Indie Game: The Movie: The Review
On the first night of the 2012 Game Developers Conference, I found myself sitting in the middle of a mini-auditorium filled to capacity with game developers. Sitting among many of the new friends I had made since moving out to the Bay Area less than a year before, I took in the moment. The room was a strange little snapshot of the indie games community circa 2012. It wasn't hard to sense the buzz in the air, especially around all the "indie royalty" seated all around the room (yes I’ve actually heard people seriously use that term). I was even a few seats away from Jason Rohrer and Terry Cavanagh! There was a spirit of "we've made it", that videogames had finally broken through all the cultural stigmas surrounding them and into the mainstream. Here was THE movie - THE indie game movie, the one that was going to humanize games once and for awhile, and show the rest of the world what this was REALLY all about.
The film was projected onto two screens on the right and left side of the auditorium, with all its major players sat at a table on the stage in the center. After it was finished there'd be an agonizingly long Q&A featuring said people that I for some strange reason decided to stay for all two hours of. When the lights went down, I saw a glow out of the corner of my eye and looked down to see my friend Loren with his laptop perched in his lap, coding the drinking game that he and Anna Anthropy had started at an impromptu jam earlier that day. It struck me as pretty funny to see someone hard at work coding in the middle of a film about indie games.
And now, after years of internet shorts, two kickstarter projects, screenings at various festivals, and an HBO pilot based on the film now in the works, Indie Game: The Movie has finally been released for all to enjoy. Why the obsession with documenting a scene barely even five years into its existence, who knows? I suppose one could never go broke overestimating the vanity and self-importance of much of the indie scene. The distribution model of streaming with a download option makes perfect sense, because it's tailored exactly for the sort of audience that wants to see this film. As we speak, it is very likely making several large wheelbarrows full of money (much like all of the games featured in the film did!). It's kind of the perfect "gamer's" documentary, because it knows how to give its intended viewers (namely, other game developers) exactly what they want.
The film opens promisingly with a very pissed-off Tommy Refenes waking up and checking XBOX Live on Super Meat Boy's launch day, only to see his game featured nowhere. Then, after a brief introduction where the main characters of the film try to explain to us why they like videogames, there's a transition to various journalists and people involved in indie games talking at the camera in an effort to contextualize the generation that is working on games right now. They all look so excited, and want to tell us why we should be too! This whole section does a good job of killing the momentum of the very first part, not to mention boring the hell out of anyone watching who might not be that interested in the indie scene. Here you will find fairly useless observations like "Braid was the biggest thing since World of Goo!" thrown around, in a desperate plea to get the audience to care about what's going on in indie games right now.
IG:TM's style also never really sits right with the material. The images always seems sterile and scrubbed clean, even when it’s showing Tommy Refenes eating at Waffle House. The rapid editing gives it same feel of a commercial: like it was all assembled in a vacuum-sealed room. There are a lot of quick cuts, close-ups, dramatic tracking shots, and repeated lines used for dramatic effect, presumably to make the film look current and fresh. This sort of style might work for a film about the sort of everyday corporate life at a large triple A gaming studio, but it doesn't make all that much sense for a film about independent developers giving up everything they have to work at home. I mean, why in the hell would you run a slow, meticulously framed tracking shot across Edmund McMillen's living room? Cynically, I think the reason it was shot the way it was is because the Swirsky and Pajot knew they could sell the film better that way. Or maybe they knew all along that they were really making a commercial.
Then there's the random, extraneous stuff, like that (in)famous dramatic shot of a shadowy Jon Blow in profile. It seems to hint at a darkness to Blow's story that comes out in his frustrations over the response to Braid, but none of this is ever explored in any detail. Blow does give interesting insight into the nuts and bolts design of Braid, but not enough time is given for him to develop into a character who's particularly relatable. And actually, what is there of him in the film probably just serves to add to the public perception of Jon Blow as a guy who sees himself as the savior of videogames. Why was Blow upset that the press was responding differently to Braid than he’d hoped they would? In the context of more traditional games like Fez and Super Meat Boy that aren’t trying to aim for much depth of artistic expression, it’s important for the film to address what made Braid different - but it never does. In the end, it's hard to say that the film gains much from having Blow in it.
As far as the stories of developers behind Super Meat Boy and Fez, many interesting things are said. And that’s the problem: they're said directly to the camera, revealed through interviews. Very little is allowed to happen in the moment, without the framing of an interview. There are still many fascinating things revealed through these interviews, however. You can see how Phil Fish has become so obsessive about details in his game that he's starting to lose sight of the whole project. You can also see how much Edmund and Tommy have an immense amount of emotional support from their family to get them through the hellish process of finishing Super Meat Boy. In one particularly touching moment, Edmund, after the game's release, relates in tears about how a ten year old fan of his stayed up all night to finish a piece of Meat Boy fan art. In another interview, Edmund talks about the ideas behind his game Aether, and how it was made around phobias he had a child. In another, Phil Fish shows us an old program he made as a kid called CYBER VISION, which is a series of flashing lights that the player is supposed to press their face up to the screen to and stare at for a very long time.
