If you, like me, hadn’t paid much attention to Indie Game: The Movie because it doesn’t have a very strong title, let me assure you that it’s a poor match for what turns out to be a really impressive documentary with a focused and strong narrative. It’s available digitally via various channels (I rented it on iTunes), and I highly recommend forgiving it for keeping its working title.
The movie’s central track follows the creators of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes — as well as their families, necessarily along for the ride — as they grind through the months leading up the game’s debut. They finally release the game to fame and fortune, but even moreso relief and redemption, the end of years of stressful, unpaid toil. The filmmakers do a fine job balancing their attention over the course of their story between the artists and their work, digging into the details of the game’s mechanics (employing clever and restrained animation) when it serves to further the story. And it often does, considering how bound up the developers’ lives are with their game during this period.
Jon Blow brackets this narrative, here cast as a bodhisattva who has already walked this path and transcended, long ago (all the way back in 2008, with Braid). The film lets Blow define its epigraph, beginning and ending with his assertion that making a great game demands that its creators plant their deepest and most personal vulnerabilities in its core, and seeing what grows from there. We see this reflected strongest in McMillen’s guided tour of his own body of work leading up to Meat Boy. His examination of that game’s themes (which happen in large part to be about vulnerability itself), and the way the movie ties them into his life, makes for some of Indie Game’s most memorable moments.
(As for Jon, the movie does sometimes press the guru frame on him a little hard. At one point, it juxtaposes his sighing about how nobody really understood Braid’s narrative with YouTube footage of Soulja Boy and his friends laughing with genuine delight while they play with the game’s time-rewind button. It came off, perhaps unintentionally, as an invitation to consider whether Blow was the one missing the point.)
Phil Fish, creator of Fez, gets about as much screen time as the Meat Boy makers. His story, however, is much less certain, allowing the film to display a cloudier version of Team Meat’s happy-ending narrative. Where McMillen and Refenes’s struggles are buoyed by their families and fans, Fish’s company is often dominated by the hordes of gamers who voice their fury across the web every time Fez misses another deadline. It has missed several by the time the film joins him, and in the camera’s eye, this has worn deeply on him. While he speaks poignantly about his personal connections to the game, he also speaks with stark frankness of his desire to commit suicide should it fail to ship. Later, he fantasizes mid-interview about murdering an estranged business partner with an intensity that doesn’t invite laughs. His story doesn’t get any easier from there, and ends ambiguously.
(As it turned out, Fez would finally ship almost at the same time as the movie, in the spring of 2012. And the game would be pretty darn great. And Fish’s twitter account appears rather unshy about his depiction in the film, linking to its digital-download release quite a lot this month.)
No, I don’t have a better suggestion for a title. So stop listening to me and go watch the movie. Its stories show a very narrow slice of a new artform’s widening bandwidth but this focus plays to its credit. Indie Game will probably be the smartest and least condescending feature about videogames you’ve seen so far.