Why Indie Game: The Movie Matters: More Pixels, More Problems

Hello there, I’d like to introduce a new feature! Reviews on Play With Pixels will continue to focus on game reviews, but sometimes there are interesting works in and around the games themselves that are worthy of discussion.

With that in mind, this is the first instalment of Why It Matters where we will cover items such as documentaries (as with Indie Game: The Movie), events (I have a couple coming out for later in July in that vein) and others that are of interest to gamers.
Indie Game: The Movie is a deceptively simple title for a seemingly straightforward film, but it reveals itself as much more over the course of 2 gripping hours. The team of Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky (who funded the film using Kickstarter) display a real knack for capturing their subjects at key moments and pair that with interesting camera and lighting angles to keep the viewer engaged.

The most complete narrative in the film features Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the pair behind the lovably bizarre world of the platform adventure Super Meat Boy. Both are game developers with supportive families and an unwavering desire to realize their vision of a boy made of meat reuniting with his girlfriend made of bandages. It is even stranger than that sounds for anyone who has yet to experience the game, but still remains utterly addictive; I mentioned Super Meat Boy to a friend recently, only to get a text message at 3am with the confession that he had played throughout the night to finish it. McMillen and Refenes are probably the most level headed of our subjects, but they still experience the highs and lows that always come with indie game development; the opening scene with an initially confused and quickly furious Refenes realizing that Super Meat Boy had not been promoted to the Xbox Live Arcade promotional carousel on launch day (a pivotal type of promotion for all new releases).

By contrast, Phil Fish is a bundle of nerves which constantly threatens to unravel as he spends year after year on his seminal game Fez. He has a wide eyed, often disheveled look that belies a fiery personality that periodically explodes through: between his anger at a former business partner (who we meet early on) and his frustration at building a deeply personal game essentially by himself, Fish is the embodiment of the starving artist archetype that permeates indie games. That isn’t quite the case; as a resident of Montreal, Canada, he has government assistance that many small businesses can attain (hooray for my native land), but that assistance is meant as a kick start for a new business with a stable business model. 4 years into the process at the time of the documentary, the edges are starting to fray for Fish as he struggles both creatively and technically to reach the goal that he has worked so long to achieve.

The presence of Jonathan Blow is a bit inconsistent, as his presence is used mostly as a narrative framework for the other stories. There is very little discussion about the conditions that resulted in his acclaimed Braid becoming an independent game phenomenon on critical and commercial levels, and he appears to struggle with the position that it has placed him in. Blow comes across as a man who has become a leader for indie games in spite of his intentions; the success of Braid and the anticipation for his upcoming project The Witness are extremely high, and have thrust him into a spotlight that he seems quite uncomfortable with.

The film does not really delve into his creative process, but rather Blow’s frustrations at the interpretations of Braid being “incorrect”. In a way, it is understandable that a carefully crafted and intensely personal story is desired to have a specific message, but that becomes exponentially more difficult to expect as the size of the audience grows. Film and television creator Joss Whedon once described his creations as children: he brings them into existence, but then they take on a life of their own after that and the opinions that form around them are an important part of the work. It is a fairly Zen approach, but one that works remarkably well with widely distributed work (which may be why Whedon has an extraordinarily diverse legion of fans).

Indie Game: The Movie obviously appeals to an audience that is interested in video games, and even more so for gamers that are interested in unique and unconventional experiences. That said, you do not need to be a gamer to enjoy and learn from the movie; the challenges and triumphs that happen over the course of the film are universally relatable which is a credit to Pajot and Swirsky.

It also has a great soundtrack! I would describe it as a softer variety of chip tunes, which flits seamlessly into and between each segment of the stories with a surprising grace. I have actually been listening to it online while writing this piece, and it is still an appealing blend of catchy hooks and staccato beats that have me hooked.

There have been criticisms of Indie Game: The Movie as being a glossy version of the independent or small studio game development experience, because the featured stories all ended in success (I believe Fez had not been released when the finished film debuted, but it has since released to tremendous acclaim). What these naysayers miss is that it captures the mental, physical, financial and logistical challenges that any project faces when going through the rigorous game certification process. The film really spoke to me as someone who has been through that process (I worked extensively on an launch application for the Xbox App Marketplace), and I could relate to every context specific frustration that Edmund, Tommy, Phil and Jonathan spoke of.

In the end, what really matters about Indie Game: The Movie is that it captures the quintessential struggle between professional ambition and personal well being that all high achievers struggle with. The environment of independent development amplifies that with fewer resources (both human and financial) and less margin for error, and the journey that our subjects take is more poignant as a result. If the worst had happened and all of the games had failed, it does not undermine the underlying message of the film: you need to make a huge commitment and equally huge sacrifices if you want to achieve greatness.
Indie Game: The Movie is now available on Steam, where it can be purchased directly.

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