It will not be easy. As documented with impressive thoroughness and good humor by filmmakers Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir, scoring 1 billion points on Nibbler requires a Herculean amount of mental and physical stamina. The game proceeds with grueling deliberation; achieving a top score, even under optimal conditions, means playing for upwards of 40 hours straight. The human body was simply not meant to operate under such conditions; one Nibbler contender talks about spending so long in front of his cabinet that he actually began to hallucinate. Marathon Nibbling takes a pursuit invented to occupy men and women desperate to avoid physical exertion and turns it into a kind of extreme athletics — albeit a kind of extreme athletics practiced while sitting on a bar stool downing energy drinks.
Fans of the outstanding 2007 video-game documentary The King of Kong will recognize Man Vs. Snake’s milieu, and the same fundamental arc of an ordinary joe trying to prove his worth by conquering a seemingly unbeatable gaming record. They’ll also recognize a few of the supporting characters; King of Kong’s arch-villain and hot-sauce empresario Billy Mitchell is a longtime friend of McVey’s and a talking head in MvS, as is Twin Galaxies Arcade owner and gaming record official Walter Day. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot a King of Kong poster hanging on the wall of McVey’s home, just behind his Nibbler cabinet.
But while Man Vs. Snake owes a certain thematic debt to The King of Kong, it is its own film, one whose universal appeal should go beyond the ranks of video-game lovers to anyone who understands that primal need for greatness. Kinzy and Seklir make impressive use of animation to turn potentially boring interviews into lively cartoon flashbacks. And their film spans some seven years in the lives of McVey and his colleagues; the making of Man Vs. Snake was as much of a marathon as its subjects’ pursuit of 1 billion points. It would be wrong to spoil the result of McVey’s adventure, but the movie’s ending and epilogue are both wonderful. Feeling special is important. But sometimes being a valued and respected member of a community is even better.