Review: ‘Indie Game: The Movie’on October 18, 2012 at 8:09 am
I, like many others on the Internet, want to throat punch Phil Fish. Not for his opinions, but for being an insufferable hipster. I mean, he wore a scarf at PAX East 2011. A fucking scarf! Maybe he needed it to soak up sweat, because if you’ve ever been to a large convention center, you know it’s hot as balls in there. Hairy, bearded nerd balls at that.
By the end of “Indie Game: The Movie”, you might think the scarf is a noose. There’s a lot of drama to be had through the course of the film, and one wonders if all the game developers will pull through (Spoiler Alert: of course they do. No one wants to watch a film about failed indie game developers).
I was interested in seeing what kind of tools, business dealings, and skills are required of independent developers. One must certainly be versatile; Phil Fish (“Fez”) and Jonathan Blow (“Braid”) are one-man* development teams. Then you have the two-man team behind “Super Meat Boy”, Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen.
*Editor’s Note: Technically, Phil has a coder helping out, but in context Phil is pretty much on his own for the vision of the game
“Indie Game” largely ignores the mechanics of game development, instead focusing on the lifestyles of the developers themselves. Make no mistake: it’s ball-breaking work. On top of self-imposed and external deadlines, these men have to contend with funding (or lack thereof), relationships (or lack thereof), and their own mental and physical well-being.
It’s good that “Indie Game” shows this, the faces behind the games that we take for granted behind disposable entertainment. By the end of the film, you will know every hair on Tommy, Edmund, and Phil’s heads, as well as their hopes, dreams, and neuroses.
I didn’t include Jon Blow in that list because he’s mostly a bit player (also, he doesn’t have a lot of hair). There’s a decent amount of coverage of “Braid”, but not much insight into his personal life. At most, we get a few shots of him working on his laptop in a San Francisco coffee shop, or bitching about people liking his game but not “getting” it.
Fortunately, everyone gets a happy ending. We don’t see Phil’s success first hand, because when filming wrapped, “Fez” was not yet complete (hardly surprising, as it had a four-year development). I assume “Fez” did OK, and Phil is pretty much a household name in video games. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still miserable, though.
Even for Ed and Tommy, the launch of their game wasn’t a huge relief. Would “Super Meat Boy” break sales records on Xbox Live? Would people like it, be OK with the difficulty, really GET it? It seems they did, and the boys were soon makin’ it rain, buying houses and cars for their families.
Ed bought his wife an expensive (though ugly as hell) designer-bred cat AND a house. The “house” part is important, because both men had, during the development of their game, lived with their parents. It’s pitiable, but understandable at the same time; were it not for the support of their families, Ed and Tommy simply couldn’t work on their game. They’d be mummified corpses in front of a computer, surrounded by soda cans like Egyptian urns.
Phil was the loner of the main three developers. While he initially worked under a grant from the Canadian government, countless delays and broken business arrangements pushed him right to the edge, with no safety net or friends to help. When he exhibits at PAX East 2011 late in the film, he and the filmmakers point our several times that he’s courting a lawsuit by doing so. The rights to “Fez” were still in limbo, thanks to a former business partner, who stood to gain everything from the game’s success… Phil, on the other hand, had everything to lose.
There’s a troubling scene where, when asked what he’d do if “Fez” was a failure, Phil states that he’d kill himself. I believe he meant it. That sounds overly dramatic, but understand that this is a film about very passionate, talented artists. Surely you don’t expect them to be well-adjusted?
“Indie Game” has plenty of artsy music and location shots. Whimsical shit, like an SNES controller hanging from powerlines, rain drops in a river, etc. It’s all very well done, and fitting for the personal angle the filmmakers went for. Still, I can’t help but bemoan the lack of actual game development.
The film seems more intent on telling a story, rather than providing any solid insights into game development. We’re shown the toll that it takes on developers, and the perks of making it big. But what of the developers that work on larger teams than two people? Or the ones that fail to deliver a playable or successful game?
“Indie Game” is certainly compelling, but lacking in specifics. Any current or aspiring indie game developers might find kindred spirits in Phil, Jon, Ed, and Tommy. What they won’t find is a how-to guide for success.