When Phil Fish, brainchild and developer of independent game Fez, threatens on camera to “fucking shoot” his ex collaborator, without a care for any potential lawsuits, you can come to appreciate the kind of drama which results from people with neurotic personalities dealing with high stakes pressure.
Every ounce of human drama is squeezed out of an unlikely subject in Indie Game the Movie, a stylishly cut documentary providing an in depth and insightful look at the world of independent games development. Following the progress of two titles in the making; Fez and Super Meat Boy, the cameras capture the intense demands required to make it in a business dominated by big studio’s and mega bucks licenses. It takes us behind the scenes through the never ending crisis of development hell, right up to the make or break public launch date, and the public reaction to something which has for the designers become a deeply personal statement of their abilities and art.
As the product of all this work, the games are well made and have become relatively popular, though they do tend to fall under the standard indie game template of recreating lost childhood memories – i.e. classic Mario. For a movement obsessed with the gaming worlds loss of originality it is a little ironic given how similar they all are not just to Mario, but also to each other. However, within the basic template of 2D platformer the developers inject an incredible level of imagination and personal art design rarely seen in more flashy mainstream titles. Perhaps the most enduring interview is delivered when Edmund McMillen, the likeable co-creator of Super Meat Boy, demonstrates how his games have become a kind of distorted fantasy land recreation of his childhood memories and imagination. McMillen uses his games as a way of connecting with the rest of the world; to bare his innermost thoughts and feelings to people he assumes he wouldn’t want to meet face to face.
This theme of indie games being the last bastion of free expression and intimate creativity runs throughout and there is no denying the artistic merit of these games and the emotive power provided by the personal touch which the developer pours into every aspect of their creation. But the deeper the interviews go the more the sentiment turns into elitist condescension towards the rest of the gaming world.
It also becomes increasingly difficult to fully empathise with the problems faced by these programmers which often seem rooted in their own neurotic tendencies and obsessive compulsiveness. The point is best demonstrated as we watch Fish in full meltdown mode as Fez fails to work during its first public showing. This horribly intense situation is made all the worse as we know it is piling the pressure onto a man already suffering great emotional turmoil and legal problems. As we wait for Fish to unleash his promised Falling Down style rampage of retribution it is hard to forget that the situation was entirely created by his own constant and unnecessary last minute tinkering and full on rebuilds. Rather than present a understandably imperfect but entirely functional demo, his obsession with achieving an impossible level of perfection completely distablises his game at the most crucial of moments.
As the cameras follow the turbulent development of these games in far too much detail, we are occasionally treated to further perspective from Jonathan Blow, a man who has been though the whole process and met with success with his mind fucker of a game: the 2D time manipulator Braid. Blow demonstrates everything which is wrong with the indie game scene (something which most people have made him well aware of) by chiming in with his thoughts on the hopeless state of popular gaming and why people brainwashed by the corporate bigwigs are incapable of understanding how he is trying to save them intellectually. Despite his creation having met with critical success across the board, Blow sits in his fancy new digs expressing his consternation that the rest of the world was unable to understand the full artistic vision he was trying to communicate. As he ridiculously demeans the people trying to extol his work Youtube footage plays out of some brainless stoners hysterically laughing making it clear that Indie Game’s directors see the masses in the same unflattering light. That Blow began his point by explaining why he isn’t as pretentious as everyone makes out appears lost on both him and the film makers.
But what is glaringly ignored is the other side to success; the games which never made it. We are not able to hear from those developers who have risked everything and spent years of there lives in isolation, only to see their efforts fall apart in a heap of broken dreams. Where are the people who snapped under the pressure? This omission has to make you wonder whether the risks of failure are that bad after all or whether the documentary is simply buying into the overwrought anxieties of its subjects. After prolonged interviews where the interviewees are given free reign to vent, whinge, and threaten anybody who has ever wronged them, it becomes difficult to forget that these people are very middle class – failure probably simply means having to get a dead end job like the rest of us mass consumer drones.
Indie Game: the movie certainly has some interesting things to say about an original subject which is treated with devotion by its creators. But the constant ridicule and sly digs at the casual players limits the story to a particular kind of audience. Game programmers and developers will no doubt share in the experiences, and those who simply enjoy being snobbish towards the mainstream blockbuster crowd will find plenty of little moments to nod along to. For the rest of us it will most likely leave you disliking the people behind the games you love, and feeling that little bit more insecure about playing games in general.