Doc of the Day: Indie Game: The Movie Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Indie Game: The Movie

Posted in Days of Docs by - July 19, 2012

Observe the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the creation of independent video games. It’s no fun and games to create fun games.

Dir. James Swirksy & Lisanne Pajot, 2012, 96 min

I left video games behind years ago. One of my many time and fund-consuming hobbies had to go, and games drew the short straw. I missed out on the big boom of independent games, although I’ve somewhat kept up with all the news of developments in the gaming world. But all that I have left of games right now are vague memories, and while many of them are great, none of them could quite convince me that games are an art form.

Honestly, it shouldn’t really matter all that much. Whether or not games are an art has no bearing on whether or not they’re good, and they are good. But, oddly enough, Indie Game: The Movie has done more to push me towards the idea that games really are art than any game I’ve ever played. It’s a look inside the work processes of people who develop games independent of any studio overhead or otherwise outside influence. It’s a long, time-intensive, arduous process, and it involves significant emotional and intellectual investment. These guys expend extraordinary thought on all aspects of the worlds they create, and they are literally creating worlds here (okay, not literally, but you know what I mean).

The movie follows the creators of three indie games. Jonathan Blow created Braid, the first indie that really made a splash on the market, as well as one of the first games to receive significant critical analysis. It fuses traditional platform gaming with time travel mechanics to make for a meditation on regret. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are approaching the deadline for finishing Super Meat Boy, about a skinless boy fighting a fetus in a mech suit in order to save his girlfriend, who is made of bandages. Yeah. Finally, Phil Fish is stalling in his development of FEZ, a platformer utilizing a dimension-shifting gimmick to fascinating visual and puzzle effect.

What immediately springs out to you about these men is that they all suffer from some degree of neurosis. It’s probably to be expected of people who spend very large chunks of time secluded from the rest of the world. Jonathan is obsessed with making sure that people fully appreciate the lengths he went to in making Braid something truly artistic. After the game’s release, he would comment on nearly every article he could find about the game or himself, earning a degree of infamy he didn’t really want.

Edmund uses gaming as an outlet to connect with other people. He has trouble articulating himself, and so expresses his feelings through his games. Even though he’s making a “shallower” game than Blow, he actually seems to understand artistry with a much greater ease than Blow does. Maybe that’s why he’s the best-socialized of the subjects (although he’s still kinda a shut-in). Tommy, though, has allowed Super Meat Boy to completely become his life, and has everything in his future riding on it. Even he isn’t nearly as bad as Phil, though, who is trapped in a purgatory of ceaseless tinkering and re-tinkering. He’s got designer’s block, and FEZ has been pushed back years as a result, with numerous personal troubles thrown into the mix for good measure.

The common connection between these people is more than just mental disjointedness, although it ties into that. Jonathan, Edmund, Tommy, and Phil all have emotion simmering within them, and a restless desire to pour it into something. That’s not a nerd or gamer impulse – that’s an artistic one. And the results are works that are, by their makers’ own admissions, flawed, but the flaws make them all the more beautiful. Jonathan muses that this lack of professionalism, this separation from the relentless polish of mainstream games like Legend of Gears of Halo: Grand Theft Mario 6: Warfare Effect, is what makes these games feel closer to humanity. Which is, of course, closer to art, if not in fact art.

These are all terrifically sympathetic characters, and you root for them all the way. Edmund and Tommy’s race to finish their game provides the most compelling thread. Jonathan, as someone who’s journey is already kind of finished, doesn’t quite go places in the movie. And Phil’s plot is an exercise in not getting anywhere, but that’s kind of the point. Creative impulses and philosophies take all forms, and these disparate paths allow us to see more of them. But the simple fact that you like spending time with all these guys is really the reason to stick around. They’re all funny and sweet and likable to a fault.

The best surprise about Indie Game, though, is how cinematic it is. This is a movie about people who spend their days sitting in front of computers, but it doesn’t feel like it for a moment. The doc goes outside often, using found spaces that look like they could have come from video game environments as emblems of its characters’ wandering souls. Adding to the effect is the terrific music, a gentle score that breathes a hopeful sense of active, frantic optimism. It’s laden with emotion, and it’s honestly the kind of music I’d love to listen to independent of any film.

Indie Game: The Movie is a movie about Art and the kind of people who make it, even if what they’re making might not really be art. If that makes any sense. It doesn’t really go into the nitty-gritty details of the step-by-step development process of games, but I didn’t much mind that. If given the choice between the emotional and the instructional, I’ll pick the emotional every time.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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