Indie Game: the Movie, one of the most talked-about films at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, is a rabidly partisan look at the tribulations and triumphs of indie games developers. Romanticising its subjects as the 21st century’s struggling artists, it draws you into the obsessions and visions of the minds behind some of the biggest indie breakthroughs of recent years.
Indie Game profiles designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes, the brains behind Super Meat Boy; Phil Fish, the creator of the long-anticipated FEZ; and Jonathan Blow, the indie statesman who created the smash hit Braid. In them, it finds artists who are leading the fight against the greyness of today’s overly polished and realistic mainstream games.
For each of these developers, videogames are a medium of expression as personal as poetry or painting. In the same tradition as DIY American indie musicians and filmmakers, they value individuality as much or more than they do virtuosity. The rough edges give their creations timber and texture. As Blow puts it: “Things that are personal have flaws. They have vulnerabilities.”
The release of the film seems timely, coming a week after a disappointing Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. Not even the showing of the Wii U hardware by Nintendo could dispel the feeling that the games business is in a creative slump, with all too many of the titles on show coming across as re-treads of Uncharted 2 and Call of Honor: Subtitle & Numeral Here.
With teams of up to 1 000 and hundreds of millions of dollars invested in development of a title in a franchise such as Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, big publishers simply can’t afford to take too many creative chances. Indie Game champions its subjects as creative heroes in a sea of expensive mediocrity.
Indie Game’s Canadian makers, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, have a clear passion for their subject, and this works to both the film’s advantage and disadvantage. The most compelling parts of the film are those where they get into the minds of the developers – geeky misfits with a conviction that the games of today are simply not as good as the stylised and “stupidly difficult” NES classics they grew up with.
The developers are prickly, misanthropic and borderline psychotic. Many of them give up normal social lives, relationships and work opportunities for up to five years to slave in front of a computer on their games for every working hour. They’re motivated by the promise of a big payday, but more so by their creative visions. Their very identities become wrapped up in the work they are trying to complete.
Fish says at one point that he will kill himself if he can’t complete FEZ — and you believe him. McMillen confesses that creating games is a way for him to get the human interaction he craves since he doesn’t like people or the messiness of friendships much. Their dedication to their craft is absolute as that of any other artist — McMillen is positively animated when he discusses the finer points of Super Meat Boy’s mechanics.
The film’s reflection on how fans affect entertainers and artists through social media before they have even released their work is also fascinating. Fish, who drew abuse every time his game slipped behind schedule, bemoans how “an army of assholes online” made it harder for him to enjoy his life during the development of FEZ. Blow becomes infamous for spending his time arguing with fans and critics in forums and article comments. And McMillen admits to becoming addicted to comments and reviews.
Pajot and Swirsky do a good job of profiling their chosen developers, but they fall short of creating a definitive film about the games industry. Their North American-focused documentary doesn’t come close to capturing the diversity of the indie scene. It glosses over the breakthrough successes of World of Goo and Minecraft. Angry Birds maker Rovio is completely ignored — are its casual games not cool enough to have indie cred?
The filmmakers buy completely into the narrow worldview of their subjects that indie games are good and every big publisher is bad, or at least they don’t question it. The truth is that big companies such as Valve, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have made today’s indie scene possible by making it easy for developers to reach mass audiences through digital distribution.
Though the game creators in Indie Game rail against the corporate games publishers, they are oblivious to the irony in the fact that they all got their big breaks through Microsoft’s backing and its Xbox Live Arcade service.
With the likes of FEZ, Journey, Super Meat Boy, Trials and many more easily available for digital download, choice and diversity of games is healthier than ever. The low costs of digital distribution have even made commercially dead genres like adventure games viable again.
The recurring theme about the artistry and individuality of indie game versus anodyne blockbuster games also seems hopelessly one-dimensional. Love or hate their games, big studio directors and producers such as the Houser brothers, Hideo Koijima, and Ken Levine produce blockbusters with a distinctive personal touch.
Indie Game is a fascinating window into indie-game development that lays bare just how tough and demanding it is to create a game with a team of one or two people. Yet it could have been better if its makers had stepped back from their interview subjects to take a look at the big picture. At 100 minutes, it is also a bit too long and won’t mean much to anyone who is not already fascinated by the commerce and art of videogames. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
- Read more: Why Steam-Powered Distribution Made Sense for Indie Game: The Movie
- Available from www.indiegamethemovie.com, or through Steam and iTunes