I have a deep love and fascination with both indie games and the studios and people that develop them. Indie games offer both developers and players a chance to experiment, to experience something different, and take risks a larger game publisher cannot. Films are largely the same way, with smaller studios making lower budget, more eclectic and, potentially, more interesting and offbeat productions a big studio wouldn’t take the risk on.
Indie Game: The Movie is one of these movies, and looks into the lives and development processes of the people who have developed three of the most popular Indie games in recent history. An with its inclusion in the most recent Humble Bundle, it’s even more accessible, available, and enticing.
Yes, this is an indie movie, about indie games, titled Indie Game: The Movie. Someone was having fun…
The film, directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, follows three concurrent stories, all presumably happening during the same 7 month or so period of time (though the timeline is never really made clear. We are give date sometimes, and not others.). The stories are woven into each other, which sometimes feels disjointed, but is handled fairly well.
Just before a short discussion of what an Indie game is and how they have become so relevant, the film starts with a deceivingly bleak looks at the launch of Super Meat Boy. The tale of Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen and their quest to create this odd little platformer about a boy without skin is incredibly interesting to watch, simply because of the differences between the two developers. Tommy’s reaction to the Super Meat Boy’s launch day woes is volatile (rightly so, as Super Meat Boy was not on the Xbox Live arcade until much later in the day), and Tommy’s personality can be hard to take at some points. He’s clearly brilliant, but often comes off as angry, depressed, and even arrogant. Edmund on the other hand, comes off as a completely different kind of person. He’s kind, odd, and funny. One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the examination of his relationship with his wife. While there were many things in the movie that are moving, Ed’s admission that he asked “if she still was happy” was heart-wrenching.
The second story follows Phil Fish creating the Indie Platformer Fez. While the story of Phil Fish in the movie, fighting
an uphill battle against over-ambitious ideas, legal issues, and a clamoring fan base is engaging, it is even more interesting in light of recent events. Fez was finally released on April 3rd, 2012, a full 5 years after its announcement in 2007. Phil is very much like Tommy from Team Meat: volatile, depressed, and more than a little arrogant. He often appears to be the least stable of the movies characters, having more than a few outbursts. The strange thing is I was willing to forgive him for all his flaws due to how many things this guys was trying to do. To say Fez is ambitious is kind of like saying Black Friday is a good day for business in the US. The game is not only conceptually difficult, but visually complex, and I often was left with my mouth agape at seeing how Fish was developing this game. He’s a mad programmer and a genius, and the stress of trying to keep up with his deadlines, his fans expectations and his life have clearly taken a toll on him. I’m just glad the game has finally released and he can enjoy some of its success.
The final story is that of Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid, which was first released in August of 2008. Braid remains the 10th highest rated Xbox game, and the top rated Xbox Live Arcade game to this day. Blow’s story largely represents the struggles that happen after an indie games has been successful, and how a developer deals with the public. I actually found this story, despite the fact that Blow is by far the most reasoned and stable of the four developers in the movie, to be the most tragic. Braid is an incredibly complex game, and its message is deep and convoluted. Seeing Blow’s honest sadness with the people in the community that simply did not get the message was gut-wrenching. At one point the movie shows a YouTube review of Braid, in which a number of people, who are clearly enjoying the game and have bought it, nevertheless say that the game “has no point”. Blow, who has clearly put an incredible amount of effort into his creation, seems to have such a deeper understanding of how games work and storytelling is created that it is hard not to be enthralled when he speaks. I mean, holy crap, read this:
Part of it is about not trying to be professional. A lot of people come into indie games trying to be a big company. What those game companies do is create highly-polished things that serve as large of an audience as possible. The way that you do that is by filing off all the bumps on something. If there’s a sharp corner, you make sure that’s not going to hurt anybody if they bump into it or whatever. That creation of this highly glossy commercial product is the opposite of making something personal.
While I do think the film has a few issues with pacing and organization, these can be forgiven due to how perfect the choice of covering these three games was. Super Meat Boy, Braid and Fez represent three different archetypes of the Indie Game:
Fez was trapped in development, trapped in a cycle of endless revision and critique. We know now that it has escaped this cycle, but I nevertheless represent those indie games that seem to take forever to produce, and often frighten us with the prospect of never coming out (thank god this was not the case). Braid is the misunderstood genius, successful, but perhaps not for the reasons it wanted to be successful. Super Meat Boy is the breakout hit, the small –business success story. It was an uphill battle, but that game stormed the keep and raised its colors in victory.Indie game: The Movie is a lot like the games it is talking about. It is heartfelt, personal, and certainly has some rough edges. It’s an incredibly human look at the video game industry. At one point, Jonathan Blow makes a very profound statement: “Things that are personal have flaws, they have vulnerabilities”. This is a very personal and vulnerable able movie. It doesn’t shy from showing loneliness of Tommy Refenes, the angst of Edmund McMillen, and the anger of Phil Fish.
Games are often far from human. They exist in a world of zeros and ones, circuitry and video cards. They can be harshly logical, unfeeling, and unrealistic. Because of their inhumanity, they are an escape for us. Human being and their interactions are messy, complex and illogical, and games provide an escape from that. Indie Game: The Movie is, more than anything, a window into the messy humanity of video games and the people that make them and it is truly, wonderfully, beautiful. So head over to Netflix and give it a watch, it is certainly worth your time.