Indie Game: The Movie — Review
Indie Game: The Movie has the wrong title. The film, by first-time documentarians Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, is a somber, thoughtful look the process of game design and the emotional toll it takes. Unfortunate, then, that the title suggests comedy, even farce.
The designers profiled spend little time laughing. For Braid designer Jonathan Blow, Fez designer Phil Fish, and Team Meat — Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, creators of Super Meat Boy — independent games are life, and life is serious.
“There’s no safety network. There’s nothing to fall back on. There’s always the risk of everything just falling apart” explains Fish, a loquacious, profane Quebecois. Each designer in the movie has sacrificed nearly everything to pursue his dream: a game made without the creative limitations imposed by traditional publishing. “You have to give up something to have something great,” says Refenes, ruefully.
All three games are extremely, even painfully personal. Fez, the adventures of a pixelated hero in world that is constantly falling down around him, begins to represent Fish, whose life is marred by a series of tragedies. In Super Meat Boy, players take control of a character without skin, who only becomes whole when reunited with his love interest, Bandage Girl. “It’s not a game I made ‘for people.’ It’s a game I made for myself,” says McMillen. “Making [Braid] was about ‘let’s take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilites, and put them in the game,’” explains Blow.
The film depicts hermetic lives spent coding in isolation, assailed at every turn by frustrations and setbacks. Drama builds as projects teeter on the brink of failure. Taking advantage of extensive access and a knack for eliciting candor, the filmmakers capture the relentless stress and agonizing uncertainty of independent game design. Refenes, aghast, pages frantically through XBOX menus, trying in vain to find his game, which didn’t become available for download until four hours after its official release. Fish watches grim-faced as Fez crashes again and again on the PAX East expo floor. Blow admits ruefully that he was disappointed by Braid’s glowing reviews, which he describes as “very surface.”
Pajoy and Swirsky support their somber subject matter with moody music, rainy exterior shots, and striking silhouettes. Both quit their jobs to pursue the dream of film-making, in fascinating parallel to the designers they portray. The surpassing quality of Indie Game: The Movie justifies their decision.