The video game industry is a multi-billion dollar a year moneymaking juggernaut, as evidenced by Grand Theft Auto V’s recent massive launch week haul. But beyond the triple A publishers that have thousands of staff pumping out blockbuster titles on an increasingly regular basis, there is an entire cadre of auteurs creating playable passion projects. This is the world of the indie game.
The advent of the current generation of consoles gave rise to online communities through systems like PSN and Xbox Live as well as Valve’s Steam. For better or worse, these networks have given indie game developers unprecedented direct access to gamers in a very mainstream way.
But who are the developers and why do they do what they do?
This is what’s at the core of Indie Game: The Movie, an award-winning documentary examining the exhaustive world of building your own game to take to the masses. Like self-publishing a book, creating your own video game is a personal expression of storytelling. Indie Game focuses on three of these stories. First is Jonathan Blow, creator of the smash indie hit Braid, whose contributions to the documentary come long after his success was solidified. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refrens who are on the verge of launching Super Meat Boy through Xbox Live are also profiled. Finally, Phil Fish and his much lauded yet stuck in development hell Fez are brought into the mix.
The brilliance in this documentary is in how it profiles these three disparate experiences, all at very different stages. Blow is the seasoned indie developer pro with big success under his belt. He’s dealt with the haters, not always in the best ways, but is looking at the plight of current developers with the eye of someone who’s been there. And he’s thinking about what’s next.
McMillen and Refrens are coming to the end of their journey. Development is wrapping up and the launch date is upon them. It’s the biggest moment of this game’s gestation period and the documentary is there for it, which is especially interesting given the two men’s almost opposite reactions to the launch.
And then there’s Phil Fish and Fez. Announced in 2007, Fez received huge early praise at the 2008 Independent Games Festival. It then abruptly fell off the map as it declined into the seventh level of development hell. The creative team fell apart, leaving Fish virtually on his own. His company lost its funding. Legal issues descended upon him. And Fish’s own perfectionism was a huge issue. He admits to redesigning the game at least three times as the technology used to create the game improved. All of this is chronicled in the movie, particularly Fish’s huge frustrations with the online community’s reaction to the game’s delayed release.
That is a huge part of what Indie Game is about. Frustration. With online responses to games both in and out of development. With still having to deal with big game infrastructure. With trying to express yourself in this type of medium. It’s about dealing with these frustrations, overcoming them and experiencing the exhilaration of success.
Indie Game itself is an independent success story. Funded through two successful Kickstarter campaigns, Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot began conducting interviews with a variety of indie game developers and industry pundits. They eventually narrowed it down to these three games. The movie received huge praise from the gaming industry and film critics, including a win at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.
If you are a gamer, game developer or someone simply interested in independent art in any form, this is a must watch documentary.