Review: Indie Game: The Movie
PLOT: Charting the rise of independent video game design, this documentary follows the production of three indie games; the break-out hit “Braid” by Jonathan Blow, it’s potential successor “Super Meat Boy” by the underdog team of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, and the long-delayed “Fez” by Phil Fish.
REVIEW: As someone who truly doesn’t know a thing about modern gaming, I assumed INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE wouldn’t be something I’d find terribly interesting. I missed it at Sundance, but several journos I respect told me that it was worth seeing. They were damn right. It really doesn’t matter if you’re into gaming or not- INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE is about more than just the industry. It’s the classic underdog story, with four gripping characters at its heart, and absolutely gripping from start to finish.
The film doesn’t really go into the whole indie gaming industry as a whole, other than a brief rundown near the beginning, which explains that most of the people working in this industry are first generation gamers- who happened to come of age during the industry’s golden age. In that regard, I guess I’m one, as I can vividly recall finding a Nintendo under the Christmas tree when I was about five years old- packaged with “Super Mario Bros.,” and “Duck Hunt”. While I haven’t a clue how about what goes into game design from a tech standpoint (this is a personal, rather than technical story) - obviously there’s a whole generation that grew up around the technology, and computers- who picked up the skills early on. The movie explains that thanks to digital distribution, a new game can easily be made available on X-Box Live (where each of the three games profiled end up), the net, or the Playstation Network.
In the same way that DV Cams and the internet made it easier to make films, this has made the design of video games all the more accessible, but not without cost to their creators. Each of the guys profiled here pays a steep price for their success, with them working full-time, and unpaid on their personal projects for years at a time.
INDIE GAME’s begins with McMillen and Refenes, who, after a three year marathon spent on “Super Meat Boy” are about to release the game to X-Box Live. McMillen, although tired, seems to take it all in stride, but Refenes is a bundle of nerves. The filmmakers follow him around for a few days, and he openly admits to being in the midst of a terrible depression, as the time he devoted to the game has left him totally isolated socially, other than daily Skype calls with McMillen (who- being married, at least has some company) and lonely trips to his local diners. Financially, he’s wiped out, and he only hopes to make enough money to pay off his parent’s mortgage.
By contrast, we get Jonathan Blow- whose “Braid” has already made him rich. Yet, despite the money and acclaim, Blow is still unsatisfied. Despite the acclaim, he can only see what people are missing in the appraisal of his games, and within a short period of time, a big online backlash begins to build up against him, due to his constant rebuttals to seemingly every online post about his game- even if they happen to be raves. Of the four guys profiled, Blow probably gets the least screen time, but it’s an interesting contrast, as it goes to show that even if these guys succeed beyond their wildest dreams, it’s all but impossible to let go of the game you spent years creating.
The final piece of INDIE GAME’s narrative comes from Montreal native Phil Fish, whose game, “Fez”- despite initial buzz, has been endlessly delayed, due to lack of time, funds, and Fish’s own perfectionism. Of everyone profiled, Fish comes off as the most arrogant- but he admits that after four years of being called out on the internet by fanatical gamers, and trolls- not to mention a costly break with his business partner, the game has left him burnt out, broke and defensive. After four year of development, we follow Fish to a gaming expo in Boston, where he hopes to unveil his first playable demo- and the event itself is a nail biter, with Fish constantly toggling back and forth between triumph and bitter defeat.
Added up, INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE is an absolutely incredible trip through this gaming culture- and it certainly opened my eyes to a facet of the industry that I never knew existed. If anything though, INDIE GAME’s purpose is probably to prove that video game design is just as valid an art as anything else, and after seeing what these difficult, but brilliant guys come up with, I’m inclined to agree. I feel like going out and buying my first gaming system in twelve years.