Review of Indie Game: The Movie – Personal journeys told through games @indiegamemovie
I had been interested in seeing Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, at least since January of this year when it made a splash at Sundance. The option was finally available to me when the movie was released digitally yesterday (on Steam and directly from the makers) for $9.99 (with DVDs and Blu-Rays to follow 4 to 5 weeks from now).
Indie Game: The Movie follows Phil Fish, the developer of Fez, Jonathan Blow, the developer of Braid, and Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the creators of Super Meat Boy as they each go on their personal journeys during the making of the film. Each of the game makers are at different points of their lives, each of them have different experiences, and each of them have a different relationship with their own games (even Refenes and McMillen have distinctly separate relationships with Super Meat Boy). Still, the first level that the movie really struck me on was the feeling of belonging. I remember the time when the film was being shot. I remember the buzz around these games (I won’t spoil anything in the movie, but needless to say they have all released and been successful in their own right). Part of Indie Game: The Movie is the story of a subculture that I identify as being part of. A group of people that all came up around the same time (and other like-minded persons) that remember when games were simpler or more magical or more unique. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is true, it matters that we believe it. Those of us that were there playing The Legend of Zelda, or Super Mario Bros. or Dragon Warrior or whatever remember it being that way before the industry got big and decided it wanted to grow up to be the film industry. And so that generation decided to bring things back a little, to make games that were more personal. That is what Fish, Blow, McMillen, and Refenes are all doing (whether or not it is for that reason): creating games that are personal again. That has been going on for a long time now, but it was really only a little bit before this movie that the whole thing really started the gain traction and the tools and distribution channels opened up to allow these developers to truly be successful on their own terms (of course, after the Kickstarter revolution and the rise of the big budget indie, we have something else, but that is not this story). Each of these developers is putting something of themselves out there. Their games, you learn, say something unique about each of them that you may not have realized before. And it is beautiful. It made each of the games mean a little more than they did before; infused with meaning.
So the first story is one of creation, the journey of an artist. But the second story is a more personal one. I still don’t want to take anything away from your own experience with Indie Game: The Movie, but suffice it to say that none of these developers were successful at the start of this movie. Each of them have personal struggles, they make sacrifices, they break down, and they put themselves out there maybe just a little more than they thought they would. Each of the developers is compelling in his own way, although McMillen and Fish are probably the two largest arcs, so to speak, and watching each of them struggle with their own personal situations, as people, is interesting and challenging in its own way. These are games that aren’t made by small armies (although there are people behind those games, too, to be sure). These are games made by people who have personal journeys, too. They have personal problems and business problems and family problems and all of those things are probably the largest part of the story by the end: the personal journey for each of these developers, the toll it takes, and the rewards it brings.
The film is compelling throughout, running just over an hour and a half, and the film makers did an amazing job of keeping each of the stories moving forward. Even more, the film is gorgeously shot and Swirsky and Pajot do a great job of keeping themselves out of the picture (metaphorically, since they are never literally in the picture) and letting the developers do the talking. Questions are asked when they need, when a snag is hit, but for the most part they appear to do a magnificent job with finding where the stories are for these people and bringing each of those individual stories together into one larger story: the one of the rise of the indie game community.
Indie Game: The Movie is fantastic. Even if you aren’t interested in indie games, even if you told me you don’t normally like documentaries, I would still recommend that you watch it. If you aren’t interested in indie games, Indie Game: The Movie might at least help you understand some of the emotions behind those who are. If you don’t normally like documentaries, I can tell you that Indie Game: The Movie is so well constructed and the personal stories are so compelling that it dares you to be bored. I certainly never was. Indie Game: The Movie was released digitally yesterday, June 12, 2012, and is available on Steam or directly from the filmmakers for $9.99.