Indie Game: The Movie
Last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of Indie Game: The Movie, playing at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA. The film is currently touring in select cities around the US and Canada (sponsored by Adobe), and was created by start-up filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky.
I’m a little out of my element here. Sure, on Gaming Symmetry, we take a critical approach to reviewing each of the games we cover, and we’ve even talked about video games in film on several occasions, however as I’ve found in writing down my thoughts on the film, reviewing it was a separate process entirely. It is one thing to review a video game movie as an adaptation, but it’s very different to review a movie about video games, especially one as intimate, emotionally resonating, and ultimately true-to-life as Indie Game: The Movie. IGTM is at its core a story about gamers turned developers, but it’s also so much more, ultimately becoming a film about artists, about inspiration, about love, about success against all odds, and about acceptance.
IGTM follows the lives of four independent developers, Jonathan Blow (Braid), Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), and Phil Fish (FEZ). During the film, the four recount what inspired them to become games developers, discuss design choices that went into each of their projects, and their motivations to continue pressing on in the DIY camp instead of seeking out employment at larger development houses. While individual stories differ, the three teams ultimately share the same underlying story; they create games because they love to do so, and each are emotionally invested in their creations to the highest degree. Each interview segment showcases the emotional toll that publicly releasing a game takes on all four, giving us a deeply personal, and highly relatable side to each of the four creators… yes even Jonathan Blow (although constant shots of him in silhouette form by a window may have worked against this).
Don't worry, Jonathan Blow can afford his monthly electric bill now
For gamers, some of the insights revealed by the developers are truly fascinating. Jonathan Blow (who’s game was already released prior to filming) revealed early shots of Braid that were later incorporated into the final release, as well as lament on the game’s release and how many people were enjoying, but not fully understanding the game he had worked so hard on (smartly coupled with a few clips of the game’s youtube video review by Soulja Boy). Phil Fish pulled out an old computer to demonstrate one of his earliest projects; a series of flashing design patterns that you would just stare at by pressing your face close to the monitor which truly captures the emotional connection some gamers can have with technology and creation at a young age (Phil, if your read this, please release this game on Polytron’s website). Perhaps the most interesting was Edmund McMillen talking about how to integrate gameplay instruction within the narrative to “show,” not “tell” gamers what they can and can’t do, along with his recitation of why Meat Boy needs Bandage Girl, which to be honest, can be filed away as the most surprising thing ever to make a person burst into tears.
For gamers and non-gamers alike, the narrative of the movie is equally enjoyable. In addition to general commentary and interviews, the film follows two main storylines; the release of Super Meat Boy on Xbox Live, and the unveiling of FEZ (which was in development for 4 years at that point) at PAX East. The stories of these two games are utterly heart-wrenching, and while we do know the ultimate success of each of these games (As I’m sure you’re all aware, FEZ was released on April 13th) the drama that ensued during both of these in-development titles and their documented milestones within the movie was immensely captivating. Watching a frantic Tommy Refenes typing away as his game is not being properly marketed at launch, or a near-broken Phil Fish sitting in a Boston hotel unsure if he will even be able to exhibit, truly captured the hardships an artist in any medium may be forced to endure that are beyond their own control.
The anguish suffered by the four developers, coupled with their terrific personalities (there are some serious laugh out loud comments made along the way) really worked to allow for audience members to connect with each of them. This was all expertly captured by filmmakers Pajot and Swirsky. The editing, dramatic escalation, enhanced camerawork, integration of sound effects and music (courtesy of Jim Guthrie), and thematic variation were flawlessly executed for a very cohesive package. To call out a few editing moments that really pushed the narrative, one of Jonathan Blow’s statements on indie games made towards the beginning was re-inserted towards the end that when heard took on a more fully realized meaning. Perhaps the most creative shot of the movie was Phil Fish standing at his conference booth while directly above him was a FEZ display, which perfectly captured the idea that these indie games are simply an extension of their creators, and that the two are intrinsically bound together forever.
The movie, in summary
In terms of how accurately the movie captures the essence of indie game development, I think it was an unquestionable success, and was an incredibly well put together and thoroughly entertaining package. I would note that the movie could have perhaps benefitted from additional stories, perhaps from developers who ultimately did not achieve the same amount of press and recognition as the three that were featured (sure at the time of filming, FEZ’s release was up in the air to say the least, but still it was well on the gaming radar). It also does somewhat further the appeal of indie gaming by way of criticizing the main games industry, often referring to it in passing as some type of soulless profit-driven machine, to which I’d argue may not have been needed in order to fulfill the movie’s underlying message. These criticisms noted, I can’t help but praise the overall product for its cohesive message, its entertainment value, and of course, its subject matter.
Indie Game: The Movie is currently on tour in select theaters being sponsored by Adobe, followed by a release on DVD. For more information please check out their website at www.indiegamethemovie.com.