Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie: The Review

Indie Game: The Movie. Dir. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky. June 12, 2012.
First-time directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s documentary Indie Game: The Movie explores the motivations and efforts of indie game developers in the uncertain and high-stakes independent game market. Indie Game is primarily driven by interviews with Jonathan Blow, Tommy Refenes, Edmund McMillen, and Phil Fish. Jon muses on the development of and his struggles with the critical and financial success ofBraid. Edmund and Tommy are full of trepidation in the brutal final weeks leading up to and on the launch day of Super Meat Boy. And Phil addresses his game Fez’s five-year development and the events that have slowed his work, plus his crippling panic as he prepares to set up a demo of his long-awaited game at PAX East 2011. Indie Game does not aim to compare the world of independent game development to the world of corporate game development, nor to highlight the potential financial rewards of possibly creating one of a very few indie games that have been profitable. Indie Game is about the humanity of four indie game developers, their desire to communicate that humanity to others through the medium of video games, and their fears that they are misunderstood.

Pajot and Swirsky use a statement made by Jonathan Blow as a prism to clarify their documentary’s purpose. Jon muses, “Part of it is about not trying to be professional. A lot of people come into indie games trying to be a big company. What those game companies do is create highly-polished things that serve as large of an audience as possible. The way that you do that is by filing off all the bumps on something. If there’s a sharp corner, you make sure that’s not going to hurt anybody if they bump into it or whatever. That creation of this highly glossy commercial product is the opposite of making something personal. Things that are personal have flaws, they have vulnerabilities. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody, you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level. It’s the same with a game design. Making [Braid] was about let me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them in the game and let’s see what happens.” Jon makes clear that the purpose of creating indie games is to create something personal through which one can express one’s deepest flaws and vulnerabilities in order to relate to others on a personal level. Indie Game aims to show the intensity with which its subjects desire to communicate themselves to others and the anxiety of being misunderstood. Rarely does a minute go by in the film without some mention of communication or self-expression.

The narrative of Indie Game weaves together three different perspectives on the process of attempting to communicate through a video game. Jon provides the viewpoint of an indie developer whose game found critical acclaim and financial success, but who feels that people didn’t really get what he was trying to communicate. “Not that many people understood and that was a little heartbreaking in a way. I visualized I was going to have some kind of connection with people through this game. And they think it’s great, but the connection isn’t there,” Jon laments.

Tommy and Edmund are representative of indie developers from the period directly before their game is complete to the point where the game is reviewed by the press and, finally, released. Tommy and Edmund are encouraged by the initial reception to Super Meat Boy, and feel that people truly get what their game expresses.

Phil is in the manic moments of development when there is still a very real threat of his game never reaching completion. It isn’t until Phil finally demos Fez at PAX East 2011, that he seems fully able to put into words just what his game is trying to communicate. “I wanted to create a nice place,” Phil concludes, “a pleasant place to be in. I want people to feel a sense of openness and adventure but in a really simple, almost childlike way.”

Three important elements of the film assert the directors’s dedication to showcasing each developer’s humanity, and all three first occur in the prologue and are then repeated later. The opening scene in which Tommy wakes up on Super Meat Boy’s release day to find that the game is nowhere to be found on the Xbox Live marketplace is one that makes perfect sense when it occurs in the chronologically constructed second act of Indie Game; however, as the documentary’s prologue the scene requires some slight variations in editing and the inclusion of a defeated Tommy giving the scene some context in voiceover. In the prologue, Tommy’s confusion is juxtaposed with his greatest fears made real. “I’ve got plenty of information,” Tommy states flatly, “I know that on our launch day…which is our biggest sales day…that we’re not even featured anywhere. I know on our launch day, at this point, we’re going to do worse than all of them.” Tommy’s primary concern in the prologue seems to be sales but when this scene plays in its proper perspective, the audience has seen the level of Tommy’s dedication to Super Meat Boy. We know that Tommy has sacrificed extensively to finish the project, to meet a deadline that was supposed to guarantee Super Meat Boy prominent placement in the game marketplace. Using this scene as the prologue accentuates the anxieties and fears that pervade the film, and sets the human element out front ahead of other elements of indie gaming that could easily dominate the documentary such as the history and politics of indie games.

The prologue is followed by the title card accompanied by an image of a Super Nintendo controller hanging from a phone line. This image also closes out the epilogue. The connection between the SNES controller and the phone line is illustrative of the connection to others that each of the featured developers seeks through video games. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the image first precedes the film’s statement of purpose, then follows the film’s re-statement of purpose. In the film’s opening, that statement is made through interspersing Jonathon Blow’s theory of indie game design with Tommy, Edmund, and Phil stating that game development is their means of self-expression in an effort to connect with others. In the film’s conclusion, Jonathan Blow’s theory of indie game design is interspersed with a follow-up informing the audience where each developer is in the process of communicating with gamers.

Indie Game is easily accessible to those of the video game generations, but may be a hard sell to older viewers. The film invites uninitiated gamers to discover the world of indie games, while providing enough of a look inside the gaming industry to keep the interest of gamers well-versed in independent gaming fare. Most likely, any gaming-literate audience will be drawn in by the film’s interesting imagery and will find the human stories consistently engrossing. Indie Game is rife with human moments and psychological portraits of each developer.

The filmmakers bring viewers the darkest struggles of these four developers as they contemplate the purpose of creating a game independently and ruminate on the definition of success and failure; however, the film avoids providing any real-life example of an indie game that is not a commercial and critical success. Indie Game never attempts to whitewash the risks of independent production, but the film only deals with the consequences of failure in the abstract. Still, Pajot and Swirsky ably capture their subjects’s genuine anxieties and fears in such a way as to illuminate the risks of indie game development. Indie Game romanticizes the devotion to an artistic vision that drives these four developers to risk their physical, psychological, and financial well-beings in pursuit of artistic freedom.

Indie Game is available on Steam and iTunes and through DRM-free direct download from the film’s website. Indie Game also recently began streaming on Netflix instant.