How the E.T. documentary chronicles the birth of the unsatisfied game consumer

Lightbox and Fuel Entertainment's documentary on the supposed burial of millions of cartridges of ET: The Extra Terrestrial's game adaptation isn't, as the subject matter might suggest, all doom and gloom.

At a SXSW Gaming panel titled "Unearthing the Atari Graveyard: The Search for ET," producer Jonathan Chinn and Fuel CEO Mike Burns explained how the upcoming film, which will launch exclusively on Xbox 360 and Xbox One as part of a documentary series, touches on every aspect of how the game's failure affected the media landscape. It's not just a novel tale of Atari's overproduction of the critically decried cartridge, and the rumored disposal that followed; it's about how game consumers first started to push back against the shadier business practices of the era.

"Some say, because they only had six weeks [to develop the game], that it was a masterpiece, and maybe that's true," Chinn said, responding to a question from the audience. "To answer your question specifically, did they know it was a piece of shit — I think the people who understood gaming did. We've spoken to some of those people, the people who were really gamers in Atari knew. I think the suits were a bit more for, 'People will buy what you sell them.'

"That's why the story's interesting," Chinn added. "This is a story about a community, a nascent, growing gaming community who said, 'F you, we're not going to buy a shit product.' And that's why I think the story's important, because I think one of the implications felt like they could maybe pull the wool over the gaming community's eyes, and they learned that they couldn't. Maybe that's part of why Atari didn't succeed; they lost touch of their gaming roots a little bit because of some corporate stuff."

The results of the game's financial failure were cataclysmic, contributing in some small part to the industry's wholesale crash in 1983. But Chinn sees the consumer retribution against the ET and its creators as a win for those who refused to accept the status quo that the licensed game represented.

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"I've been trying to answer the question of why people might like this story," Chinn told Polygon in an interview. "And I think one of the reasons is because it represents a sort of general public vs. corporation, and the general public, the consumers can win. I think in our society, we feel like we don't have power as consumers, and I think that the fact that only one-fifth of the ET products got sold, seeing the company that made them bury them in shame is kind of a victory for the consumer.

"I think that's why the legend has grown and gone on; maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously, it is sort of the beginning of the gaming community saying, 'We're not going to buy it just because it was a successful movie, we have other needs than just buying into a franchise for the sake of it.' Let's face it, that's a struggle that's still going on in entertainment today."

The story of ET's video game adaptation is fascinating for numerous reasons, which is why it's found its way into the very mythos of this industry. The 3-4 million cartridges are supposedly buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the town which houses of one of the earliest nuclear bomb test sites in the United States. It's a two-hour drive from Roswell, a town that has its own extraterrestrial lore around it. Alamogordo's landfill is the burial site of Ham, the first chimpanzee sent to space — who was buried there in 1983, the same year that the ET cartridges were supposedly dumped, too.

"I think that finding the cartridges is almost like gravy."

The film's creators were well aware of the oddities surrounding the story; but the stories they heard once their film entered production far surpassed them in terms of strangeness. One story that Chinn shared spun off of a classic tale surrounding the burial, in which hordes of Alamogordo children came to the burial site during the first night of the dump in search of Atari cartridges, causing the town to worry that the spectacle was putting their young people in danger.

"They went into an emergency city council session, and passed an ordinance that, from that point on, forbade anyone from out of state from bringing any products to dumped on New Mexico property. In other words, all this stuff came from El Paso, Texas, so they passed an emergency ordinance forbidding it from happening again, and in this case requiring security and all that stuff.

"The ordinance number? 666."

It's just one of many tales surrounding the burial that plays out, maybe appropriately, like a ghost story. But the central point of the film — what, if anything, is buried in Alamogordo — is yet unanswered, as excavation isn't expected to kick off for another month or so.

Even if they come up empty, the film's creators are optimistic that the folklore of ET's calamitous video game adaptation will be more than enough to hinge a movie upon.

"I just think there's so many incredible stories, with or without finding the cartridges," Burns said. "I think that finding the cartridges is almost like gravy. Just the cherry on top."

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