Though independently made games have existed in some form since the 80s, it was Valve’s Steam service, launched in 2002, that introduced a whole new mode of distribution that allowed homemade and idiosyncratic games to reach a wider audience than ever before. Indie gaming quickly became a boom economy, and independent studios began to compete with blockbuster titles for press. Microsoft created the Xbox Live Arcade to capitalise on it; Sony did the same with its Playstation Network, and Nintendo introduced WiiWare (not to mention Apple’s App Store, which is bursting with indie game gems).
Documenting a small part of a huge industry is Indie Game: The Movie. Focusing on the guys behind three of the most iconic indie games of the last 4 years (2008’s Braid, 2010’s Super Meat Boy and 2012’s Fez), Indie Game is less about the coding and development of a game than the people responsible. The stories themselves will appeal to everyone, whether you were weaned off the bottle and onto a NES controller, or if you wouldn’t know a Wii from a PS3. There are no in-depth conversations about patches or power-ups – the focus is on their emotional investment in making games, and the hours of work, the frustrations and the triumphs that are part of the process.
The four men directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky focus on represent different types of indie game creators. Phil Fish, the main figure behind Fez and the man described as an “indie games rockstar” is the most charismatic of the bunch, with an ever-changing array of beard and hair that compliments his animated manner. He’s impetuous, and has plenty of resentment for impatient fanboys, but he’s also articulate and self-aware.
Having bitten off more than he could chew with Fez, Fish grapples with any number of obstacles, including a potential lawsuit from a former colleague, game-breaking bugs, and his own perfectionist streak. Talking to Jerry Holkins at the Penny Arcade Expo, Fish jokes that his game should be called “Fez 4”, having gone through three iterations of the game before it was ready to show.
Fish’s polar opposite, Jonathan Blow is reserved and understated to the point of resembling a statue. His game, Braid, is still one of the best-reviewed games on Metacritic: its PS3 incarnation was the 6th best-rated game of 2009, beating enormously popular (and far more expensive) games like Forza 3 and Batman: Arkham Asylum. The good reviews didn’t satisfy Blow, though, who felt that even the most ardent fans missed the line of communication he’d hoped the game would open.
This is a recurring idea in Indie Game, one echoed by Edmund McMillan of Team Meat (Super Meat Boy): “My whole career has been me trying to find new ways to communicate with people, because I desperately want to communicate with people, but I don’t want the messy interaction of having to make friends and talk to people.” Blow shows the clearest indicators of having some sort of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but most of the men in this film would likely appear on that spectrum at some point: the desire to communicate, to find the way to do so that has eluded them thus far, is an animating drive for all of them. Tommy Refenes, Edmund’s partner at Team Meat, says, “it’s why a writer writes…because that’s the most effective way they can express themselves, and a video game is the most effective way I can express myself.”
If Indie Game was intended to scare people away from game development, it worked: it’s clear that the kind of dedication and obsessiveness required to make a mark in the business is too much to ask of mere mortals. There’s a price to pay for that kind of commitment, and if you’ve got any doubts, it isn’t for you. For people like Phil Fish, Edmund McMillan, Tommy Refenes and Jonathan Blow, though, it wasn’t a choice – it was the only choice.
Review Score: 8.5 out of 10.
Indie Game: The Movie screened on Friday as part of Sydney's Canadian Film Festival. You can find out more about the film here: http://www.indiegamethemovie.com/