Indie Game: The Movie Review

Real Talk By: Steph-O (Stephanie Owens)

Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary feature film that focuses on the stories of developers of Super Meat Boy (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes), FEZ (Phil Fish and Renaud Bédard) and Braid (Jonathan Blow). It was created by Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajo, and was funded in part by two successful Kickstarter campaigns.

Indie Game has been received well by the film community, and even won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, but it is a slight let down to the gaming community. Praised as a film that even non-gamers can enjoy, I fear it is a film that only non-gamers will enjoy.

According to the film’s Kickstarter page, Indie Game was inspired by the film makers’ documentary short film on Alec Holowka of Infinite Ammo, as well as their experience covering the Game Developers Conference in 2009. Interested in the culture of indie game development, they wanted to explore it further. The end result of their feature length film has the same tone and style as the short, but I fear it has lost the spirit. The directors apparently shot over 300 hours of footage and interviewed quite a few other game developers in addition to the ones that made the cut. In the end, they decided to focus on the four developers chosen so as to tell the stories of three games in depth rather than only skimming the surface of many. A valid choice, had they not delved further into the stories of the chosen four individuals instead of the games themselves.

During the course of the film, there is much time spent on deadlines, frustration, relationships, and fear of failure, but hardly any time spent on what it is that is causing all those feelings in the first place: developing a game. There virtually no coverage of game programming (Phil Fish’s programming partner Renaud Bédard has only one or two interviews) or any actual game development, even though the film spans several months. I did enjoy learning about the developers’ pasts and how they got into video games and game development, and there are a few early game and artwork iterations that are fun to see. But this film could have focused on virtually any creative process and the results would have been almost the same. Everyone goes through those feelings of desperation and hopelessness when trying to meet a deadline, but this film was supposed to be specifically about video games.

The narrative is told mostly through interviews with the developers, but I have to wonder if maybe it was the prompts they were given or the way the film was edited that made the developers come off as so unbalanced. Sure, many creative can be a bit on the weird side, but how do all four interviewees come off as almost equally crazy? Sure, we’ve all been there: you have a huge deadline coming up, you are low on sleep (and time), your brain is fried and you can barely get your work finished- let alone interview on camera! Still, there is too much exaggeration on what is ‘at stake’ and the emotions of the developers, rather than how their games are progressing or the changes they have decided to make. It is an unfair representation of the game developer world, and possibly of those individuals themselves. Take Markus “Notch” Persson for example. There was recently a Kickstarter project held to document Mojang– the studio created after the initial success of Minecraft -and the 20 minute preview already availableshows an extremely talented but overall sound individual. There are plenty of indie game developers out there- as well as indie film makers, musicians, and artists -all doing the same thing as these developers. I don’t think what made them unique was their stress and frustration, so why was that the focus?

Indie Game: The Movie had a chance to bring some attention to the indie gaming community and give less well known developers something to look up to. However, anyone who actually plays or developers games will be left frustrated, and “non-gamers” will only think of how strange you must have to be to create a game.

Indie Game: The Movie is currently available on Netflix instant watch, for watch or download DRM-free for $9.99, and is currently shipping on DVD and Blu-Ray copies. Check out it, and let me know what you think.

Indie Game: The Movie Gets

Out of Five

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