Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Finally, a movie that gets it.
Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary that follows four independent video game developers. Two are on the verge of releasing their first commercial game, one is trying to get his finished after four years of delays, and another has already established himself as a paragon of the industry. Leading up the release, development, and aftermath of each game’s respective release, the developers find themselves met with one challenge after another on the road to physically and emotionally reaching their audience. So with their livelihoods on the line and paranoia setting in, they code their hearts out and pray that things go smoothly.
Folks, Hollywood has not been easy on gamers over the years. For as long as any of us can remember, the experience has been an assembly line of big-budget bastardizations that take everything we love about video games and dwindle them down to two hours of sheer, unrecognizable misery. There is literally not a single worthwhile adaptation in the bunch, I will win that argument every time, and it makes me want to cry. It’s one thing to witness such a flagrant misunderstanding and under-appreciation that film makers have for their source material, but it’s the lasting impression that really gets me.
Video game movies are just one more reason why so many people don’t take video games seriously. Thank God for TRON, Scott Pilgrim, and The King of Kong.
Then again, it’s hard to blame people for feeling that way. It’s not like we’re booting up our PlayStations and playing the virtual equivalent of Atlas Shrugged (although sometimes we do); most of the time we’re bathing in the blood from our chainsaw bayonets. As a result, when non-gamers think about video games, four things usually come to mind: what a waste of time they are, how they’re corrupting our children, how good they used to be at Pong, or how much time their sons/boyfriends/husbands sit in front of the goddamn TV playing Call of Duty. They think of a medium that they’re out of touch with, or a medium that’s rotting our brains. What they don’t think about is art, as video games having the potential for more than just mind-numbing repetition and scoring head shots against Korean third-graders. Unfortunately, we made our own bed on this one, but I know I’m not alone in wanting to rip off those effing sheets.
Enter Indie Game: The Movie.
This isn’t about some big-name, Goliath studio with a thousand employees working on a multi-million dollar follow-up to a game that everyone with 60 bucks is already going to buy on opening day. This is about the little guys, the Davids who have put every ounce of their being into a game that no one might even play, yet they keep going at it because there’s nothing else they could imagine doing with their lives. It’s not a glamorous life, and the financial gains are uncertain at best, but who wants to trade stocks when you could be making a freaking video game?
As for the games being made, we’ve got Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Fez. Three unique platformers aiming to breathe new life into one of the oldest genres in gaming. Having beaten Braid years ago and nearly rage quit out of Super Meat Boy recently, it was nice to be familiar with the games and already appreciate them for so many of the same reasons that their creators do. But for those of you who haven’t played them (and you really, really should), don’t worry about it. No geek cred required, though geek cred always helps. Good life lesson there.
See, even if you’ve never played a video game before, it’s hard not to appreciate what these guys are doing. It’s the same way we came to appreciate how Steve Wiebe could make such an incredibly hard game look so incredibly easy in The King of Kong. Some efforts are just universally admirable. Adding to that, you’ve got the process of making a game, which really isn’t any different from writing a book or making a movie in terms of the gumption, dedication, and sacrifice that goes into it. It’s a lonely endeavor, one that takes a monstrous amount of time and hard work, the likes of which I have never personally experienced, and as the developer of Fez puts it, “It’s the sum total of every expressive medium of all-time, made interactive.” I’ve never made a game before, but I’m well aware of the insane degree of commitment that comes with learning how to code. Deciding to make a game with a staff of two is no small undertaking in the slightest, and the more we see how invested and passionate and reliant that these developers are to their games, the more we come to sympathize and root and pull for them.
Eventually, it becomes this fascinating insight into preparing for failure, coping with success, and the fear/hope of connecting with others through something deeply personal. And like the eccentric personalities of the developers themselves, it’s also something that some people just won’t understand. Sitting in front of computer and coding for years at a time isn’t the most relatable hobby one can have, but by the same token, that’s not why they’re doing it, so that we can understand. They’re doing it because it’s innate for them, because rolling the dice is the only option, even if it means depression, disappointment, and isolation. It takes balls to do what they do, and they are men after my own heart for it. These are the people that inspire us towards greatness.
And for all the documentaries I’ve seen, I can’t remember the last time I saw one that evoked such incredible vulnerability from its interviewees. There’s a running theme in the film that the only way to truly connect with people through a game is to open yourself up, flaws and all, and put them in the game. Not only is that theme beautifully displayed in the games themselves, but it’s very much personified in the testimonies of the those behind them. It’s almost shocking to see how angry and dire they get over the idea of not meeting a deadline or not finishing their game, and even more so than the more qualities that endear them, it’s that kind of brutal honesty that gets us to understand the depth of how much these games mean to them.
Because it’s not just a game, it’s them. It’s Phil Fish, it’s Jonathan Blow, it’s Edmund McMillen, it’s Tommy Refenes.
On top of how watchable they all are, it’s also just a gorgeous movie to watch, period. Surprising when you consider that filming someone code video games for days at a time is right up there with sloth races as one of the most boring things you could possibly watch, but the way the footage is pieced together through interviews, voice-overs, and gameplay, it becomes far more watchable than the process has any right to be. Seriously fantastic work by first-time directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky. Gaming conventions have never looked so serene.
Bonus points for a great little score from Jim Guthrie, the guy behind the fantastic soundtrack to Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery. Yet another awesome indie game worth checking out. I should really put a list together.
But whether your a gamer or a layman – especially if you’re a layman – Indie Game: The Movie is important. It’s important because these are the games that matter, the ones that are going to change the way we all think about games in a world where the quality of a title is too often judged by how good its graphics are. Well here’s a news flash, gang: graphics aren’t worth a damn. It’s just depressing to see how much the video game industry keeps on looking like the movie industry with each new carbon-copy, ultra-violent shoot-em-up that gets released like clockwork each year, even more so when you consider how many people keep biting the hook. Not that I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of shoot-em-ups, but when it comes to substance, story, and being more than just surface entertainment, they ain’t doing the medium any favors. But I digress.
I realize that this is all coming from someone who met all his college friends through Halo, someone who still considers a Sega Genesis the best Christmas present he ever got, someone who will probably still be playing video games on his death bed. I realize that I’m the target audience, that I was ready to give this a 10 before it even started, and as much as I loved it as a life-long convert, I genuinely believe that this movie is watershed moment for the medium, the moment where converts and skeptics alike started seeing video games as something more. More than just eye candy, more than just a diversion. They’re about life, they’re about us, they’re about following your dreams and making them a reality.
Or at least they can be.