INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE

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So last night, I finally watched Indie Game: The Movie, a movie a lot of people I know were very excited about. It was the focus of not one but two successful Kickstarter campaigns, has a soundtrack by the brilliant Jim Guthrie, and was talked about by a lot of the people I know, both in and out of the gaming industry, for months and months before it was ever released. So I brought maybe high expectations to it.

Overall it was a pretty movie, very slick and stylishly shot, lots of slow tracking shots and saturated colors and animated lines and arrows here and there. The Jim Guthrie score was predictably great (you can stream and buy it here), but I already knew that because I bought it months ago–I would stand in the snow naked to buy a new Jim Guthrie album. But the more I think about Indie Game: The Movie, the more cold it’s leaving me.

The very biggest, most obvious problem to me was the lack of well-adjusted artists making art and experiencing success and failure, which seems like–and to be honest, speaking as someone who does not work in gaming–more like the indie games world that I know and see online. Where was Craig Adams, the intelligent, thoughtful, outspoken creator of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery? Or Kris Piotrowski and Nathan Vella of Capy Games, who made the game with him? Where was Adam Saltsman of Canabalt and Hundreds fame? Or Venus Patrol‘s Brandon Boyer, who’s also the director of the Independent Games Festival, and to me the interstitial matrix that binds a lot of the indie games community together? Brandon appears early and delivers two intelligent sentences and then isn’t seen again. Adam appears in this clip Brandon sent me, but wasn’t in the actual movie.

The movie follows, more or less, three stories: Jonathan Blow’s past-tense development of Braid, briefly; Edmund Mcmillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy; and Phil Fish of Fez. Of those three the sanest seems to be Blow: but while the movie begins and ends with his idea of “let me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities, and put them in the game,” his part of the movie seems to move quickly from the creative and commercial success of Braid to him having a problem with how he was portrayed online afterward, or with how people appreciated his game. This might be perfectly appropriate–he might be coconuts, or just very precious about his art, or even simply a little neurotic. But I was surprised the movie began with the interesting story of how he created his game and then its subsequent success, then turned the focus to his personal quirks, then pretty much left it there and moved to three more even quirkier people for the remainder of the movie.

And there’s nothing wrong with being quirky. In fact, of the Super Meat Boy and Fez teams, Edmund McMillen seems the most well-adjusted, the most stable, the most excited to be making a piece of art and experiencing success. But the bulk of the movie seems to be about creative people becoming childish and petulant for very little reason, enslaving themselves to “The Game” even as they complain bitterly about how it’s ruining their lives, and generally fetishizing their inability to live outside of their own heads.

Which again, might be entirely true. But I know a lot of people in gaming, and by and large they’re actual adults, who believe passionately in what they do, but also can interact with the people around them without dissolving at the first hint of criticism. Who use words like “we” as much or more than “I.”

I guess there was just a lot.. missing about the movie to me. For a documentary, it had a lot of holes. When there was a question to be asked, it seemed to skip it, or ask the easy question. If there was a metaphor, it was an easy one–for instance, Tommy digging in the sand at the end of the movie, while his game is becoming an instant success. It never seemed to question the strangeness of how entitled Phil Fish seemed, it just presented it and left it there. But without the balancing effect of someone who was maybe less overtly, wildly quirky, it seemed like a commercial for entitlement as opposed to a frank examination of a problematic subject.

And to be clear, Phil Fish was the person I was most interested in. I *just* finished Fez, and it really was a brilliant game. Easily brilliant enough to say “well you can be a little crazy if you’re making art at that level.” But Fez was also an impossibly over-complicated game; a game that was elegant and perfect in its simplicity and elegance, but then with a limitless profusion of codes and tricks layered on top. Though the game had not been released at the time the movie was finished, that to me was a huge, constant missing note: that Phil Fish had gotten in his own way at probably every turn. Which happens. But all we’re left with in Indie Game: The Movie is someone who spent 3-5 years on a single project, along with an absent former partner (more later) and a mostly absent programmer, and his big payoff is having one of the Penny Arcade guys say “Sick!”

Art!

THINGS THAT WERE MISSING:

–As mentioned, people working in indie games who are somewhat well-adjusted, or at least able to conceive of themselves as human beings who are not the center of the universe.

–Also, women.

–In fact, any people who weren’t white or male or North American. Granted, this might just be representative of the shape of the games industry, but it’s still worth mentioning. The older I get, the more I notice how white everything is, and I’m as white as it gets. You can’t get whiter than I am without a lot of recessive genes.

–Games that weren’t released through XBox Live Arcade–the three focal games of the movie are Braid (briefly), then especially Super Meat Boy and Fez, both initially released through XBLA.

–The unnamed, pixellated “original partner” of Fez creator Phil Fish. As the movie progressed, each time his pixellated image was shown I was increasingly surprised he didn’t appear in some way to present his side of things. Especially after 10 minutes of Phil Fish threatening to murder him in cold blood. The biggest surprise of the entire movie was the line in the credits that said he had not been asked to participate in the documentary. What! Especially considering that Fish’s “new partner” Ken Schachter is not only one of the executive producers of the film, but the top billed producer.

I didn’t watch this movie expecting a cutting-edge expose on the gaming industry, but I also didn’t expect to see someone presented as a blurry non-entity, vilified, threatened, and then never asked to defend or explain himself. And then see one of the–admittedly, not particularly well-portrayed–focuses of the movie’s new partner listed as an executive producer.

And for me, this was a terrible note to end on, retroactively calling most of the movie into question. Was it just a commercial for self-centered entitlement by creative people? Is that the great advantage of indie gaming? It’s hard not to draw that conclusion when part of the Fez production team is an executive producer. In a movie about creative individuals making great art in a medium that’s only recently starting to be viewed as art, it’s hard not to see that relationship of Schachter to Fish to [silent ex-partner] to the film’s directors as a hagiography. A beautifully shot, tastefully made hagiography, but

nonetheless.