Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: Indie Game: The Movie (James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, 2012)

Indie Game: The Movie, directed by Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, is an entertaining, involving, touching and inspiring documentary feature, and a winner of the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It is an insightful look at the journey that several independent game developers - who sacrifice money, health, sanity and years of their lives to realize their dreams - take to share their creative visions and the latest gaming sensation with the world.

The film documents the struggles of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes during the development of Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish, during the development of Fez, and Jonathan Blow, who reflects on the success of his Xbox Live Arcade game, Braid.

Like The King of Kong (2007) this is an insightful look into a tiny subculture frequently overshadowed by the industry big guns (large-scale productions like GTA and Call of Duty), and largely unknown to anyone other than serious gamers. It is a fantastic initiation into this tiny world, as these talented individuals toil away at their art, but faced with financial limitations and significant emotional investment.

Indie Game transcends the subject by offering up genuine heroes. They are eccentrics – the auteurs of the gaming world – but they remain interesting and dedicated people. They work extremely hard for something they are passionate in, hit obstacles and face shattered dreams, but endure through it all. It is inspiring.

The editing win is very deserved because 300 hours of footage has been cut down to the very tight 96-minute run-time with a conscious effort made to follow the four aforementioned developers, and create a narrative drive towards Fez's appearance at a gaming expo and the release of the Super Meat Boy on XBox Live Arcade. Technically, the film is brimming with energy. There are seamless transitions between the three different projects and the interviews with the designers are divided by screen captures of their incomplete games to accompany their descriptions of how the levels were conceived and designed.

With Jonathan Blow, we are able to see a man reflect on the success of Braid, one of the highest rated video games of all time, and reminisce on how he felt about people’s reaction to his creation. He revealed that he suffered depression with the knowledge that few gamers, though enjoying the game and rating it well, appreciated the details it in the same way he did. For Jonathan, who "made the game for himself", this was ultimately more important than the money he would receive from the sales. He wanted to ensure that gamers had a memorable experience through the game but also understood its personality. 

For these guys, their creations are more than a game for gamers to enjoy, but they hope that it also functions as a window into their psychology. By crafting these games on a shoestring budget for a specific crowd – much like indie filmmakers and their films – they hope that their unique voices, an auteur-ism if you like, will be recognized by the gamers as an expression of themselves. Indie Game looks at the side effects for those who devote all of their time and energy to their craft and who define themselves through art. It captures the tension and drama by focusing on these artists’ vulnerability, their ongoing obsession and their anxiety at the prospect of failure. Edmund takes to the Internet and reads through the reviews of his game, while Phil scours for the chat rooms and blogs for abuse about delays.

This is a film designed to honour these creative talents for their extraordinary achievements, and inform the world about the hours of work that goes into building these games many of us enjoy but don't necessarily respect on a deeper level. Not only is it inspiring, it is very sad. Tommy, especially, is a guy easy to sympathise with. This is a man who dedicates all of his time to programming. He has limited money, he doesn’t go out, and there are several shots of him sitting alone in a diner. He hopes Super Meat Boy will be a success because the monetary benefits will allow him to help his parents repay their mortgage. Edmund is the designer; and we get a privileged insight into his dedication to his project and some interesting interview responses about the creative process.

Phil is a man dealing with a lot of pressure. His project, Fez, has been in troubled development for years. The game’s announcement thrust Phil into the limelight but family trouble, the loss of his business partner (who he swears to kill if he runs into him again) and his obsessive attention to detail, which has resulted in multiple re-designs, many begun to question the future of the project. He has begun to lose perspective about the quality of the game he has put together, and the PAX Expo is the first time the game can be played publicly since the announcement four years prior. Understandably, he is a nervous observer, and as a viewer we are too. Brilliant entertainment.

Indie Game: The Movie is screening as part of Possible Worlds on Friday 17th August at 6.30pm at Dendy Newtown. Play videogames and enjoy a free drink after the movie!


  1. I'd never heard of this and it sounds fascinating, especially since my son is an aspiring video game maker. Thanks for the terrific review. I hope I'll get a chance to see this eventually.

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