News : Burnaby’s Pinball Wizard Scores at DOXA : The TYEE
By Frederick Blichert, TheTyee.ca
Robert Gagno plays a mean game while living with autism in ‘Wizard Mode.’
Starring in a movie about yourself might be exciting. An extra win for the subject of Wizard Mode was coming in first place at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association World Championships after production wrapped up.
Robert Gagno, 27, is the first Canadian to ever hold the title and the trophy that comes with it, adorned with a huge, four-armed alien.
The action in Wizard Mode opens on Robert’s birthday party, where we immediately see what a large role pinball plays in his life. As the Gagno family waits for Robert’s guests to arrive, we meet his mother Kathy, who has prepared pinball themed treats, and his father Maurizio, who makes sure that the family’s 13 pinball machines are in working order.
Gagno spends about 30 weekends a year on the road, competing in tournaments. The film’s directors, Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot, tag along, filming at every stop along the way, exploring the pinball community and Gagno’s place in it.
We learn about pinball culture, meet other international competitors, and discover the subtle differences between machines. Each one is unique, with different quirks, flipper spacing, and “tilt thresholds” — the amount of tilt that causes a machine to shut down. Each one also has its own unique set of rules.
This detail of the game floored me. No matter how much Gagno trains on his own machines, in competition he’ll meet mechanical competitors as uniquely individual as humans. Older machines don’t behave like new ones. He’ll need to get to know what makes each one tick.
What makes a pinball wizard?
When I spoke to Gagno, he described one of the most important features of a machine as its “flow details” — the ways in which a particular machine can allow a player to set off chain reactions, when one action flows into another. But he cares about the basic layouts, targets, lights, and game music too.
What makes a great machine is subjective. Gagno’s favourite is still the first one he remembers playing on: aTwilight Zone machine at the now-closed Wally’s Burger in East Vancouver. The voice actors and the musical theme from the original series always stood out for him.
In person, Gagno is even more impressive to watch than on screen. At one point, he balanced three balls on a single flipper before gently launching them one at a time with perfect precision. I heard a stunned “whoah!” from a man standing behind us.
The most important skill for pinball, says Gagno, is determination. He works incredibly hard at his game, and he sees that in other top players too. “I realize I’m really good at it, so I only want to get better,” he tells me.
He’s a visual learner which also helps. Multi-ball plays are important, he says, and so is aiming and timing accuracy with every shot. But even with all these skills, Gagno still maintains that “you have to know the rules inside out.”
Gagno often wears headphones while he plays at tournaments. Music has a calming effect and helps him focus. When I asked him what he listens to, he smiled and refused to tell me: “That’s one I’m never going to want people to know, because I want to have a bit of mystery.”