Way late review: Indie Game: The Movie

30+ years ago the tech startup out of a garage was made legendary thanks to two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak. Today’s version may be best summed up in indie video game developers. And while there is much to romanticize about the “two guys in a garage” mythology, Indie Game: The Movie does its fair share to pull back the curtain and reveal the sometimes mind wrecking journey such a creative venture can be.

There are two games in the making. One is Fez, whose development is led by Phil Fish. The other is Super Meat Boy, developed by the duo, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. The discussion about what an indie game is and the short history behind it provides context for those unaware. Within that, the developers provide their thoughts on what drew them into indie games, juxtaposing the massive studio efforts with those of the two men teams we observe. There is a naivety expressed about the pureness of indie game development; as if big budget game developers only want to make money while their indie counterparts eschew money for the sake of their art. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between those extremes.

The creation of software, even one as visual as video games, is not incredibly exciting. The mundane makes up 99.99% of the work. Some might argue I was a bit conservative with that percentage. Credit goes to the filmmakers, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, for making the process come alive on the screen. Particularly interesting was watching how Fish meticulously designs every pixel of his art until it’s just right. McMillen provides a quick overview on basic video game design, with some relevant drawings and animations thrown in to make the topic come to life.

In between getting to know the developers and being flies on a wall as they press forward with their games, there are interesting takes on the process, industry, and much more from Jonathan Blow, creator of one of the first big indie hits, Braid. Blow provides a presence of “been there, done that” and puts into perspective some of the raw emotions we see on screen from the other guys as they slave away to deliver the goods. Blow’s calm, cool mannerisms on the screen are in sharp contrast to the near nervous breakdowns we see from Fish, McMillen and Refenes. In these moments of emotional exhaustion and panic the romantic picture of two guys triumphantly changing the world with their tech creation is exposed for what it is – myth.

In order to put into a fuller perspective indie game development, it would have been nice if there was at least one representative of those who’ve tried to make a go of it but didn’t succeed, or at least failed to meet expectations. Jonathan Blow provides great insight, but he cannot speak as one who took his shot going out on his own and failed. That is not to say that Indie Game romanticizes its topic as a result. But providing a look at failure and the insights learned from those who’ve failed would help put into better perspective what the creators of Fez and Super Meat Boy face.

Since the film captures development of the games in the process of being made, the suspense is hard to miss. Whether the stakes are as high as these guys think they are, the very real possibility of being crushed by legal action or a broken promise from a large corporation feels threatening as the story unfolds. The frazzled looks and the near breakdowns on screen only increase the tension. And while it may seem laughable when put in perspective, the confession by Fish that he’ll kill himself if he doesn’t finish Fez is completely believable after hearing how his personal life during the process is crumbling around him and he’s poured everything he has into the project.

The happy ending is not quite so happy. One story is left incomplete, simply because a documentary needs to decide at some point where its story ends. The sense of accomplishment in the other story, both by sales numbers and reaction from players, is countered with the inevitable let down from reaching the goal of an incredible journey never quite living up to the ever inflating expectations.

A beautifully shot film with a near perfect soundtrack, Indie Game: The Movie is a tribute to its subjects. The end result is a well told story that embraces the insanity of the creative process and captures the magic that comes about as a result of that endless tension that nearly breaks the games’ creators.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.