Hot Docs 2012: Indie Game: The Movie Review

Indie Game: The Movie
Directed by: Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky
Starring: Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Jonathan Blow, Tommy Refenes

From Hearts of Darkness to Lost in La Mancha to American Movie, we’ve seen some great behind-the-scenes documentaries about filmmaking over the years, some capturing the glory of success and others the agony of failure. The production of a feature film almost always makes for a compelling story because we get to watch creative professionals perform in a team environment while under pressure. And yet, despite the overabundance of these kinds of documentaries, up until now there have been very few documentaries covering the behind-the-scenes process of video game development. What gives?

Part of the problem is that video games are giant team efforts where pretty much all of the talented people involved are unknown to the general public. However, the bigger complication is the fact that most major video games are owned by giant corporations who maintain tight control over every piece of information that is released about them. There are trade secrets to protect and marketing strategies to uphold. Fortunately, over the last few years we’ve seen a new wave of games being developed by small teams working independently out of basements and bedrooms. This has opened things up for directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky to step in and capture the first great feature documentary about game development with Indie Game: The Movie.

Indie Game: The Movie takes viewers inside the indie phenomenon by following the development of three prominent indie games: Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez. They aren’t necessarily household names, but they are all published on the Xbox Live Arcade network, greatly increasing their exposure and chances of becoming a financial hit. The other thing they all have in common is that their developers are industry outsiders who are fiercely outspoken and suspicious of mainstream success.

Braid was released back in 2008, before the documentary had started production, which means that the interviews with creator Jonathan Blow are treated more as a post-mortem, looking back on his development experience. It also sets up Braid as the standard by which most indie games are now measured. The majority of the film actually follows the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez, conveying the tremendous pressure both teams find themselves under. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat subject themselves to a massive crunch in order to hit the release date necessary to take part in a lucrative Microsoft promotion. Meanwhile Phil Fish, the driving force behind Fez, is simultaneously struggling with legal and technical issues leading up to a key public demo at PAX.

The movie portrays these particular video game developers as fragile and highly obsessive human beings. Are they somewhat eccentric and socially awkward? Sure. Do they seem childish and emotionally stunted? Sometimes. Do they act like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders? Absolutely. While they may not be the most charming or relatable individuals, they are flawed and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. To me, that makes them compelling characters, but I can understand why some people might be turned off by their quirks. Fortunately, they also have a sense of humour as well.

Indie Game: The Movie is significant in part because it indirectly tackles the ongoing debate over whether or not video games are art. It supports games as art, not so much by virtue of the final product (let’s face it, the games themselves are pretty goofy), but rather by showing the creators themselves as passionate artists. That being said, the film also does a great job of taking viewers inside certain elements of the development process without getting bogged down in technical details. There are some interesting and educational discussions on game design theory scattered throughout and I think that anyone unfamiliar game development will gain a greater appreciation for what goes into making a game after watching this film.

It also helps that the documentary itself is very artfully shot. Pajot and Swirsky realize that the majority of a video game’s development time is occupied by geeks staring intently at computer monitors, but they still manage to keep the film visually interesting by focusing on colourful footage of the games themselves and by capturing the subjects in a variety of locations. The playful original score by Jim Guthrie (Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP) also hugely enhances the experience.

Where the movie stumbles a little bit is at the climax of both stories. They spend a little too long reveling in the outcome of Super Meat Boy’s release, and they also leave Fez in a weird state of limbo, which feels incomplete. However, the intensity of both creative endeavours still shine through. The other major problem with this film is the fact that although it is called Indie Game: The Movie, it is not necessarily representative of all indie game developers. They could have followed a few more projects in order to expand the scope, although that would have been at the expense of spending so much time with each team.

While game industry insiders might nitpick the details, the important thing is that this documentary is well-crafted and accessible to outsiders because the subjects and their journeys are compelling. Indie Game: The Movie is both enlightening and inspirational, and it successfully brings the reality of video game development to new audiences. Sure, it may not qualify as the game industry’s Hearts of Darkness, but in a way, it’s not that far off either. After all, if there’s one thing this movie will teach you, it’s that indie game development is a lot like going to war. Indie Game: The Movie is touring theatres everywhere this summer, and if you get the opportunity, it’s absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. — Sean

SCORE: 3.5 stars

Recommended If You Like: Beautiful Losers, Helvetica, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters