With a focus on four developers and their three games, Indie Game: The Movie is a poignant look behind the curtains of DIY game development. Like any other artistic medium, game design can be a grueling, largely thankless endeavor for its creators. And in indie development, as evidenced by the documentary, the developers are often quite literally betting their house on each and every game; but these game designers know no other way, it’s simply what they must do.
First time filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s film is as much about the connection between game and designer as it is anything else. In independent development games are littered with the personal DNA of their creator, whether it be a one man team or a small handful of people. The games featured, Jonathan Blow’s Braid, Phil Fish’s FEZ, and Edward McMillen and Tommy Refenes’ Super Meat Boy, are all deeply personal, tailored experiences. They are first and foremost games designed specifically for themselves, and for each of the creators it’s obvious critical or commercial appeal is largely irrelevant.
At times the stories behind Super Meat Boy and FEZ can be utterly heart wrenching. Unlike Braid, which came out several years ago, the other two titles start out the film in-production, with Super Meat Boy‘s launch captured during the film, and FEZ – finally! – releasing today. More so than Blow and Fish’s parts of the movie, seeing McMillen and Refenes’ game released gives the audience a broader perspective of the creators: we see how the game affects them and their loved ones while in development, and then we see how it affects them post-release (note: the game has sold well over a million copies). We’re allowed to see the inevitable breakdowns, the concerns the duo have that the game simply won’t be ready in time for the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade promotion. In the end though, we see their perseverance, their commitment to their craft and their genuine love for the game they’re making.
In Fish’s story, the creator literally tells the filmmakers he’ll kill himself if he somehow cannot finish FEZ (a game which has won several pre-release awards and been in development for 5 years). As a self-admitted perfectionist, Fish is intrinsically tied to Gomez, the puffy white hero of FEZ. And more so than perhaps even Blow, Fish has become an unlikely, outspoken superstar, all before his game’s release. His story is fraught with the uncertainty that his game, his baby, may never see the light of day, thanks to an on-going legal dispute with his former partner. Two thirds of the way through the film, Fish packs up his stuff and makes the trek to Boston for PAX East, planning to conduct the first public showing of the game. Every minute, every waking moment leading up to the show’s beginning, Fish has no idea whether he’ll be legally allowed to show the game as he waits for his former partner to sign their settlement. The anger Fish exhibits wreaks of a custody battle, and that is exactly what it is.
Each of these creators entered indie development knowing that there was no safety net. They do what they do because they’re gamers, they’re story tellers, and they want to call their own shots, rather than make someone else’s big budget, impersonal ‘AAA’ game. Like any other artist, these guys need to tell their own stories, and communicate them in their own unique manner; the indie game just happens to be the name of their language.
Indie Game: The Move is currently on tour, with screenings planned nationwide, followed quickly by a DVD release. For more information check out their website.