Indie Game: The Movie (2011): A SXSW Review
By Jacob Mertens.
For those of us passionately invested in the burgeoning art form of video games, the parallels between both game and film industries remain undeniable. Games and film have a similar visual/auditory construction, they both rely on intense collaboration, and they exhibit near identical patterns in marketing and distribution. More importantly, each medium struggles to produce art while concomitantly appeasing a broad audience, a product of the high cost of their respective technologies. Because of this economic pressure, some of the most exciting works of art lie in their respective independent markets, in which the industry’s control of a project slackens. It is this very market that Indie Game: The Movie lives and breathes in: an independent documentary that features unprecedented access to independent game developers. Unfortunately, while the game developers represent some of the great phenoms of their field, flitting through game coding in a sleep-deprived, overly caffeinated haze of genius, the filmmakers themselves cannot muster the same inspired confidence in their craft. As a result, the film never finds its rhythm, and fails to construct its interview footage in a way that harnesses the true artistry at hand. To put the sentiment into video game terminology, Indie Game: The Movie is broken.
Before I explicate my complaints though, allow me to say that calling Indie Game broken does not mean the same thing as calling the film unenjoyable. On the contrary, first-time directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky generate warm and intimate interviews with each artist on screen, and every subject has something fascinating to contribute. For instance, featured game designer Phil Fish had won the “Excellence in Visual Art” award at the 2008 Independent Game Festival for his then incomplete game Fez, generating an incredible amount of early buzz in the process. However, his project spent too much time in gestation. Now, Fish fears he has potentially missed his window of opportunity, too busy obsessively tinkering with the game and staving off a lawsuit from his former developing partner.
At what could be called the emotional climax of Indie Game, Fish essentially has a nervous breakdown as he showcases a rushed demo at a video game convention, forced to constantly reset the gaming console as it continues to glitch and freeze up. Meanwhile, the viewer learns that Fish has failed to resolve his legal issues before showing Fez, potentially opening himself up to serious ramifications involving game conference copyright regulations. The entire situation bears down hard on Fish, who has put four years of life into his passion project, struggling to remain financially solvent while lacking a game on the market to buoy his bank account. Without producing a financially successful game, he will likely never develop another game again.
If Fish’s interviews illustrate the inherent peril in developing a game, the other interviews loosely tackle the following stages of exhibition and distribution. With the retro throwback game Super Meat Boy, developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes illustrate how a project takes shape in its final days, and clearly articulate the immense marketing impact of receiving favorable early reviews. On the other hand, Braid developer Jonathan Blow, who has already established himself as a legitimate video game artist, discusses the context surrounding a video game’s reception and growing influence. Each of these interviews seems to culminate in an artistic conflict similar to Fish’s existential meltdown. Super Meat Boy developers McMillen and Refenes rush their game to completion, only to desperately nag Microsoft to properly plug Super Meat Boy in the market place during their launch. Meanwhile, Blow takes issue with the mild controversy stirred by his near manic presence on gaming message boards, responding to questions and derogatory comments about Braid in ridiculous length. Truthfully though, neither of these story threads offers the same exhilarating poignancy of the imminent self-destruction Phil Fish narrowly avoids. It is at this point that the film’s lack of balance begins to show.
The first issue I take with the film is the interview footage involving Jonathan Blow, which lacks any real conflict and only benefits the film by providing exposition for the other storylines. While Blow’s interview is easily the least compelling of the four though, he admittedly necessitates a presence in the film because his game Braid represents one of the genuine forefronts of video game artistry, setting up a surrounding context for the industry Fish, McMillen, and Refenes are struggling to break into. Still, these sections in the film remain terribly frustrating because the surrounding context completely lacks narrational momentum, and the three disparate storylines never feel like they are building on each other in a coherent way.
As an example, there is a great moment in the film in which Blow shows footage of the early stages of Braid‘s development, and the viewer can see the skeleton behind the game at work, stripped of all its gloss and nuanced detail. Much later, McMillen adds to this initial understanding by breaking down how to develop the difficulty curve of a game so that it challenges the player but does not overly frustrate them (which could lead to the player feeling the game is “broken”). However, these moments feel lost in the overall flow of Indie Game, because the filmmakers do not edit them into the film in a way that intuits they belong together as kindred considerations of game making. While there could be any number of reasons for the disjointed editing, I suspect the filmmakers simply had trouble with deciding what they wanted to accomplish with the film, an issue that becomes far more apparent as time goes on.
Indie Game appropriately opens with a discussion involving independent video games, boldly declaring them a flourishing art form while explaining how they can be surprisingly lucrative under the right conditions. With these few details the viewer can see what lies at stake for game developers: a struggle to create their art and an at times desperate need to tap into the profits their art can afford them. With the game Fez, this conflict rears its head as Fish copes with the fact that he may have jeopardized his chances at success by not fully understanding the scope and labor involved with his ambitious project. However, this arch does not gain much from the other storylines, because Indie Game quickly loses its ability to form clear associational connections between one interview and another.
In the case of Super Meat Boy‘s development, the artistic merit of the game is established early on as an expression of childhood nostalgia, and the viewer spends the rest of his or her time exploring the peculiarities of the designers’ individual personalities. Additionally, any tension the viewer might feel involving their launch is quickly nullified by the knowledge of stellar early reviews, which should see them through to financial success regardless of Microsoft mishandling their promotion. Meanwhile, Blow’s story feels superficial and tacked on, and the interviews lack a definitive purpose beyond the film’s introduction. In truth, the only storyline that shows a genuine character arc with narrative progression involves Phil Fish and his game Fez. If the other sections had avoided contending with this arc, by contrast attempting to build on the viewer’s knowledge of video games alone, the film might have been successful. Instead, the filmmakers mistakenly believe that each story holds the same level of merit and interest.
If Indie Game starts as a consistent allegory of the independent video game industry and the artistry inherent within, it ends as a series of scattered portraits that communicate disparate struggles in achieving success in that industry. If Indie Game starts as a compelling exploration of several different artistic personalities, it ends with only one artist truly changing and growing in a way that justifies the viewer’s time and attention. Simply put, watching Indie Game is like playing a really great video game demo, with all the right components in place, only to find the game itself unplayable. The more time you spend with the film, the more it falls apart.