It's funny how a movie like Indie Game: The Movie fits so perfectly with a venue like SXSW, where indie game companies show off their games in SXSW Screenburn and indie filmmakers show off their latest movies in SXSW Film.
Indie Game: The Movie follows the developers of three different games at different points within the development cycle. At the time of filming, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are at the end of the development cycle for their game, Super Meat Boy, which was soon to be released on the Xbox Live Arcade. In order to make it in time for the Microsoft Fall GameFeast Xbox Live Arcade promotion, they had a firm deadline that is quickly coming up requiring them to go into crunch mode.
Phil Fish is the developer of the game Fez, infamous for his comments about modern Japanese games sucking at this past GDC, is in disarray trying to get his game released. After it received best in show at the Independent Game Festival in 2008, the game is still in development 4 years later. For him, his goal was create a demo in time for PAX East 2011 despite legal problems from a former business partner.
Then there's indie game superstar Jonathan Blow, still riding his success from Braid. We see how his game started and changed over time to become the first true indie game hit. However, the success troubled Blow as he feels that people didn't "get" the game. In particular, they focus on how Blow would comment on articles and reviews of Braid whenever he felt the writer didn't understand the game. One moment that stood out for me was hearing Blow talking about the lack of understanding of his game while the film cut in and out of a Youtube video featuring Souljia Boy playing Braid commenting "This game doesn't mean anything, it's just fun as hell."
The focus of the movie was split between Edmund, Tommy and Phil with Jonathan speaking more as a wise, veteran developer who also comes off as a tormented artist with a game that so very few understood. We learn of how these guys wanted to make their own games, feeling that the current batch of modern games simply didn’t appeal to them. A common sentiment among the four of them is that the idea of working on mainstream games from a big publisher was a fate worse than death.
Unlike some documentaries that are all about just following people around and recording their lives as it unfolds, there is a narrative here that plays out. When following Team Meat, we learn about their early days when they were first introduced to gaming, to when they made their first game, to when they came up with the game that they’re currently working on. We also get a glimpse of the lives of Edmund, Tommy and Phil; all three are at their wits end financially making it clear that their entire future rides on the fate of their games.
For McMillen and Refenses, you can feel the pressure of having to finish a game by a deadline. Everything is on the line and you feel their devastation when the game does not show up on the Xbox Live menu on release day. As we follow Phil Fish, you start getting restless as you realize how long his game has been worked on. Fish talks about his need to make the game right, make the changes needed that he feels are required, but you want to scream “FINISH THE GAME ALREADY!” Then Fish’s big moment comes at PAX East 2011, (funny enough, an event I attended) where he can show off a demo of his game to the 30,000+ attendees of the event. There is a problem, however: that his former partner is required to sign-off on the rights to use the demo at the event or Fish could find himself in deep legal trouble.
Filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pijot were fairly impressive in creating this wonderful narrative within the documentary. They also went the extra mile to put in various CG effects to give the movie watcher a more intimate look at these games instead of just watching them being played on a screen. The effects reminded me of a sequence from video game documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, in which the movie puts you inside a game of Donkey Kong.
One thing that really brought me out of the experience were the somewhat obvious setup shots used throughout. Being that this documentary is not your traditional “record every second of life” documentary, it was very obvious that some of the shots were created to re-create a moment. It was during these points, where the shots seemed so purposely placed that it took me out of the movie. Instead, I started thinking of whether someone would actually react in a certain fashion or if the person was being directed. There are only a few times that it happens during the movie, but it was enough to make me dwell on it.
Indie Game: The Movie is a delight for gamers and non-gamers. Gamers will be in awe of the development process needed to create a relatively “small” game while non-gamers will be sucked into the story of artists passionate about their craft. This film will not only educate and entertain, but for some, it will inspire them, and that is something every good documentary should accomplish.