Even obscure stories can be relatable. Just take a niche subject, add a dollop of genuine human interest or conflict or nostalgia, and voila! — you’ll find that people care about stuff they wouldn’t normally give a passing glance to. Take “Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler,” a new documentary released by Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy that was funded by more than $60,000 from Kickstarter.
“Man vs Snake,” which you can rent on a bunch of video platforms for $3.99, is billed by its filmmakers as “somewhat of a spiritual successor” to the 2007 film “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” a great documentary that dealt with the race to break the world record for the legendary arcade game “Donkey Kong.” In fact, it shares some of the same characters — the slick, record-setting arcade veteran Billy Mitchell, for one, and the self-appointed “world’s video game referee” Walter Day.
Think of “Man vs Snake” as a nichier version of “King of Kong.” It features an everyman protagonist, a quiet, heavyset 40-something from the Midwest named Tim McVey — and a game that has been mostly forgotten. Back in the 1980s, when he was a teenager, McVey set a world record for “Nibbler,” a Pac-Man-esque game in which the player guides a snake that grows longer and longer through a maze, introducing the challenge of the snake avoiding its own tail. He became the first player ever to record a verified score of more than 1 billion points (“Nibbler” is a cousin of the mazeless “Snake,” which is much more well-known). It’s a feat that involves a marathon session with the game — something like 30 or 40 hours.
When we meet McVey, he’s living a quiet life with his wife in Iowa, the “Nibbler” record a glowing moment from his distant past. Then he finds out that an Italian named Enrico Zanetti may have broken his record shortly after he set it; news accounts of the Italian’s achievement never reached the United States at the time. Day decides — perhaps conveniently given that McVey had his record-breaking run at his arcade and the two are buddies — that there isn’t enough documentation to make Zanetti’s record “official,” but the possibility that someone may have surpassed him casts a shadow over McVey’s moment of glory.
The controversy rekindles McVey’s interest in the game and fuels his desire to set a new world record that no one can question; he’s also prodded by the appearance of Dwayne Richard, a Canadian gaming bad boy (when we meet him, we find out about a violent run-in he had with the police, some of which was caught on camera), who also expresses interest in breaking the record. McVey quickly finds out that playing a video game for a day and a half straight is harder in your 40s than in your teens, and the film tracks his attempts to recapture his record run.
Except “Man vs Snake” isn’t all that plot-driven. It’s the characters who steal the show. McVey comes across as a lovable schlub, and the contrast between him and more colorful characters like Richard, Mitchell, and Day (who also has an interesting back story) helps keep things entertaining.
Mostly, though, the film works because it deals with themes anyone can relate to. We all have moments from our past we’d love to relive — or those whose shadow we can’t escape. We all have our obsessions. We all have trouble accepting what it means to slow down as we age. We all wonder what would happen if we really pushed ourselves. I know a lot of these themes sound like cliches, but the film handles them skillfully.
“Man vs Snake” isn’t perfect and some moments don’t register, but mostly it’s quite well done. Like the best mass-market video games, it’s the sort of nerdy fare even non-nerds will consume with relish.