There are many moments of sweetness throughout the film. It’s easy to feel more and more for Edmund, Tommy, and Phil, the more they reveal about themselves. For people who know them from the indie scene, especially, it's no doubt shocking to see previously one-dimensional online personalities so immediately humanized. But all the random close-ups and constant intercutting to various different camera angles in the interviews kind of makes what's said feel less substantial. And the dependence on interviews means that the film kind of coasts to completion, without us really knowing any more than the characters in the film want us to know.
When Tycho (of Penny Arcade) goes over to personally give Fish his blessing at Fez's PAX showing late in the film, you get the sense that Fish is a guy who's probably more well connected than it may seem at first, and that his problems might not actually be as big as he makes them out to be. Fish’s game may have been broken, but in the end it doesn’t really matter because the game is still a big hit. He may be taking a risk to exhibit a game where you don't kill anything, but in the end it's basically a conventional Metroidvania style 2D platformer, one that the owner of a huge gaming expo expo is comfortable with, and one that most gamers will be comfortable with.
Fish's eventual success at PAX is a mirror for how the stories in the film all end up wrapped into nice bow in the end. Jon Blow may be upset about the response to his game, but it was still a massive success, financially and critically. Edmund may have had to raise the money for surgery to remove his appendix (prior to filming), but both Super Meat Boy and Edmund's next game (The Binding of Isaac) were smash hits. Phil Fish may have said he was going to kill himself if Fez didn't come out, but in the end Fez won the IGF’s Grand Prize a few days after the GDC screening of the film, and the game was a big financial success. All of the subjects of the film, in a sense, have ceased to be normal human beings anymore because of their successes.
Not that I’m trying to devalue the struggles they all went through, or the insane risks they took to make their games. I get a strong sense from the film that they're all (especially Tommy and Edmund) sincere guys who really care about what they're doing. But what would have happened if Super Meat Boy bombed on XBLA because it wasn't promoted, and then never got picked up for Steam or other similar services? What would have happened if Phil had no money to finish Fez, or his former business partner went through with the lawsuit against him, and the game was never finished? These are things that happen all the time in the real world, but the film shows us none of that.
Because for every Phil Fish or Team Meat who have clout in the community and the interest of the press, there are hundreds of unknowns who are trying much less successfully to get their games out there. It’s also important not to undervalue the amount of promotion that went into the games in the film prior to release. It would be nice to say the indie game world is a meritocracy and the most interesting ideas inevitably rise to the top, but what's more true is that the people who are making higher-budgeted fifteen dollar games within traditional genres (all of these games are 2D platformers) rise to the top. And maybe it’s something those who’ve praised the film don't want to think about, because it's nice if you're a game developer to live in the fantasy that you'll one day make a surprise smash hit, but the likelihood of it happening is pretty slim. It's no secret that the filmmakers chose big name indie titles that had a high probability of success. If they hadn't, I bet they would've tried to jump on another bandwagon and find another high-profile project with a good chance of success. That’s the story they wanted to tell, not the one of the losers. It’s a sort of fetishization of success and "breaking into the mainstream" that would seem antithetical to what being an indie is all about, but is actually very prominent in the indie community.
This is a film about the winners. I know several indie developers who are not winners, and this film is both an inaccurate and dishonest depiction of their lives. But then, what obligation do the filmmakers have to address them in the movie? Their obligation is in the title "Indie Game: The Movie", and all that comes with that. Why call your film that and then not follow any of the hobbyists, or part time developers, or people on the fringes who make up most of the indie scene? Why not choose to follow a person like increpare (to pick a random name), who’s released around a hundred games on his cryptic webpage without any sort of announcement for years? Examining something so completely antithetical to traditional attitudes towards game development and distribution would embody the best and most exciting things happening in indie games right now. Instead, we're just looking at games that have followed the old model of massive commercial success.
For many game developers who have spent their lives feeling ostracized for being nerds endlessly pursuing what has been seen as a childish hobby, Indie Game: The Movie will certainly make them feel good about themselves. For people outside of videogame culture, which has such a dehumanized view of videogames, it will even probably be enough to get them interested. But it certainly could have been a lot more. The intense focus on catering unnecessarily towards a mainstream audience neuters the film. What's there is often affecting, but miles away from the territory of a The King of Kong, another film about videogames - one that actually had the guts to show things which make lot of the people in the film look bad, because human beings often do things that make them look bad! You have the sense that this film is afraid to make anyone look bad. A film professor once told me that if the people you're making a documentary about didn't feel uncomfortable with the final result, then you haven’t made a very good film. The universally positive response from the people in the film should say something.
In the end, Indie Game: The Movie ends up playing like one long commercial for the indie scene. In their efforts to bring indie games to the mainstream, Swirsky and Pajot have left us with the film the indie community wanted them to make, and not one they probably should have made. But maybe that was their intention all along?