[This review was originally written as part of our coverage of Sundance Film Festival 2012. It has since been reposted to coincide with the film's release in Los Angeles and New York.]
Art is hard. I can't tell you how many cramps I got from finger-painting in grade school or scripts I wrote, scrapped, and burnt in shame. If Indie Game: The Movie tells me anything, it's that following your dream is never easy but always rewarding. The pursuit of art of a personal nature is always worth it, even when you are having panic attacks, potential lawsuits looming, or an army of assholes ready to tear your work apart online.
Speaking of which, here I am to do my part (Yeah, I'm an asshole).
Indie Game: The Movie
Full disclaimer here: I write for Flixist's game-centeric sister site Destructoid. I'm not mentioning this because we are prominently featured in a rather hilarious (embarrassing for us, really) scene with Phil Fish, but because this means I know videogames better than most of this film's potential audience and even its subjects.
There is one thing I don't know, however: I don't know what it's like to be the guy on the other side, who is slaving away on their dream game only to have some kid in Texas tell them and the rest of the world it's crap (Sorry, Achron!) Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky's documentary feature offers us a look into this world and, for that, I am grateful. I only wish it had a bit more clarity and offered a more thorough look at game development and the surrounding industry.
The film starts in media res with Team Meat's Tommy Refenes having a panic attack over his much anticipated game Super Meat Boy not being promoted on Xbox Live Arcade. In the moment, he's a game designer cliche mocked by the greater public since the 1980's: skinny, neurotic, and anti-social. But, then we are told the full story of how we got to the moment and I began to realize he's not that person at all. He's actually quite endearing, thoughtful, and -- okay, yeah neurotic but what great artist isn't when putting their slaved-over work in the hands of others?
Along with following Team Meat from Super Meat Boy's inception to its release, Indie Game peels the curtains back to show what it's like to be successful through Jonathan Blow (Braid) and what it's like to be up against impossible expectations through Phil Fish (Fez). The mix of stories and perspectives strengthens the film and gives it a momentum and energy most documentaries lack. It helps that Pajot & Swirksy not only chose excellent subjects, but that their subjects are also all in tough, dramatic situations.
There are a couple pieces that don't fit, however. The main one is Jonathan Blow. He is a revered and prominent face in the world of indie games but he's also a complete gas bag who spouts absolute nonsense as fact. The problem is that Indie Game positions him not as a character but as the voice of wisdom: Explaining the origin of indie games, the merit of indie games, and why the general public will never understand the artistic intent behind some of them (Soulja Boy probably understands Braid better than Blow). The fact that the film ends with his words -- words that are repeated from an earlier scene -- is the most crushing blow of all.
While Indie Game has great pacing and energy, one thing it lacks is focus. The film is made with a non-gaming audience in mind, so things like the origin of indie game platforms (Steam, etc.), the financial successes, and the industry are explained through talking heads culled from popular blogs. The transitions into these explanations often feels jarring, leaving our characters' stories behind -- these scenes feel like they come from trying to validate games as a medium rather than there to give context to the subject's stories.
Sometimes the film will have the game designers explain mechanics and design, which is captivating and lets us understand their artistic intent. I could care less what some dude from Kill Screen thinks of Fez's hype online, though. In the very least, the filmmakers could have pulled from some more varied sources as every talking head is an indie game fanboy championing the scene. It makes me lose trust in the filmmakers and keeps me away from the people on screen I care about (Phil, Tommy, and Edmund McMillen).
The dynamics presented between the film's three stars keeps Indie Game entertaining and tense. Phil Fish is a thoughtful, heart-on-sleeve Canadian who speaks his mind and isn't afraid to become emotionally vulnerable on camera. Some of the film's most tense moments come from him, which is a shock since he exudes a collected cool in the public. Tommy Refenes is a self-deprecating, earnest guy who wants to find success but doesn't know his own definition of it. Seeing him come to terms with being successful presents a perplexing scene for the viewer -- it's a sort of reality you didn't expect and don't often hear about. Edmund McMillen (Team Meat's other half) is the throbbing heart of the film: He's a fun-loving, gentle giant who gets the most laughs and smiles out of the audience.
Where Indie Game fails is the same place where many videogame essays have failed in recent years: It focuses so much on validating the medium instead of trying to properly understand and explore it. I want to see how these guys get deals with Microsoft. I want to see how these guys interact within the indie game community. I want to see what really goes into making a game in a very specific and visually exciting way.
Instead, we get the story of three guys trying their best to make their dreams come true. It's beautifully shot and wonderfully told when Lisanne & Swirsky give their subjects the spotlight. By the end, you want to raise you hand up and high-five the guys. Even better, you want to go out and make your own little indie game wish come true. It's in the small moments of the game designers' stories of childhood, struggles, and relationships that we see a piece of ourselves and it makes all the difference. I just wish there were more of these moments and less fluff.