Note: This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on my blog.
I left video gaming behind years ago. One of my time and fund-consuming hobbies had to go, and games drew the short straw. If I’d kept with it, I’d be even more broke now than I already am. I’ve continued to keep up with all the news and major developments in the gaming world. Thus, even though I’ve missed out on the big boom of independent games, I know of most of the important ones. Mostly, though, all that I have left of games now are memories, and while many of them are great, none of them could quite convince me that games are an art form. Which shouldn’t really matter all that much. Whether or not gaming is an art has no bearing on whether or not it’s good, and it is good. But Indie Game: The Movie has done more to push me towards the idea that games really are art, more than any game I’ve ever played, oddly enough.
The documentary is a look inside the work processes of people who develop games independent of any studio overhead or outside influence. It’s a long, time-intensive, arduous process, and it involves significant emotional and intellectual investment. These guys expend extraordinary thought on all aspects of the worlds they create, and they are literally creating worlds here (okay, not literally, but you know what I mean). The movie follows the minds behind three games. There’s Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, who, having already achieved success, is reflecting on what it’s brought him. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy are racing to meet the deadline for release*. Phil Fish, director of FEZ, suffers continual setbacks in his push to finish the project*.
What immediately springs out to you about these men is that they all suffer from some degree of neurosis. It’s probably to be expected of people who spend very large chunks of time secluded from the rest of the world. Jonathan is obsessed with making sure that people fully appreciate the lengths he went to in trying to make Braid something truly artistic. After the game’s release, he would comment on nearly every article he could find about the game or himself, earning a degree of infamy he didn’t really want. Edmund uses gaming as an outlet to connect with others. He has trouble articulating himself, and so expresses his feelings through his games. Even though he’s making something “shallower” than what Blow did, he actually seems to understand artistry with a much greater ease than Blow. Maybe that’s why he’s the best-socialized of the subjects (although he’s still kinda a shut-in). Tommy, though, has allowed Super Meat Boy to completely become his life, and has everything in his future riding on it. But even he isn’t nearly as bad as Phil, who is trapped in a purgatory of ceaseless tinkering and re-tinkering. He’s got designer’s block, and FEZ has been pushed back years as a result, with numerous personal troubles thrown into the mix for good measure.
The common connection between these people is more than just mental disjointedness, although it ties into that. Jonathan, Edmund, Tommy, and Phil all have emotion simmering within them, and a restless desire to pour it into something. That’s not a nerd or gamer impulse – that’s an artistic one. And the results are works that are, by their makers’ own admissions, flawed. But the flaws make them all the more beautiful. Jonathan muses that this lack of professionalism, this separation from the relentless polish of mainstream games like Legend of Gears of Halo: Grand Theft Mario 6: Warfare Effect, is what makes these games feel closer to humanity. Which is, of course, closer to art, if not in fact art.
These are terrifically sympathetic characters, and you root for them all the way. Edmund and Tommy’s race to finish their game provides the most compelling thread. Jonathan, as someone who’s journey is already finished, doesn’t quite go anywhere in the movie. And Phil’s plot is an exercise in not making any progress whatsoever, but that’s the point of his thread. Creative impulses and philosophies take all forms, and these disparate paths allow us to see more of them. But the simple fact that you like spending time with all these guys is really the reason to stick around. They’re all funny and sweet and likable to a fault.
The best surprise about Indie Game, though, is how cinematic it is. This is a movie about people who spend their days sitting in front of computers, but it doesn’t feel like it for a moment. The doc goes outside often, using found spaces that look like they could have come from video game environments as emblems of its characters’ wandering souls. Adding to the effect is the terrific music, a gentle score that breathes a hopeful sense of active, frantic optimism. It’s laden with emotion, and it’s honestly the kind of music I’d love to listen to independent of any film. It might be the best score to a documentary this year.
Indie Game: The Movie is a movie about Art and the kind of people who make it, even if what they’re making might not really be art. If that makes any sense. It doesn’t really go into the nitty-gritty details of the step-by-step development process of games, but I didn’t much mind that. If given the choice between the emotional and the instructional, I’ll pick the emotional every time.
CBR Break Down:
How it was viewed: Amazon Video
Running time: 96 minutes
Starring: Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes, Phil Fish, Jonathan Blow
Directed by: James Swirksy & Lisanne Pajot
Recommend viewing: It’s a perfect rental, and it’s on Netflix Instant now.
Why you should see it: Because you care about independent game development, or are just interested in the creative process.
Why you shouldn’t see it: Because your empathy is broken and you can’t relate to people just because they spend all day indoors writing code.
*Both these games, of course, have since been released.