Friday, October 12, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie--Review

From what began as a Kickstarter project, Canadian producers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky followed the lives of three indie game developers, highlighting their struggle, successes, and deepest desires. As the first documentary on indie games, a lot was expected from this film, but I'm here to tell you that it delivers, even if not how many hoped it would.

The film follows the game designers behind the extremely popular indie games Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid. Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, is probably the lesser focus of the three, but is instead intended as an example of success in the indie world, coming in and out of the film in a few short bursts to talk about his journey and his post-success. But at the very core of this movie sits the personal and emotional story of Phil Fish(Fez) and the super duo Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes(Super Meat Boy).

This movie was amazing. Pajot and Swirsky are incredibly involved and passionate about these games and their developers, and it shows. The two make certain that the focal point of the movie are the designers through tactics like close-ups, interviews, and, oftentimes, very personal questions. It aims to show and start a dialogue about indie designers and it accomplished this by giving the backstage tour of four real people.

The main character of Fez gets his
3-D powers from wearing the
Arabian hat of the same name.
I've seen many a review that complain about the dramatic moments in the film. There's a lot of mention that these "dramatic" scenes involve drawing out events that would normally be humdrum in real life, like for example, when Fish's game Fez encounters buggy problems during its debut at PAX. Sure, many of the scenes as well as the same themes show up often--McMillen and Refenes' time crunch and Fish's depression--but it does reveal the truth behind these three gamer designer's life. That truth is repetition. Like any passion or goal in life, repetition is going to come up. These are people who sit at desks for unwarranted amounts of time because they're life dream demands it. Yeah, it's repetitive...

...but it only furthers that real sense or feeling behind these men and their lifelong goals. Indie developers are real people with real problems and real reactions, and the way it's framed by Pajot and Swirsky offers an accessible, human approach to a field that is typically considered cold, calculating, and computer generated. 

This is the true side of indie games, featuring the struggle but also that drive that makes these games so fresh, appealing, and inherently human. McMillen talks about his childhood, about his fear of loneliness, of becoming so engrained in a project that he cuts himself from the world completely. These thoughts and emotions cultivated themselves in McMillen's game, Aether, where a boy and his monster glide through the galaxy in search of a friend. There's such a real, genuine thing here that commercial games mainly lack--a true human side to the worlds we escape to.

Edmund McMillen probably comtemplating monsters, sales day, and hairless cats.
Source: Rock Paper Shotgun

Of course, like so many other fantastic films, this one too had its flaws. The first one made plainly visible is the film's lack of history on the indie industry. Just who is the audience here? Some more experienced gamers  might have this history down but the newcomers or the people who have never laid a finger on a directional pad might have no clue about the enormous history of indie games. There are a few places within the movie that I found myself asking "Would someone outside the game industry have any idea what that is?" And yet, this lack of information is not just a negative, but a positive in the sense that it may propel the viewer into researching more.

While the lives of these developers were surely interesting, I also found it generated a lot of questions about the actual games themselves. Braid, for example, has some very original and interesting time mechanics that are never mentioned. We hear Blow talk about his disappointment when he realizes that people are liking his game but missing the point he intended and yet, we never get to see the game and make our own opinions on why that may be. Similarly, Fez is a 3-D and 2-D world, but for people outside of the gaming diaspora  it might not be easy to see why that's so mind-boggingly awesome or refreshing just from the film alone. By leaving out the intelligence and inner-workings of the game, Pajot and Swirsky also paint the indie industry as creators of platforming games only, which is a huge mistake.

Even with these flaws, it's easy to argue that Pajot an Swirsky knew what they were doing. Easily, they entice the audience, gamer or not, to want to watch these lives pan out. The emotion is there, right on screen. It almost feels like you're right there with them, experiencing these failures and successes altogether. By the end of the film, you're rooting for these people. This is an incredible documentary that tells it like it is and manages to open the door for the next wave of indie films to answer the questions it stirs up inside us.

You can watch Indie Game: The Movie on Netflix currently, and buy your own hard copy at a steal from

Also, stay tuned for indie games of 2012!


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