Film Reviews

Indie Game: The Movie Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky

Rating - 8/10

Perhaps because directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky faced similar challenges to make and distribute Indie Game: The Movie, it remarkably encapsulates the essence of creating a video game- the idealism, anxieties, successes, drawbacks, funding and design issues, dissolution and triumph of partnerships, and sacrifices.  Focusing on three private developers, the film intercuts between them to convey their own excitement and trepidation as well as the sense of community, even if each developer may ultimately find themselves on a different path.  Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are the team behind Super Meat Boy, a quirky 2D platformer that saw its digital release in October 2010 on Xbox 360's Live Arcade (or XBLA).  Montréal native Phil Fish appears in the film as the lone head of Polytron, a company responsible for the eight-bit, deceptively 2D puzzle/platformer game Fez, described in the film as "walking around a cubist painting."  Fish's story is most harrowing, as he offers the most intimate details of his life and the "development hell" Fez suffered since its conception over four years before final release in April 2012, also on XBLA.  Finally, Jonathan Blow, who famously released puzzle/platformer Braid in the autumn of 2008 via the same channels, acts as a kind of figurehead or forefather whose completed project stands as a cornerstone of indie game success.  His musings about designing the game and (badly) reacting to initial critical response are delivered in interludes amidst the pressured development of Super Meat Boy and Fez.  While Indie Game: The Movie does not include any insight into the music compositions for any of the games and falls into the trap of introducing itself with a dramatic scene lacking in context that comes to be repeated an hour later, the film is often riveting and assembled with inspirational and essential content for anyone who fancies themselves a gamer.

The six-minute introductory sequence, in fact, while serving as a kind of trailer for the film itself, importantly offers Blow's own insight into the true definition of an independent game- a product that houses vulnerabilities and flaws without a glossy commercial finish.  While major development houses of hundreds or even thousands of people devote themselves the idea of "amping up everything" (as it's described by Brandon Boyer of the Independent Games Festival) and heightening realism with burgeoning visual technologies and physics, small companies and individuals return to their roots to kindle the same passions in younger gamers that spurred their curiosities in the 1980s.  All three games featured are undoubtedly indebted to undisputed classics like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Tetris.  Notably, Fish likens design in his game to Tetris blocks; Mario's end-world celebration is halted by the phrase "(The) princess is in another castle" that turns up in Blow's Braid; and Super Meat Boy could be described as a medley of various elements from early Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros. and Ghosts'n Goblins.  Of course, beyond the homages and hopeful financial successes, the creation of the games serve vital therapeutic purposes, as they are intense reflections of their creators.  The film's finest example comes through McMillen, who speaks of one of his older experiments, Aether, inspired by his similarly introverted niece.  The game consists of a character traveling to various planets on a mission to establish friendships by solving problems; "each of the planets was a (childhood) phobia of mine," McMillen admits, and the creation of the game was a way to confront plaguing obsession.
The appeal of independent game development is, by definition, its autonomy and boundless creative limits.  Unfortunately, just like major studios, time tables come into play once the public has seen its preliminary previews.  People (and Microsoft, with regard to Super Meat Boy) expect periodic updates and set release dates.  Other barriers include funding and lack of uncertainty about wide appeal, but as Refenes explains, regardless of Super Meat Boy's reach, the game's realization alone is justification for the grueling process (and supported by McMillen's expression that he created the game for a thirteen-year-old version of himself).  Fish's trials and tribulations with Fez provide the film with some of its most urgent scenes, as he candidly offers all of his life's sordid details.  Because the game has been in production for over a thousand days and his original unnamed business partner resigned in the process, Fish has been burdened with a slew of developmental challenges.  This is complicated further by a myriad of personal disasters over this span of time, including a father diagnosed with leukemia, his parents' divorce, loss of a governmental grant to fund Fez, and even relationship pains.  His near-meltdown at the Penny Arcade Expo in Boston, MA, is an honestly captured but emotionally challenging episode.  However, Fish's reactions and doubts really convey his devotion and instillation of personality into Fez, as it functions as his metaphorical child.

Overshadowing the film's intimate portrayal of its subjects is the rise of digital distribution through broadband service, which brought indie developers to the forefront in the first place; their potential has been harnessed by major consoles' cooperation (particularly Microsoft, shown both favorably and unfavorably).  Where the debate may seem sketchier when discussing the means of other media releases, the biggest advocate for digital distribution in general is opportunity for the small, independently-minded game developer.  Commissioned in 2009 to document the story of Alec Holowka, creator of Aquaria, Pajot and Swirsky were prompted to shoot this full-length feature by the resulting five-minute short called Infinite Ammo, which succinctly captures Holowka's route to success and future intentions.  This short is included with the physical DVD/Blu-ray release of Indie Game: The Movie.  With significant support from the Kickstarter community, the directors were additionally able to cover travel and production costs.  A newfound resourceful tool, Kickstarter would make an interesting and necessary addition to the nature of funding, which may be brought into the limelight with any follow-up to this film.  Since Indie Game: The Movie's completion, the rise of crowd-funded art projects online has risen dramatically; significantly, Tim Schafer (of Psychonauts acclaim) and his company Double Fine Productions raised over $3,300,000 in March 2012 for an unnamed adventure game's development.  By the conclusion of the film, it seems each creative mind is wandering a different course; McMillen and Refenes are celebrating a huge success, Phil Fish remains hanging in a kind of limbo, and Jonathan Blow is silently working on a new game, The Witness, scheduled for release in 2013.  The film is an ultimate love letter to the tenacity of the underdogs, as much of a personal statement as each of the games featured in development.