Review: Indie Game: The Movie is a Must-See For Anyone Who Likes Games, Art, Experiencing Strong Emotions

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The first thing you need to know about the documentary Indie Game: The Movie is that it is not about how to make a game or how the development process works. In a lot of ways, this movie isn’t really about games at all. It’s about the people who make games, and the extraordinary effort they put into it. If you read nothing else of this review, at least know this: It’s a wonderful film.

Produced and directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, Indie Game: The Movie focuses its lens on the creators of three games — Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow (Braid). The result is an intimate, down-to-earth look at the mental and emotional cost of artistic creation. If E3 left you feeling apathetic about the future of games, this is just the antidote you need.

As the film unfolds, you can’t help but become invested in the outcome of these games. Budgets run thin, beards grow thick, moods sink low, and sleep becomes an afterthought. Watching these guys battle software bugs, deadlines, and private insecurities is a harrowing experience, but a compassionate one, too. You want these people to succeed. You want Tommy to sell enough games to help his parents pay off their mortgage. You want Edmund to finally achieve the personal connection he seeks through his art. You want something to go right for Phil, just once. You want to jump through the screen and tell Jonathan that you went for a long walk after finishing Braid because it gave you so much to think about (or maybe that’s just me).

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the human face it puts on an intangible medium. We live in a time in which entertainment simply happens, where new games and apps appear on our computers and consoles as if by magic. We don’t even have to go out and buy the discs anymore (I don’t think I’ve had a physical copy of a game since Valve’s Orange Box). I think it’s easy to forget that on the other end of a game is a flesh-and-blood person who poured everything they had into making it. There is a moment early in the film when Phil Fish rails against the “army of assholes” — by which he means angry internet commenters — complaining about the game’s lengthy development period. “There’s two of us here!” he exclaims, referring to himself and Renaud Bédard, the game’s programmer, a stark contrast to development studios with dozens or hundreds of employees. The film cuts to a handful of profanity-laden blog comments, all to the effect of “I hate Phil Fish for not finishing this game.” Casually dashed-off insults are a common sight online, but seeing Phil’s face fall as he talks about how hard those comments are on him is a powerful reality check.

The film delivers a visceral sense of the joy and pain interwoven throughout any creative act. There are a few heartwarming scenes early on as the film’s subjects revisit things that inspired them as children — Edmund’s grade school drawings of monsters and demons, the Metroid and Mega Man posters in Tommy’s childhood bedroom, Phil grinning ear to ear as he revisits “Cyber Vision,” an awkward pattern-generating program he made as a kid. The more somber moments are equally moving. There is a sense of distance from these people, a reflection of how ironically isolating it can be to make things for others. Tommy and Edmund comment separately that making games is their way of communicating with people. “It’s why a writer writes, I guess; it’s because they can. That’s the most effective way they can express themselves. A video game is the most effective way I can express myself,” Tommy says (and he’s right about writers). When Jonathan later admits that he was depressed for months after Braid’s hugely successful release (“I visualized that I was going to have some kind of connection with people through this game, and they think it’s great, but the connection isn’t there”), you understand just how much is at stake for these people if the players — in effect, the other half of the conversation — don’t relate to them.

The film has received some criticism for not talking enough about the history of the indie scene, or for not providing non-gamers with enough information about gaming as a whole. I understand where these comments are coming from, but those perspectives belong in a different movie. By showing the audience the personal side of making games, the film elevates developers to the same level of artistic legitimacy as musicians, visual artists, authors, and filmmakers. There is no doubt when watching this film that the inspiration and determination that went into these games are identical to those you’ll find in any other medium. In that respect, I think that focusing on the emotional rather than the technical is perfect for non-gamers in the audience. For people not familiar with games, that approach is far easier to connect to than a diatribe on why you should care about platformers. And as a gamer, I got far more out of witnessing the blood, sweat, and tears than I would have from a crash course in Indie Games 101. Seeing all the love and time that was put into these games made me misty-eyed. Hearing Edmund talk about his motivations behind Bandage Girl (Meat Boy’s girlfriend), learning that Phil redid Fez’s in-game artwork three times in order to get it just right…it all reminded me of why I love games in the first place.

Indie Game: The Movie can be seen at select game conferences, film festivals, and special screenings, but anybody with a computer can enjoy it at home. The film in its entirety can be purchased digitally straight from its official website. You can buy it through Steam, too, as I did (it’s great, because you’re able to jump gleefully into a game right after the credits roll). It should also be mentioned that the film has a great soundtrack by Jim Guthrie, whose Sword & Sworcery soundtrack I have been binging on for the past two weeks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find an Xbox owner willing to let me camp on their couch so I can play Fez.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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