When most people think of video game movies, they think of Super Mario Bros. They think of the sacrilege committed time and time again by Uwe Boll, such as Alone in the Dark and House of the Dead. In terms of narrative film, directors have unerringly failed when trying to convey the video game experience. Oddly enough, it seems to be documentarians, creating the likes of The King of Kong and this, Indie Game: The Movie, who best prod the heart and soul of the oft-maligned medium and capture what it really means to people.
If James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s doc is anything, it is passionate. The pair follow the skeleton-crew developers of three independent video games – Braid’s Jonathan Blow, Super Meat Boy’s Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, and Fez’s Phil Fish – representing the apparent “past, present and future” of indie gaming (Braid is long-released, Super Meat Boy was on the cusp of release during filming, and Fez was only just released this year). Throughout the film, we learn their motivations for working outside the studio system, as well as the personal nature of their games.
And that is exactly something just about everyone in this film professes you will not get with games coming from large companies like EA and Epic – a personal touch. The flaws and quirks of indie games are what make them just that; they are made by and for the creators with little expectation of wealth, and it is the unimpeded personal flourishes that often make them the most inventive and disarming titles around. Moreover, these people are gamers and fans first and foremost, long before the Wii made video games a more socially acceptable past-time.
What is crucial to their cause is the onset of digital distribution; excellent outlets such as PSN and Xbox Live, which were, as the developers gleefully point out, brought about by Valve’s Steam service. While to the non-gamer this could all end up being conveyed in a very verbose and impenetrable manner, Swirsky and Pajot detail the turning cogs in a fashion both clear and concise, but not trite or patronising.
The interviewees are generally likable fellows, driven yet down-to-Earth, though the occasional bit of snarkiness does edge its way in. Note as Refenes reductively states that “you won’t like my games if you like Call of Duty and Halo”. Speaking as someone who enjoys both those games and Super Meat Boy, he’s proven wrong at the first hurdle, and after all, is that line of thought really any better than the insular, casual mindset of never picking up anything outside of franchise fare?
Probably the most interesting participant is Phil Fish, who, at the time of filming, has been chipping away at Fez for three-to-four years, and is deeply frustrated at the Internet’s thoughtlessly impatient sensibility. Astutely, he notes that the big studio titles like Grand Theft Auto are constructed by a team of 1000 people over 5 years, whereas his Fez is being made by just two. Compounding matters is a complicated legal issue with a former part-owner in his company, followed by an excruciating, self-esteem-crushing segment where his game constantly crashes at a big convention.
While the developers’ insights into the mechanics of game design are fascinating, it is the less-pleasant side, the sacrifices made to realise their dream, that proves most emotionally telling. Essentially giving up their lives, living on little money, and confining themselves to their computers, each camp is dependent on their game succeeding. When speaking to Jonathan Blow, we then observe the flipside of this, the fame egged on by the gaming world’s obsessive nature. Blow notes that in spite of Braid’s astronomical review scores, the blogosophere proved a demoralising read for him, as people didn’t appear to “get” his full artistic intention. Ultimately, it appears that having their dreams come true feels so alien to these people, it creates its own angsty existential void of sorts.
At its core, though, Indie Game: The Movie is a jubilant celebration of gaming in all its forms, touching on that basic, childlike thrill of picking up a controller and playing a game for the first time. With Fez, Phil Fish tried to create an ethereal, calming plain for people to relax, while with Super Meat Boy, McMillen and Refenes aimed to, with its extreme difficulty, enrage players, which they seem to take a hilarious delight in. After so much toil getting their work made, it is very touching to see the joy on their faces at both the end result, and when they see people connect with it.
The next time you browse through your PSN or Xbox Live store, or hear about the latest Humble Bundle coming out, you might consider these games a little more intently after watching this stellar documentary. At a broader level, it is a passionate, deeply affecting celebration of a medium too often derided.
Indie Game: The Movie is available in the US on-demand, and had its UK premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest last week. No theatrical release is yet planned.