There’s a pretty good chance that you wouldn’t like many of the game makers featured in Indie Game: The Movie if you met them in real life. And that’s fine, because they probably wouldn’t like you.
They’re outcasts. Fringe people. Young men who wear weird beards as badges of honour and use such colourful language that at times it feels like you’re listening to a rainbow (with particularly heavy streaks of blue). They believe with all their hearts that the world just doesn’t get them.
But that’s where they may be wrong.
Guided by the steady camera of Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, a pair of rookie feature documentary filmmakers from Winnipeg, we’re led deep into the lives of these cloistered misfits. Their deepest worries and insecurities are laid bare on the screen. They talk about their lack of money, their perceived inability to date and being recommended for psychotherapy. One of them even contemplates suicide. And murder.
This award-winning film (it won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at this winter’s Sundance Film Festival) purports to be about the trials and tribulations of the burgeoning indie video game world, in which gifted young people shun working for big publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision in order to work on games of their own design. And for the first 20 minutes or so that’s exactly what it is. We’re introduced to industry experts who provide a basic outline of how indie games have come to prominence in recent years and are shown clips of some of the most popular titles.
But then it shifts focus from the phenomenon in general and settles into telling three distinct stories. These accounts are less about the games being made than the people making them.
One is Jonathan Blow, a poster boy for the indie game movement whose deeply personal game Braid became a critical and commercial success in 2008. The filmmakers use deft camerawork and post-production tricks to describe this complicated game – about altering time and changing memories – then move our attention to the equally complex man who created it.
In Jonathan we see someone desperate to connect with the real world, to create something of significance and lasting importance. The oldest of the subjects featured in the film, he looked on his life prior to Braid as a series of failed aspirations. He was worried he’d never accomplish anything of meaning, which led him to spend years developing and finishing a game that was purely his own. However, even when Braid succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, he still felt depressed. After reading reviews and engaging with fans in forums, he found most people just didn’t get what he was trying to say in the game, and that, by extension, they didn’t understand him.
The film’s subjects’ desire to have people understand them – and, more specifically, their art (make no mistake; they consider the games they create to be their souls reformatted as digital entertainment) – is a theme that runs throughout the movie.
Take Phil Fish, a Montreal-based game maker whose unfiltered tongue and budding genius have made him a popular but polarizing figure in the indie game scene over the last half decade. He spent years working on Fez, a mind-bending game about a two-dimensional fellow living in a three-dimensional world. It won awards when an early version was revealed in 2007. Since then, the denizens of the Internet have gone from showering him with praise to dousing him expletives for taking so long to finish it. This vitriol has taken its toll. He’s the one who says he’ll kill himself if he doesn’t complete his game.
He’s obviously anxious when he presents a near-completed version of Fez at a game industry event, all the more so when the game proves buggy. However, when he sees the smiles on players’ faces and receives gushing praise from respected industry heavyweight Jerry Holkins, he displays a giddy delight that almost makes him look like a little boy, despite his untamed facial hair. There’s equal amounts amazement and relief when he tells an associate by phone that people seem to get it.
Of course, what he’s really saying is that people get him. The players’ validation of his work is actually a validation of his ego, his identity. In that moment he knows he’s not alone. People do understand him.
This deep desire for acceptance rings through most clearly in the film’s third story, which looks at Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, makers of Super Meat Boy, a challenging run-and-jump adventure about a guy made of bleeding flesh and his quest to rescue his girlfriend, a creature composed purely of bandages (a decidedly gross but effective metaphor).
The two men speak repeatedly about how they make games for themselves. This seems true enough based on their past efforts. We’re provided glimpses of games featuring everything from monsters Edmund drew as a child to a strange shooting game starring detailed genitalia.
Yet when Super Meat Boy finally releases and it becomes apparent based on first-day sales that it will be a life-altering, millionaire-making hit, Edmund wells up as he looks past the camera and says that he feels like he’s finally made something that has connected with the world. Later, his wife cries as well, out of shock, it would seem, that so many people actually like the game. “They get it,” she says in a small, unbelieving voice.
In fact, we all get it. That’s the film’s great trick. Regardless of whether you’re a die-hard indie-gamer or someone who’s never touched a controller, it’s impossible not to empathize with these people. They’re outsiders on the outside only. On the inside, they’re humans experiencing feelings with which we’re all familiar. We understand their fears, their insecurities, their need to belong.
Ms. Pajot and Mr. Swirsky’s ability to make us relate to the film’s subjects and understand them is what makes this documentary – about a seemingly niche subject – compelling viewing for just about anyone.
Indie Game: The Movie opens on May 25th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre in Toronto. Not in Southern Ontario? Not to worry. Bookmark the film’s website and keep an eye posted for its imminent digital release.