Ongoing Investigations: Case #178

I like nerdy documentaries, even if (or maybe especially if) they are about hobbies that I only just have knowledge of. Afterall, that seems like what documentaries are for, learning. So when I saw the trailer for Indie Game: The Movie, I knew I wanted to see this movie.

I am not much of a gamer and I’ve never played or even knew about any of the games in this movies, but that isn’t important. What matters is the connection they build with the audience as we watch and hope for their success. Though if you do know the games a bit of the suspense is taken away, still the filmmakers do a great job of building the tension regardless of their outcome.

To me, the movie is about three tortured artists and one guy who loves games. IGtM really shocked me with how delicate the balance of these developers walk, teetering on the edge of losing their sanity and being penniless. They truly are like painters desperate for success, acknowledgment, and a paycheck. By their own admissions, they were likely to do something rash should these games fail at this point.

And then there was Edmund, the guy who loves game which I mentioned. Thank God he was in this movie to ground the entire thing otherwise it would have been a real downer. Edmund is tired, brain drained, and worried about money but he is also excited for his game with a positive energy about him. It came across clearly how much Edmund loves video games and the movie needed that. The other guys clearly loved their games too, otherwise they could never dedicate so much of themselves to it, but they let the fun be taken from them whereas Edmund still shows that joy.

I would have liked to see more about the community surrounding indie games. They mention a few little things off-hand, like Johnathan Blow responding to any comment anywhere on the net about Braid, but overall they don’t give the community a real voice in the movie. I assume they are an important aspect, and seeing a player talk about and waiting for a game would have been a nice touch.

I really enjoyed this documentary, I felt that sense of impending doom as the approaching release date of Super Meat Boy; I felt the heartbreak of a glitchy demo with Fez. I don’t know much of anything about indie games, but now I know that the phrase “this isn’t as easy as it looks” applies to this scene like so many others.

I had been interested to see Indie Game: The Movie ever since I heard about it when it was raising funds through Kickstarter. Like most nerds the creation of video games has always been an intriguing process but indie games in particular have a much more raw and personal feel. Plus indie games, sort of like writing a book, is something a lot people secretly want to believe that if they just sat down and really put in a crazy effort they could do themselves. And much like writing a book for most people it is something that mostly remains a theoretical concept or an eternally barely started project.

This documentary does provide a remarkable amount of insight into the chunk of your soul that goes into making any decently ambitious indie game. It very clear how much time and energy goes into making a game and how perilous it can all seem. None of the people profiled has large teams or companies backing them up. That sense that these guys were taking a real risk to follow their dreams was very apparent.

The contrast between the two guys working on Super Meat Boy was fairly interesting. Edmund McMillen seemed fairly positive and energetic whereas Tommy Refenes seemed very dour about the whole project. It sort of reminded me of another duo. Edmund McMillen game philosophy and off beat sensibility seems the sort of aesthetic that would only be allowed in an independent environment. But overall despite several setbacks and grueling deadlines Super Meat Boy eventually crosses the finish line as a winner.

Fez on the other hand seemed more like proof that Murphy’s Law always finds a way. Phil Fish’s story seems to be more about how every time he gets somewhere it seems like there is a bear trap waiting for him here. When he tries to show off the latest demo of his game at PAX he has a major legal snafu with an ex business partner it only gets cleared up so he can realize that the demo he is presenting is very buggy. So he is forced to baby the machines running the demos for no end of agita. I will say that Phil Fish did come of as slightly unhinged. Not “he needs to be locked up” crazy but definitely “we only invite him to certain parties with certain people” nutty.

I do have to agree with the guys from Fast Karate. Jonathan Blow does come off as an enormous tool. Especially in contrast to the other creators who are profiled in the movie that really seem to have to pay a pound of flesh for their creations.

Overall I think while the documentary did focus on projects that came out on top it did present the struggle fairly well. I think it also proved that very often more than anything these indie game’s worst enemies could be themselves. With often no one rein them in they can get absorbed in the minutia and lose site of the grander picture. At a professional studio there is usually someone to keep the creative types in line. But without that a vital limiter projects can spin their wheels with no one to just pull the trigger and say “good enough.” That can lead to unique products but seemingly with much wasted energy. It seemed like the people in documentary got the most done when they were under the gun to get something out for an event.

It reminded me a lot of the eternal delays on Type-Moon games. With no one to keep Nasu in check the games seem to take forever as it always seems something can be tweaked or fiddled with. The vitriol from the fans about those delays was also the same in both cases.

The biggest complaint I usually hear about the movie is that it only focuses on success stories. It did seem like they picked games that already had a decent amount of buzz for the film. They did not pick any one who was a complete unknown and all three games profiled were big successes when they were finally released. Considering how many indie games never go anywhere I know some people felt the documentary made it seem like all you needed was an idea and some hard work to be a success.

Might the documentary shown a bit more of the struggling  indie game developer? Sure. In fact I think that would make an excellent follow-up documentary by either James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot or someone else who wishes to follow in their footsteps. But what is presented here is a fascinating insight to what goes into making a game outside of a major studio. It will crush some people’s casual dreams but strengthen others.

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