Documented: Indie Game the Movie Edition

Documented: Indie Game.jpg

When I was 10 our family got our first "personal computer." Something akin to a Commodore 64, though I doubt the thing contained the bells and whistles of El Commodore. To do much of anything you had to either use a giant floppy disk or program via a language like Basic. My brother was way better at "programming" than I was and even designed a downhill skiing game where the object was to avoid hitting X's or "trees." You had no control over the direction the skier went of course, you could only watch and wait for the inevitable collision.  I have therefore a distant cousin sort of kinship with video game programmers.

I give you Indie Game the Movie.

Indie Game is a 2012 offering from filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot. Because it always matters, the film runs just over an hour and a half and you feel the minutes towards the end. I didn’t want/need much more than I received. What you get are three story lines all focused on independent game designers. We’ll differentiate them the best way possible, by the games themselves.

First we have Super Meat Boy and its two designers Edmund and Tommy. Super Meat Boy is a game that involves a character made up only of meat who must circumnavigate perilous saw wielding levels in order to save his bandaged girlfriend. The plot lines aren’t entirely important until you start to hear from the creators and understand their attempts to bring their vision to pixilated life. The creators of Meat Boy live on different coasts, one in North Carolina the other in sunny California. Edmund, the California native, has by all appearances a wonderful creative side. Tommy his partner is the detail guy. Tommy is also neurotic and obsessive, traits that come clear in almost all the designers profiled. I loved hearing Edmund's perspective on designing a game, specifically his hope that somewhere a kid can get as much joy out of his game as he did when he was a kid.

The key to making a great documentary is to blend a story people want to know or understand with a film making style that captures that subject and tells its story. We get halfway to those goals with Indie Game. The film takes us DEEP into the minds of these creative, driven individuals. However the film’s style doesn’t do any favors, drumming along on at a dullish pace. This is partly due to the nature of game builds that forces blinders on the creators as they stare constantly into a box. That being said, if your looking for car chases or knife fights this ain't it. 

What the film does do well is pull back the curtain on the great and powerful who create video games, like the creator of Fez. Fez is, in theory, a game about a 2 dimensional character who finds himself in a 3 dimensional world. I say in theory because the game had been in design and redesign for 4 years at the time of Indie Game’s release. Fez’s designer, Phil Fish, steals most of the film. He, like his counterpart from Meat Boy, is neurotic and obsessive to the tune of multiple redesigns, partnership dissolution, and the revelation that should Fez fail, he’s contemplated suicide. For most of the movie, Phil is an emotional wreck, watching his life's dream teeter on the verge of failure. He's hard to watch, which is probably why you can't take your eyes off him. He also swims in his glasses which is odd.

Documentaries thrive on dramatic tension, hopefully real and not contrived. The dream is to be present with cameras rolling when SOMETHING happens. If you run TLC or the Discovery Channel this can all be accomplished in a production meeting thanks to a script rewrite. In a true documentary situation this is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle. In Indie Game such a moment happens as Fez is debuting at a gaming convention. Despite lofty expectations the demo launch becomes a disaster due to frequent crashing. It's great dramatic tension. Designer Phil is in full melt down as player after player tries his game only to have it crash. A scene later the problem is gone and the game is lauded for it's inventive style and game play. This fix was never addressed and as a viewer I was left to wonder what changed, how did the tension resolve, in other words the essence of story.

Every time it crashes it feels like a failure. Like a deep personal failure.
— Phil Fish, Creator of Fez

I can’t imagine what it’s like to give so much of your heart and soul to something that doesn’t really give back. Once the games are released, the designers are at the whim of a playing public who determines success or failure. Once you’ve given your heart and soul to something, sitting in the cross hairs of message board fodder is a cruel fate.

The third plot line is from the creator of the highly successful indie game Braid, Jonathan Blow. Blow has been where the creators of Fez and Meat Boy would like to go. Blow however admits that success wasn’t enough. Eventually the critics, even positive reviewers, took a toll. He struggled with how his game was interpreted. He even went to the extreme practice of trolling message boards to clarify and correct. Even with a successful game, letting go of his vision proved impossible.

This was the great take away from Indie Game, that when you fight through the creative process what you create is designed to be consumed and thereby judged or at least understood. The game becomes art and hopefully lucrative, but at a certain point it ceases to belong to the creators and becomes public property. Watching the designers grapple for control of something they will eventually lose control of makes for a pretty good story.

Bottom line, while the stories of these three games could have been told more cleanly or perhaps with more energy, the stories themselves are compelling. Not a bad watch, not a can't miss.

Indie Game the Movie is available on Netflix Instant View.

Posted on January 11, 2013 .