We play games for a number of reasons - among them, for the escapism. We play games to disappear, albeit briefly, from the pressures of work, life, and the world at large. Once we’re done, we return to those roles and responsibilities. But those games need to come from somewhere, and they come via those that have chosen to make them their life. These guys, these independent developers who work for love - and maybe eventually money - can’t escape. Each game is a bet, and each bet is all in.
Indie Game: The Movie opens a window into their stories, allowing us a peek at the sacrifices and successes, the elated highs and the crashing lows, that flow through every day of their coding lives. There’s Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the duo behind Super Meat Boy (opens in new tab) which is gearing up for its debut on the Xbox Marketplace. There’s Phil Fish, who’s racing to silence the online haters by finishing Fez (opens in new tab) amid a protracted legal battle. And then there’s Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid (opens in new tab), and an inclusion in this documentary seemingly for that reason alone. There’s no journey to follow with Blow - his game is released, and his forthcoming project The Witness is barely mentioned at all - but we are permitted to receive some insights on his philosophy to game design, and to marvel at how dramatically they clash with those of his contemporaries.
They all do, in fact. They clash with each other. With Fez, Phil wants his creation to instill a sense of delight, to recapture that same childlike wonder he and his generation experienced the first time they booted up the likes of Super Mario Bros. There’s a deliberate simplicity to the visuals, an incentive to explore. Fez carries a delightful tone, and as he dusts off his old Macintosh to demonstrate some early examples of games he made as a child, it’s clear that tone is a key part of his approach. But he’s attached to Fez. It’s his baby. He’s been designing and redesigning it for the best part of four years. He wants - needs - it to live up to the expectations of the baying public, having taken Fez dark after generating positive buzz in 2007, and to the expectations of his own high standards. Phil shows us two different versions of artwork from Fez, side by side. One represents his first effort at designing the game’s pixel art, the other is from its most recent iteration. To us, they’re two decent examples of Fez’s visual style. To him, one is horrible, terrible, rubbish, awful, while the other is acceptable. For now.
Team Meat, meanwhile, are in it for themselves. With Edmund a jolly mass of tattoo and beard, and Tommy scraping by on a wiry frame and the occasional insulin injection, they’re like the Odd Couple of game design. Edmund says he wants to create a game that a younger version of himself would enjoy; one that combines his unique tastes and style into a game that’s racing against the clock if it’s to stand a chance of making its launch window. The sacrifices are made obvious. “I have no social life,” laments Tommy. “I wouldn’t even be able to have one anyway; I’ve got no money to take anyone out.” He’s sitting in a diner at 4am. He’s got two days to get Super Meat Boy ready for certification.
For both games, failure is not an option. Should Super Meat Boy fall, says Edmund, he’s done. The last few years are all for nothing. And Phil, courting a potential lawsuit by readying Fez for a demo booth at PAX without the okay from his former business partner, is feeling the pressure more than most. “If it doesn’t do well,” he says, “I’m going to kill myself.” We believe him.
Jonathan Blow, in the periphery, weaves in and out with his approach to game design. Fair enough - Braid is one of indie gaming’s biggest success stories. It set the bar. And it’s clear that the makers of Indie Game want us to know what he knows. There’s insight in Blow’s presence, but there’s no vested interest. With or without a project, Blow makes it hard to truly engage. He says he was disappointed by the reviews of Braid; most of them didn’t seem to “get it”. He chases down those reviews and adds his comments to each article. He says the only way to enjoy a game is the way he intended.
The direction by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot is happy to let the participants do the talking. Only on the odd occasion does it intrude with attempted symbolism. When Phil relays his frustrations of legal red tape, it’s in voice-over as he floats, then submerges, in a hotel swimming pool. (Yes, we get it, he’s drowning.) Then, at a hotel bar where he’s losing himself in a drink, he’s perched on a stool not unlike Jack Nicholson in The Shining, right down to the wild hair and wilder eyes. (Yes, we get it, he’s losing his mind.) It’s a more effective tale when each participant is left to their own devices; their subtleties say more than deliberate framing ever could. Phil, a French Canadian, is fluent in both languages, yet when he gets particularly upset and enraged, you can hear the slight tinges of a French accent filter into otherwise impeccable speech. It’s involuntary, it’s true emotion. That, and his facial hair. As the months tick by with Fez no closer to release, Phil morphs from bearded hipster to fierce mutton chops - as observed by a friend of mine, the transformation practically serves as “an insanity meter”.
Indie Game: The Movie was filmed in 2010. We know how these games end up. What the film truly exposes are not just the stories of its developers, but the unique realm of independent game development; it shows us how the process affects the very real lives of these very real people. Creative or artistic expression ultimately stems from, and contributes towards, human emotion. There’s no getting away from that. And these guys, they’re biting their nails to the quick after sending their babies out into the wild and leaving them at the mercy of Metacritic. After investing years of their lives, how can they not? We might play to escape, but they’re coding to live. Think of the bedroom programmer with a shattered body clock who’s living off microwaved burgers the next time you jump on Twitter to say “this game sucks”.