BThere is a lot of passion, soul baring, and white-knuckle anxiety on display in Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s documentary on the world of independent games and their micro-sized design teams. Instead of hundreds of people working on all aspects of a top tier title, in the two case-studies delved into in Indie Game: The Movie the entire team is two people. A mere duo, responsible for doing every aspect of the game, including programming, art design, level construction and managing the business side. Eating well (or shaving) does not factor high on the priority scale. Financially these guys are operating with little safety network other than generously patient parents or girlfriends. Even if the game is actually finished in a relatively bug-free state to allow for release (challenge enough!) it still has to hit traction in the X-Box Arcade (or WiiWare or Steam), direct digital distribution platforms managed by the big boys (Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve) Failure means that two to four years (or more) just went by with no monetary compensation. As one of the designers of Super Meat Boy succinctly puts it, “No Pressure!” Combine the ever present financial pit of spikes with the designers’ passion for making their games fresh, personal and ultimately a form of artistic expression and communication with the eventual gamer and the stakes for soul-crushing failure or triumphant success become even higher. The filmmakers impart a heightened awareness of this by crafting one of the emotionally draining dramas of the year. An eight dollar video game may be trivial in the grand scheme of things, but dig deep enough and there is a well-spring of dramatic tension and suspense. When, Phil Fish, the designer of the novel multi-dimensional platform jumper, Fez, stares into the camera and declares that if he cannot finish or release this game he will kill himself, it is easy to suspend disbelief to the hyperbole, because the dude is indeed on the edge. These guys are committed to their craft as much as the filmmakers are to documenting it.
Indie Game: The Movie is not merely good, it is a great piece of documentary filmmaking that passes a number of personal criteria I have when watching. It looks cinematic and well crafted, sporting a great eye for photography and imagery while setting up the requisite talking heads segments. It is edited with such precision that you lose yourself in the narrative. It has a ‘cast of characters’ that is quirky and individual but also honest and unafraid to commit to looking ‘unflattering’ in the moment. You genuinely like these guys and time spent with them, whether it is anxiously awaiting a milestone in the game development or hearing their thoughts on how video games can indeed be art. Most importantly you do not have to care one lick about the subject matter (I haven’t played a video game of any kind since World of Goo) for the movie to be compelling. Ostensibly it is about the hyper-competitive world of video games and design craft of individual titles, from the nuance of pixel art and aesthetics to the designer’s ability to impart the learning of game mechanics to a novice player, but really things scale to higher ambitions, namely the universal human stress and joy (and joy of stress in hindsight) intrinsic to any creative act that will be sent forth into the world. The intensity of Eddie McMillan (and his hairless-cat loving wife), Tommy Refenes and Phil Fish translates on screen into an overall neurotic sense of humour that might just transcend the parody-stylings of Christopher Guest. These guys are great characters, driven and very vulnerable; their journey made nobel by quality and highly observant filmmaking. The ‘villains’ of the piece range from bureaucratic indifference of the gaming distributors, as well online ‘fan-trums’ thrown by potential customers in gaming forums stoked by teases of the game at shows or by word of mouth, but impatient and suspicious by how often these small projects turn out to be vapourware.
Just as in the end Fez and Super Meat Boy indeed became major success stories on in the world of X-Box Arcade, so to, I suspect that Indie Game: The Movie will be a success story on the doc circuit and with audiences. It already has won a major prize at Sundance, and played to a packed and enthusiastic crowd at HotDocs while being simulcast across the country (the filmmakers are Canadian). If Roger Ebert wants a 90 minute case for the the art (and humanity) of video games, he only has to only look at the sheer frustrated joy of people playing Super Meat Boy (the game is designed to be hard) and how this mirrors, in a way, the reasons why people like McMillan and Refenes design these games in the first place. The film shows this connection and all the blood, sweat and tears in between.