Gaming as we know it has changed. Where once the landscape was filled with major corporations pumping out games as far as the eye could see, the little guys have been given the ability (sometimes through tools from the big guys) to push themselves into the spotlight. The main difference between these two groups – besides loads of cash – seems to be heart. For sure, persons working on larger titles for huge companies are passionate about their game and their role they play in it. But as Indie Game: The Movie shows us, it is something else when the game is your entire life.
Filmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky bring us a documentary that shares the stories of three indie games that have made pretty huge splashes in gaming culture, although at the time of filming the questions of release dates, reception, and completion are what fuel the sleepless nights for these designers. The titles that are focused on during the film are Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Fez, three incredible indie games made by just a handful of people. Just thinking about that figure is pretty amazing if you have had the chance to play these excellent titles. As someone who has thought about making video games (thinking is about as far as I can get with no training or knowledge in how to make a game), the thought of putting together code and artwork to make a title would surely be a very personal experience; it would have to be. But to see that in motion really drives the idea home.
For designers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy, a sudden Microsoft XBLA promotion forced their hand, causing them to finish their game in a month when they were not ready only to have the game not show up on the console when it was supposed to. For Phil Fish, creator of Fez, a messy legal battle and the pressure of showing his game in public for the first time in four years is enough to instill panic attacks. And Braid’s creator Jonathan Blow discusses his struggles with depression after the release of his game. Although these designers have had different trials, these are the pains of letting the baby you worked on for years out in the wild when your career and finances hang in the balance.
I really enjoy the interviews in this film. It is a documentary, so interviews are pretty much a must, but the candor that is exposed is pretty gripping, especially the story behind Fez’s past and current state in the film. These “no filter” discussions feel unique in the gaming world because these guys do not have to answer to anyone. At no point in time to they have to stop short and say something along the lines of, “…but X company is really great even though we are having some difficulties right now.” Nope. They say they are getting the shaft right now by whatever company, and it is nice to hear that. Maybe I just like hearing people rip on big companies, I don’t know.
It is that candor, though, that, again, drives home how much these folks have invested in these games, and that does not just mean financially. Jonathan Blow makes a pretty interesting quote about how these indie titles are, and I am paraphrasing, “putting the creator’s deepest flaws and vulnerabilities into the game.” This certainly shows, for example, when Edmund McMillen describes his thought process behind the character of Super Meat Boy. All of this time we thought he was just a cube of meat, when it goes far deeper than that with a message on emotional vulnerability. For Phil Fish, Fez is just an extension of himself, and he will fight to the teeth for it.
Stepping away from the movie itself for a second, I want to mention how interesting it is for this film to be available on Steam. It comes as its own little app, complete with Steam overlay support. When it launches, you are greeted with basically the same menu you might find on a DVD, but for it to be all digital is pretty interesting. There are extras included, too, like a few extra videos and a commentary from Team Meat.
Visually, Indie Game: The Movie is quite beautiful. The cinematography is great throughout, and the music by Jim Guthrie (who did the music for Sword & Sworcery) matches the film well. It is a pleasure to watch. My, what DSLRs have done for lower budget films.
Indie Game: The Movie takes us along to see what it looks like when one or two people turn their lives over to creating a game. It is certainly not an easy task, but one that can be rewarding, just like watching this film.