Remember the Video Game 'Nibbler'? It's Now the Subject of a Documentary

Man vs Snake The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler Screenshot H 2016
Screenshot/FilmBuff Movies/YouTube

When it comes world records, holding the mark for highest score on the vintage videogame Nibbler, which was first released in 1982, is a relatively obscure achievement.

But that didn't stop Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy from creating the indie documentary Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, wherein recounting how one man first established the Nibbler high-score record and then after arguably losing it, sought to reclaim it, they found themselves telling a classic underdog story, albeit one set in the world of videogames.

Named best documentary film at Fantastic Fest 2015 and Calgary Underground Film Festival 2016, Man vs. Snake will be released Friday on demand platforms, including iTunes, Steam, Google Play, XBox, Playstation, Amazon and Vudu, as well as in select theater showings across the U.S. by indie film and documentary distributor FilmBuff.

The movie's inspiration, though, dates back at least a decade when Seklir and Kinzy, who are both editors, were working on the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. Back then, they'd often take breaks for some friendly videogame competition.  “As a way to blow off steam from late-night editing sessions, we’d play games,” Seklir recalls.

That’s when they came across Nibbler, an arcade game in which the player guides a snake through a maze. And they also learned about Tim McVey, a game enthusiast from a small town in Iowa who became the subject of their film.

As a teenager in 1984, McVey became the first person to score one billion points on a video game, after 44 hours of continuous play on Nibbler. Twenty-five years later, rumors of a higher score surfaced online, attributed to Italian kickboxing champion Enrico ZanettiMcVey decided to end the debate by setting a new world record — even though that involved overcoming physical and psychological exhaustion and new challenges from younger players from the world of competitive gaming.

“We thought it would make a great documentary, this underdog trying to recapture the glory of his youth, and by adding his very human story. I thought viewers would enjoy the universal themes,” says Seklir, who, along with Kinzy, directed, edited and produced the doc. “Nobody could verify [Zanetti’s claim of the record score] but it bothered Tim and he wanted to go for another record. But now he was 40 years old. We didn’t know what the outcome would be — we were chasing a story.”

Seklir (who currently is working on HBO's Westworld) and Kinzy (whose recent work has included the medical drama Heartbeat) trusted that there would be drama in McVey's comeback attempt, and that they could bring the story together in the editing room.  “We thought, if we can get the footage, we can edit it,” Seklir says, adding, “you would think the editing would have been the easiest part, but it was hard to step back since we were so close to it.”

In the end, the 92-minute doc was edited from roughly 500 hours of material, including coverage of McVey’s attempts to establish records.

Having shot so much footage, Seklir and Kinzy took time off from their day jobs in 2013 to concentrate on the film, mapping out a Kickstarter campaign that raised $60,000 that, in addition to their own money, allowed them to complete the film. 

In addition to footage of the record attempts and interviews with McVey and others in the world of competitive gaming, the filmmakers commissioned some effective videogame-style animation to help tell the story. “We though animation would be a great way to bring to life things we couldn’t show on film,” Seklir says. “It could help viewers follow the story, and it added charm.”

Seklir admits that McVey was very shy at first. “He’s not used to being on camera, and he wasn’t seeking fame. We came to him out of nowhere after 25 years.”

Asked for his take-away from the project, Seklir — who admits that his own personal high score on Nibbler is roughly 125,000 — responds, “I hope this says, ‘Stay true to your goals, don’t give up.’”