Review: Indie Game - The Movie / Director: James Swirsky, Lisanne Pajot / Release Date: Out Now (via iTunes, Steam, and direct from the filmmakers DRM free at www.indiegamethemovie.com, with a special edition DVD and Blu-ray release later this year.)
Once confined to the realm of darkened teenage bedrooms, the videogame industry has become a juggernaut of modern entertainment. Valued at an estimated 100 billion dollars, the bedroom warriors of old have given way to a mainstream audience that accepts sitting down on the couch with a controller in hand as an equally viable family entertainment choice as a trip to the multiplex. Behind the household names and marquee releases such as Gears of War or Assassins Creed where hundreds of developers with near limitless budgets create their latest number one seller, there is a smaller, lesser known element constantly at work to create a different kind of digital experience.
Indie Game: The Movie, a Kickstarter funded documentary by Canadian filmmakers James Swirky and Lisanne Pajot follows the lives of independent game creators throughout the process of programming, releasing and distributing a game outside of the large studio system that dominates the industry. Edmund Mcmillen and Tommy Refenes are working round the clock to finish their game Super Meat Boy on deadline, as Phil Fish creator of Fez battles to complete a title four years overdue amidst an industry where audience hype and mindshare is a precious but short lived commodity. What unites both teams, is a desire and commitment to creating something that can not only satisfy the needs of investors and players, but their own creative vision.
Unlike mainstream games that sell millions of copies week in and week out by expensively courting mass market attention, many indie creations carry significant investment from the programmers and designers on a personal level. While the tiresome debate over games as art will never be resolved, to these small but hugely talented developers, the expression of individual themes and their own artistic worldview are at the forefront of their process, while devoting their lives to the arduous and painstaking task of making sure the game actually works as it should once it reaches consumers.
Skillfully, the film tracks what is inherently a very mechanical exercise as a more human and relatable subject, highlighting the fears and anxieties that plague its subjects on a daily basis, and successfully conveys the levels of personal sacrifice they go to in order to make their visions become a reality. Indie Game: The Movie also makes a very fair and even handed representation of those involved, and doesn't hide the very real element of pretentiousness that is always near in the world of independent development, where games - a product that most take as nothing more than a time-killing hobby - suddenly become more of a conceptual art project, with flashy action replaced by thoughtful and often abstract experiences.
Jonathan Blow, creator of indie darling Braid, speaks very honestly about his design philosophy, and how garnering universal acclaim (and considerable financial success) can sit at odds with the original meaning behind his work. The audience might have enjoyed it, but they might not really “get it” as the artist may have wanted. The developers aren't always seen as likeable, with moments of hubris, bravado and bitterness toward larger scale operations on clear display. Once the film starts to explore the deeper motivations and issues faced by the participants and move beyond the Twitter feed business politics however, it’s hard not to believe in their goals and cheer on their efforts.
Despite the documentary’s distinctly indie feel (forty percent of its operation budget was crowdsourced, and is being released initially via DRM free digital download), it maintains an impressive visual style that combines wonderfully captured observational imagery with a well directed sense of logic that makes the lines of code and design documentation easy to follow for the viewer, increasing the understanding of the sizeable and infinitely complicated task taken on by the individuals.
It’s undoubtedly a tall order to make images of a pasty programmer entrenched behind a bank of monitors something worth looking at, but Swirky’s photography proves irresistible, cleverly creating a sense of timescale through impressive editing choices that use perfectly captured cuts of both real world locales and videogame realms. Set to a thoroughly listenable score by Jim Guthrie, this well paced and affecting documentary makes for a stirring and inspiring tale filled with insight to the very personal side of an industry almost entirely devoid of personality.