Chattanooga Now Documentary 'Man vs. Snake' explores quest for gaming immortality

Chattanooga Now Documentary 'Man vs. Snake' explores quest for gaming immortality

June 23rd, 2016 by Hayden Seay in Chattnow Movies

Tim McVey, the first person to score more than 1 billion points on an arcade game, is the subject of "Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler," to be shown this weekend at Cine-Rama.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

If you go

› What: Screenings of “Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler.”

› When: 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Friday, June 24-Sunday, June 26.

› Where: Cine-Rama, 100 W. Main St.

› Admission: $10.

› Website: thecinerama.org.

In video gaming circles, Tim McVey is a legend.

"Back in January of 1984, at Twin Galaxies of Ottumwa, Iowa, I was the first person to ever score a billion points on an arcade machine using a single quarter," says McVey, an Ottumwa native.

In the early afternoon of Jan. 15, 1984, McVey fired up Nibbler, the first arcade game with a nine-digit score counter, and rolled a single quarter into the machine's slot. Forty-four hours later, on the morning of Jan. 17, the game ended, with McVey racking up 1,000,042,270 points, according to official records.

Twin Galaxies was the nexus of video gaming at the time, and players from around the country traveled to the arcade to attempt to set records.

Some of those stories, including McVey's, are told in a documentary, "Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler," to be shown at Cine-Rama this weekend.

The objective of the game is simple: Guide a snake through a maze filled with orbs without ever biting itself. The difficulty lies in the game's fast pace and, as players clear the maze, the snake lengthens, making it easier to fail.

McVey's path toward gaming immortality was fraught with a series of setbacks, including arcade employees turning off the breaker to the machine and a high school rival who walked up, watched for a moment and unplugged the machine.

"The first time I got the billion, I tried seven times," he says.

After the record was set, Ottumwa's then-Mayor Jerry Parker created Tim McVey Day and gave him a key to the city.

Shortly after that record-breaking score, the arcade scene crashed, McVey remembers.

"Arcades started closing shop and going away; machines got too expensive," he says. "There was no internet, no arcade."

Gamers were still out there, trying to defeat McVey's score, but Twin Galaxies no longer recorded scores. When Nibbler was reborn as a web-based game that listed classic and new scores, McVey discovered that his score was no longer No. 1. He had been beaten by Italian Enrico Zanetti nine months after he originally set the record, except the score was never verified.

Although Twin Galaxies' website currently lists McVey as the top player, two players reportedly have scored higher, but they never submitted evidence for verification. During Christmas 2011, McVey revisited Nibbler and set a new record of 1,041,767,060, which is still the highest score for the game on Twin Galaxies' site. His new score was verified on Jan. 10, 2012. He still holds the Guinness World Record, since no other gamers have gone through the verification process.

"In my mind, I'm No. 3 right now, and I don't like being No. 3," says McVey. "My biggest problem is for the last four years with my job, we've been working six-day weeks, so that makes it hard for a three-day marathon."

"[When] I have that three-day weekend, the last thing I want to do is be tied to that machine," he says. "I'll probably [beat the score] again, eventually. It's just the motivation is not really there."

The idea for the documentary came about after directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy became interested in finding out Nibbler's highest score and who held it.

"It kind of follows the whole journey, from back in the day to modern people trying to beat the score again," says McVey.

Kinzy and Seklir approached McVey and asked him about filming a short documentary on the original billion-point score. As they dove deeper into the story and learned more about other Nibbler players, they expanded the film's scope.

"We felt that the story of the first billion-point game held great intrinsic drama and a timeless lesson in how there's the potential in all of us to achieve our dreams, no matter the odds," Seklir says on the film's website.

Adds Kinzy: "We also loved the fact that Tim was not well-known in the gaming community, that he was essentially an underdog who came from nowhere to do this amazing thing."

The documentary includes interviews with other gamers who have tried to beat the score and Twin Galaxies' founder, Walter Day.

"One of my favorite things out of this whole experience with the documentary, I got to meet one of the programmers," McVey says.

The programmer, though, had a different spin on the triumph, telling McVey that a billion-point score meant he had failed as a programmer since he was supposed to design a game that would drain gamers of their quarters.

"It kind of made me feel bad, but at the same time it kind of made me smile that I was able to do something that nobody ever expected to happen," says McVey.

McVey's wife, Tina, who's originally from Chattanooga, was unaware of his gaming feats when they first met.

"When we first got together, I knew nothing about it," she says. "We had moved into the house, and we're going through boxes and I came across [his key to the city]."

"I never mentioned it to her," McVey says."It was 25 years ago."

Contact Hayden Seay at hseay@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.