It’s appropriate that a movie about independent game developers should be made by a pair of independent feature filmmakers.
Indie Game: The Movie , which has almost wrapped shooting and is currently in the process of being cobbled together, is the product of 33-year-old St. Andrews, Manitoba native James Swirsky and 28-year-old Winnipegger Lisanne Pajot.
Inspired by what they saw attending the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco during the winter of 2009, the duo, who met six years ago working on a project that went on to win Best Short Film at the National Screen Institute Film Festival, decided to abandon their successful film production business in Winnipeg for a year to produce a crowd-funded film about the world of independent games.
They've spent this year following and interviewing many of North America's most successful and influential independent game designers, including Jonathon Blow ( Braid ), Ron Carmel ( World of Goo ), Jason Rohrer ( Passage ), and Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes ( Super Meat Boy ).
Some of the work they’ve completed for the film is already available on the project’s official website, and it is both polished and poignant. Interviewees tell frank, heartfelt stories about their lives, inspirations, and creative processes, affirming in a way that no essay or article ever could that their creations are labours of love and works of art.
Mr. Swirsky and Ms. Pajot took the time to respond to a few questions sent via email. I’ve posted our electronic conversation in its entirety below, only lightly edited.
The Globe and Mail: What was your inspiration? What made you choose video games—and, specifically, independent games—as a documentary subject?
James: This film was born of our trip to the 2009 Game Developer’s Conference. We were there to cover it for a local industry organization, New Media Manitoba. Though we had the assignment of covering the conference at large, we kept being drawn to the speakers and events surrounding independent game developers.
A combination of a few things about these developers fascinated us. It seems silly to say it after filming the majority of this doc, but we were honestly surprised by the high quality of these games, which were being made by one, two, and three person teams. And not only did the games look good, but they were finding an audience, leading to some really amazing success stories. But, above all, it became clear after talking to these indie developers and hearing them speak that these were people creating highly personal, highly expressive, and highly innovative games that were intrinsically tied to themselves, their experiences, beliefs, and thoughts. These games were extensions of the people who made them. They feel personal when you play them. That is what makes indie games an extremely interesting documentary subject.
Often, to hear the story of the game and its design is to hear the story of the developer. And vice versa. It tends to cast games, as a medium, in a whole new light. A game doesn’t have to be a mode of entertainment, or a product designed to make you want to part with your sixty dollars. It can be more.
That is one part of our inspiration. The other was the simple fact that we, as film-watchers, wanted to see a documentary that discussed and took an intelligent look at game design. If you look at the majority of television or film produced dealing with the games industry you’ll either come up with tales of obsessed game players who have lost their lives to World of Warcraft, Farmville and the like, or you’ll find amped-up, over-the-top coverage about the newest, coolest games with the newest, coolest graphics—basically reading the back of the game’s box in the loudest voice possible.
Nowhere is there discussion about the skill, thought, and emotion that is poured into these games. Video games are one of—if not the most—dominant mediums in the world today, and no one is seriously talking about the creators and designers. At least not in film and television. We wanted to make the first film that took these guys seriously.
TGAM: Do either of you play games?
James: Long before this film, I was a hardcore gamer. I have since turned into a casual player with a strong appreciation for the field. In preparation for the film, we've been playing a ton of games. But since starting production, it’s grinded down to short little bursts of gameplay in cars and airplanes. Except for the iPhone title Game Dev Story. That friggin' game had my number for about six days straight!
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?
James: I think independent games are extremely exciting. The industry, and the medium at large, is benefiting from this wonderful combination of second and third generation gamers coming of age in a time when technology and market accessibility is allowing individuals and small teams to create high quality games and legitimately distribute them in the marketplace. As a result, we are getting games that would never have been possible five or six years ago. It’s pushing the medium forward, to be sure.
And indie game developers are certainly a struggling bunch, but there is hope. Consumer appetite for independent games is definitely growing. Whether it’s exhaustion of triple-A fare (how many first-person shooters can one play without wanting to experience something different?), or the ever-increasing sophistication and quality of indie titles, or some combination, the audience is responding favourably and stories of self-made millionaires are becoming more and more frequent. Indie games are becoming serious business, providing hope to developers that they can make the games that they want to make, and that they have a serious chance to cultivate an audience.
In terms of whether games are art, every time we bring this up with indie game designers we are met with eye-rolls and an exhausted answer along the lines of “games can’t not be art.” They are pouring their heart, soul, and considerable traditional artistic talent (drawing, composing, writing) into a piece of work that is part expression and part entertainment. These things cannot not be art.
Perhaps the most reasoned answered we had came from Jenova Chen. He indeed views games as art, but allows for art to occupy a spectrum. On one end you have what one might consider high art and on the other end you have commercial art. In Jenova’s opinion video games certainly belong on that spectrum, but more towards the commercial end of things.
TGAM: What do you want to accomplish with the film? Who do you expect will watch it? Do you have an agenda, subtle or overt?
Lisanne: We'd like our film to draw the curtain back and show the game development process. We hope that people will watch the film and learn more about the craft of making games, and then notice a designer’s decisions and nuances when they play video games.
We feel our audience will, of course, be fans of independent games and gamers in general. But because the film is so much about design and the creative process, we think it can appeal to wider audience of people who don't necessarily identify themselves as gamers but, perhaps, as appreciators of art. At least, that's what we sincerely hope.
This agenda is subtle throughout the film, but ever-present and overarching. In some ways, you could remove the term “video game” from the film and replace it with “film” or “book” or “painting” and I'm sure the individual journeys of its characters will still ring true.
TGAM: Has it been a difficult project? Have you received funding from any investors or government agencies? I noticed that you're soliciting support from the community on your website...
James: It has been a challenge. Indie Game: The Movie is quite ambitious in scope. We are a two-person production that is following teams, talking to a lot of people, gathering a lot of footage, and trying to create in a professional manner something that hasn’t been seen before.
But at the same time, we are traveling the world telling the stories of brilliant, creative people. The whole process is equally exhausting, intimidating, and rewarding. In fact, in many ways our filmmaking process echoes the experience of independent game developers.
The film’s budget has been a combination of crowd-funding, personal investment, and winnings from a Los Angeles documentary film pitch competition we took part in. Within 48 hours of announcing the film we had raised the majority of our eventual money—$23,000 in total on Kickstarter.com, a website that allows people to donate to creative projects that they would like to see become a reality. We’ve also been consistently selling DVD pre-orders from our website. Community support has been huge.
We haven’t accessed any government funding for this film (though we do intend to access Manitoba’s filmmaking tax credit system). We took an audience-first approach. We thought the best strategy was to put the idea out to the people who would be our eventual audience. If they liked the idea, and thought we could do it justice, we figured the support would be there. On the other hand, if we didn’t get the enthusiastic response that we did we would have had to wonder if this was a film that needed to be made. Luckily for us, we haven’t been given any reason to wonder.