Indie Game: The Movie is many things. It’s an example of successful crowd-source funding (via Kickstarter), a love letter to a medium that is still struggling to be taken seriously but most importantly it is an insight into pure, raw creativity showcasing highs, lows and all the complex emotions that exist when devoting your entire life to simply finishing something. You don’t need to know anything about video-games to find worth in Indie Game: The Movie, you simply need to appreciate that creativity which drives the subjects under examination.
Those subjects are developers of independent video-games which as the film points out early on are smaller, more intimate games than you might find in your local megastore, produced for online distribution at a subsidized cost. The film follows the two-man team of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they struggle to finish their debut console game, Super Meat Boy, and Phil Fish who has been working on the game Fez over four years under much public scrutiny throughout several game-changing overhauls. Viewers passionate about video-games will delight in the behind the scenes look at these two games, which were both released to much praise and success in the past few years, but again, that’s neither important nor the point.
The excellence that drives Indie Game: The Movie is an inherent tension that all three of these designers are constantly faced with; the nature of being independent developers is a constant threat of failure for their projects, with no fail-safes or monetary promises beyond the initial funding that they have already spent. The leads stay true to the mindset of independent development throughout, rarely concerning themselves with dreams of success but instead focusing on far more primal fears of not finishing the games at all. As Fish ponders, “That’s my incentive for finishing the game; then I get to not kill myself.”, the contrast between his thought process and the child-like wonderland he is working on day and night is jarring but effective as an expression of his focus: the game and nothing more.
Between the tales of struggling comes a narration from Jonathan Blow, the designer of the one of the first hugely successful indie games, Braid, in 2007. He explains his personal philosophies in regards to game design and how he struggled with the success of Braid but his segment feels weakest in the structure of the film as a whole. Although his design commentary is interesting from the perspective of a video-game enthusiast, to the uninitiated Blow’s segments merely come off as reminiscing about past experiences, as opposed to Fish, McMillen and Refenes’ ‘in the moment’ struggles. Without a current game to worry about, it feels as if Blow is representing some omniscient force of the gaming community rather than necessarily having his own story among his peers.
Although Indie Game: The Movie isn’t afraid to delve into darkness, there is certainly light to be found in the independent scene. As Super Meat Boy goes on sale, it feels as if every moment of emotion is captured, from Refenes’ initial frustration with the release of the game to McMillen’s reflections on the impact that the team have hopefully made on the lives of fans. The laughter on display as McMillen and Refenes explore the sea of content that users post online in relation to their game is likely to be one of the most heart-warming scenes of the year.
And what of the creators of Indie Game: The Movie itself? Having plucked 96 minutes out of 300 hours of recorded footage, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot frame their documentary with immaculate precision and capture some of the most beautiful non-staged shots and emotional breakdowns in recent memory. Their movie proves, just as much as the games on display, that there is still a place for independent creation in the world.
Indie Game: The Movie was released on June 12th worldwide for rent on iTunes or to purchase from iTunes, Steam or the Indie Game: The Movie website.