“It’s not a game I made for people. I made it for myself,” Edmund McMillen says of his “Super Meat Boy” early in the new film “Indie Game: The Movie,” a statement that seems to cut to the quick of the movement of the first generation of hardcore gamers to begin making games of their own.
Without knowing anything else but its title, you might guess that same self-satisfactory motivation would also guide co-directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s documentary about the rise of developers, designers and programmers who with the wherewithal to produce and distribute their own games online have finally broken into the once rarefied marketplace dominated by companies such as Electronic Arts, Nintendo and Microsoft. However, even with a gently triumphant score and some real pride earned by some of its participants through the course of the film, “Indie Game” both avoids the trap of becoming self-congratulatory while becoming what surely will be an important step towards legitimizing video games as an artform.
With a story bursting at the seams in both the past and present it has to depict, the film gracefully lays out the evolution of indie game creation from its origins to its breakthrough when the gaming platform Steam was created by Valve to revolutionize the industry through digital distribution. That opened the door for millions of developers the world over and “Indie Game” focuses on four from North America – Jonathan Blow, a sensitive, socially awkward type whose “Braid” became a sensation, Phil Fish, a bespecled Canadian wunderkind whose half-finished “Fez” scored a ton of hype in 2008 and has been trying to live it down ever since to finish the game, and the most humble of the bunch, McMillen and Tommy Refenes, two young guys in separate parts of the U.S. working together to put the finishing touches on “Super Meat Boy,” preparing for its release on Xbox Live.
As you watch Fish and the “Super Meat Boy” duo struggle through insane hours and countless bugs to work through to meet their deadlines, the film effortlessly builds a clever structure of its own. With Blow largely onhand as the expert of the group, representing an example of success in the burgeoning industry, his ability to tell a deeply personal story in the medium and a cautionary tale as he goes into the feelings of being overwhelmed by the attention “Braid” received, the film uses his story to underline its other characters’ drive towards success while allowing for the more deeply human and affecting parts of their stories to come through.
The mercurial Fish is an incredibly fascinating character, dogged by a lawsuit from his former partner that speaks to his far more comfortable fit in the digital world where his perfectionism is a necessity and also a curse as he seems doomed to never finish his game due to endless tinkering. Then there’s the underdog tale of the “Super Meat Boy” duo, who appear to have been lifted right out of a Horatio Alger e-book if only they can work out the mechanics of their side-scrolling adventure and break through the din of the thousands of other games contending for prime online shelf space.
In a way, “Indie Game” has a similar uphill climb since gaming in general has been a difficult subject to tackle in film, whether it’s an adaptation of a popular game or a depiction of a gamer. How do you get across the passion that such interactivity can provide to a passive audience of moviegoers? Although going behind the scenes of the making of games might seem like it would make matters worse, Swirsky and Pajot both make their own luck in terms of finding such compelling subjects at crucial times in their lives, but they connect the work of game developers to any number of great stories about artists who toil away in obscurity until receiving their proper due.
“Indie Game” itself arrives at a turning point for gaming as developers on the fringe are finding more success in the mainstream and while it’s wonderful that the film is able to shine a light on an exciting group of innovators as they come into their own, Swirsky and Pajot should get equal recognition for capturing the moment as it’s happening and in a way that’s incredibly entertaining for all audiences.
“Indie Game: The Movie” opens on May 18th at the IFC Center in New York, the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles, the Roxie Film Center in San Francisco and the Film Bar in Phoenix. A full theater listing is here.