Second Opinion: Indie Game: The Movie

Does the acclaimed new documentary about the making of Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez have anything to offer non-gamers?

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


I should perhaps announce right at the outset that I am unqualified to talk about video games. I did play video games all through my youth, and have proudly mastered games like Mega Man III and StarTropics, and I even – one time – completed the mythic Second Quest in The Legend of Zelda. But I fell out of the video game scene just as the internet came into its own and video games turned from an enjoyable pastime into a full-blown lifestyle choice. So the games discussed in Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary about independent video game developers, are unfamiliar to me. Perhaps this disconnect will give me a better perspective on the film itself.

The film, directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, is actually a somewhat dull affair that spends perhaps far too much time at trade shows and talking about the business side of video game development than about the actual games themselves, or that true nature of the industry. Indie Game laser focuses on the ambitions and the foibles of the programmers without giving neophytes like myself any sense of what was at stake. What, for instance, is the current business climate for video game designers? Edmund McMillan and Tommy Refenes, for instance, developed a popular video game called Super Meat Boy, and evidently had some sort of deal with Microsoft to have their game posted in their vast online stores. Is their deal with Microsoft seen as a boon? Is it a deal with the Devil? Or does anyone with a completed game, that they themselves made with their own home computers, able to their post games online? What, in short, is really at stake for these people? These answers may come readily to people who are fans of indie games, but explanations are not given to me.

There does seem to be a lot at stake for Phil Fish, the programmer behind a game called Fez. Perpetually anxious, and embroiled in a bitter rivalry with a former (unnamed and unseen) partner, Fish declares openly at one point that he will commit suicide if his game isn't a hit. That does seem like a superlative, but part of me believed that he might actually do this. There is, conversely, nothing at all at stake for a fellow named Jonathan Blow who programmed a game called Braid, which is, from what I understand, a hugely popular game. Some cursory internet research leads me to the fact (not announced in the film) that Blow spent over $100,000 of his own money developing it. With his dreamy monologues about making games and connecting with players, I got the impression that Blow was, perhaps, one of those wealthy children who has never done anything but play video games.

Current indie games, by the way, seem to resemble the games I used to play. The video game industry has, as explained in a maddeningly brief montage, become obsessed with slick graphics and cut-in movies (i.e. the part of the game we used to skip in order to get to the actual game part), and has, as a result, become bloated and gross and has lost sight of simple factors like difficulty, creative puzzles, and actual game play. Independent fans, as a result, have been tinkering with their home computers, and put together simpler games that are easier to play, and focus less on extraneous backstory, and more on the kind of pleasant and easy mechanics that were being made by big companies back in 1992.

I can see the passion on their faces. I can see their drive. I can be moved by their need to succeed. But what is being achieved? Is it just managing to sell something they made? Is it all just about commerical success? What would the success of an indie game really mean in the gaming world? Would it mean anything at all, other than a sigh of releif from a programmer/salesman? Again: what is the state of the gaming industry? Are these guys raging against the machine? Tell me, Indie Game, what is the climate of the gaming industry? Is it hard for independent programmers? How hard is it? How easy is it? How often to people fail? As far as I can tell, this is a film about entrepreneurs who want to sell a thing, and go about selling it. That it is a game hardly matters to the film itself; it could be a car they built or a squirt gun for as much detail as we're given. I think Indie Game: The Movie may be a little too insider-friendly for its own good. I still feel like I'm on the outside. 

The designers themselves are depicted as awkward nerds who get into personal spats and give vague speeches about connecting to an audience; I would argue the only thing a game designer can communicate to an audience is a structured set of rules; I'm unclear as to what they were trying to connect to. The Super Meat Boy guys, late in the film, learn that their game has been a big hit, and spend a long time watching people play their game. The players' response is one of frustration and difficulty. They say the F-word a lot. McMillan and Refenes smile at the response. I guess frustrating players is the desired response these days.

Indie Game is very well shot, although almost the entire length of the film is underscored with Philip Glass-like trance music, lending a – perhaps undue – emotional weight to everything. I understand that Fish wants his game to be a hit, but watching him reboot a computer at a trade show over and over again was hardly what I'd call stirring cinema.

CraveOnline rated this film back when it showed at SXSW in March, and gave it a 10 out of 10. I suspect the last reviewer is still firmly ensconced in video games and the video game world, unlike a stodgy film critic like me. He said that he wanted to download all the games on display. While I did find this look into the outsider culture of the biggest pop industry currently operating to be mildly fascinating, it still seemed like a foreign language to me. The biggest insight I could find was this: Each of the designers talked about growing up playing video games, and were fascinated with the very mechanic of controlling pixels on a screen. There was a joy for them in merely manipulating things. McMillan finds that his games look just like the monster drawings he drew as a child. Fish, at one point, shows off a program he made when he was a child on an old-fashioned computer. It was nothing more than a flickering screen with abstract patterns on it. The point was to lean close to the screen and let the flashing lights relax you. Nothing more. For that brief moment, I felt like I understood what Indie Game was getting at.