Lisanne: I was not a gamer before the film. I played games when I was young (I spent evenings fighting over the Game Boy with my brother). But, when I got older, I sort of lost games in my life. But I’ve found them again through this project. I think the first games that I've ever played to completion have been indie games.
TGAM: Who are some of the game designers you've focused on, and how did you come to choose these people?
Lisanne: We've filmed with a quite a few notable game developers, including the very successful Jon Blow of Braid, Ron Carmel of World of Goo, and Phil Fish of the upcoming, highly-anticipated, three-and-a-half-years-in-the-making Fez. Also Jenova Chen of Flower and Journey , Jason Rohrer of Passage fame, and others.
However, the main characters of the film are the makers of the recently released Super Meat Boy, game designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes. Their story is the narrative backbone of our film.
We've been following their story since early 2010, when they were nominated in the Independent Games Festival, which is the Sundance or Toronto International Film Festival of independent games. We've filmed them throughout development, visiting them while working on the game in their hometowns of Santa Cruz, California and Asheville, North Carolina. We were also there in both locations throughout the release of the game on Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft's downloadable games platform. It was quite a dramatic, life-changing journey for them, and we were lucky to be there and be part of it.
We chose these developers based on the following questions: How captivating is the developer’s story? How noteworthy and how relevant is the game? Does the development process line up with our production window?
Another factor was fan support. After we announced our project on the crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter.com we received an influx of e-mails and tweets and feedback from fans who wanted to hear more about the independent games in which they were interested. Interestingly, our initial list of interviewees aligned with fan response, which was very encouraging.
Of course, there's a lot of other interesting people we could have filmed. We could spend years documenting and interviewing. However, our goal for this film was to cover a few journeys really well, not make it a clip show of absolutely everyone.
TGAM: What have you learned about the people who make indie games?
James: The argument to be an independent game developer is not a particularly strong one. They have a limited (but growing) audience, insanely huge workloads, and nothing even approaching a guarantee of success.
Every person we talk to is designing games due to compulsion more than anything else. They are all brilliant, talented people that could have their pick of whatever tech job they’d like. But they find themselves—despite pretty much all forms of social or economic logic—going independent and creating the games that they need to create.
The people in our film are making games because they have to. And they are doing so at great detriment to not only their wallets—being poor is the easy part—but also to their relationships, physical health, and mental well-being. Game development is never a pretty process, but it can get quite a bit uglier when you aim for a highly personal, highly ambitious game and take the normal 30-plus person development team and shrink it to one person.
TGAM: Have you identified any overarching themes in the world of independent game development?
Lisanne: We’ve seen that the experience of making games like these can be tremendously personal. It's a group of people working hard to realize a childhood and life-long dream—to make their own video game.
We've also seen that creative process takes a lot out a developer. There are emotional, physical, financial and social tolls.
We think the common perception is that making video games is fun, because video games are generally perceived as fun and entertaining products. The reality is anything but. It's a grind, a slog, a commitment, a compulsion. In short, it's not easy. And, the personal stakes for these developer are very high.
TGAM: After spending more than a year immersed in this world, what do you think of it? Are these games art?