Despite the game industry’s fascination with big names, the influence a single designer, even one as prestigious as Jade Raymond, Sid Meier or Michel Ancel, has on a multi-million dollar title is minimal. The glossy triple A games of today are collaborative efforts of hundreds and hundreds of people, and while this has done wonders for the games’ polishing, their ability to express an individual, personal thought, idea or emotion has dropped in indirect proportion to the ever-growing size of development teams.
This expressive side of the industry is now often seen as the realm of the growing indie scene, smaller teams and bedroom developers that have given us wonderful games such as Audiosurf, Osmos or Limbo. Sipping moccacinos at some coffeeshop, Macbook in tow, these people spend their days carving art out of magical obsidian and their nights dreaming up new gameplay ideas to pursue, or at least that seems to be the rather romantic view the larger gaming audience has on the indie process. But what is it really like to conceive and create a game of your own, on your own? To make something this deeply personal and hold it up for public appraisal?
With the crowd-funded documentary Indie Game: The Movie, first time film-making duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky set about answering these questions with an in-depth look at the people behind the scenes of indie smash hits. By way of example, the film follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat through crunch time for Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish, as he presents his game Fez (at the time four years in the making and still in various stages of disarray) at PAX after a long public absence, while Jonathan Blow muses about his widely acclaimed mindbender Braid.
This trichotomy works well for the movie, as the three developers in question are not only stuck in different parts of the cycle, the outside interaction of promotion, media coverage and legal hassle, the deep-in-the-trenches coding and the “What now?” phase following success, but also add something through their varied personalities. McMillen and Refenes offer their own slightly weird and pessimistic, but ultimately grounded perspective. Fish, all nerves and need for appreciation, is more easily shaken by setbacks and he hides this vulnerable side behind a controversial facade. Blow, though calmer on the outside, is similarly sensitive when it comes to the reception of his work, which is shown through the amount of control he tries to exert over the creative discourse surrounding his game.
Indie Game: The Movie uses this wealth of footage to touch on more or less every problem and obstacle in the life of an indie developer: Financial troubles, karmic low blows, the frustration of shouting at the big, uncaring wall that is publishers, being so closely tied up in a project that it takes over your identity, being so closely associated with it that its eventual success or failure will be forever connected to your name, the fear of missing the forest for the trees, the nerve-racking realization that someone else is holding the legal kill-switch for your dreams. As McMillen, Refenes and Fish go through these hardships, we are presented with their raw, emotional, unfiltered feed.
We get to see them at their best, talking about design and art all starry-eyed, but we also get to see them at their psychotic worst: overworked, tired and stressed, facing a precarious future. In these moments, they make some rather crass statements, as artists are wont to do. People might take issue with some of the things that are said, but the film does well in presenting them. That is its job as a documentary, and while these moments never feel dishonest, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes McMillen’s, Refenes’ and Fish’s words do not so much show their genuine opinions as they do serve to express a spur-of-the-moment sentiment. Hell, some of the most controversial lingo in the movie is just them using language as a coping mechanism.
Aside from some brouhaha over content, Indie Game: The Movie is almost without fault. Not only has it been blessed with rich source material, but it also makes clever use of the footage at hand, melding the experiences of three teams into a cohesive whole. Through some great structuring and editing, three personal tales have been cut to play right into each other, highlighting the transcendent message behind. Effect-driven sequences and the narrow cast of expert opinions provided can feel a bit underwhelming at times, but on the whole Indie Game: The Movie offers an insightful and heartfelt look into gaming’s auteur scene. Whether you’re into indie games or the creative process in general, this movie is well worth your time.