You don't need to be a walking video game encyclopedia to understand why the plot of Indie Game: The Movie makes for such a compelling story. The Sundance award-winning documentary, which premiered in New York City last night, explores plenty of familiar themes about creative individuals struggling to make it in a highly-competitive industry. But the film's heavily-cropped focus on the relatively uncharted topic of independent video game development evolves into a unique and emotionally rich human drama, hurling viewers up close (at points, unsettlingly close) to four celebrated figures who have shunned the studio system to create games that act as deeply personal expressions.
Filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, who spent countless hours in extreme close-quarters with game developers Jonathan Blow (Braid), Phil Fish (Fez), Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), knew early on that one of their goals would be bringing a larger audience into their world. And in its raw, emotional, and sometimes discomforting way, the film does just that: it shows us that yes, video games, despite the faceless corporate facades that often stand directly behind them, are made by real people.
"Everything you learn in the film about making games is not only teaching you or telling you about the process of making games, and isn't only giving you a little bit of info inside the decisions developers make — it's also sharing something about that person," Pajot explains. "It shows people what they value, so that's sort of how we looked at it. I mean, we had 300 hours of footage, we had a lot of other people that we had interviewed, and that's just sort of how we felt we needed to tell the story — really focus on these people and tell as much as you can through them."
The filmmakers were careful to avoid paying too much attention to the technical side of things, but still manage to include a few illuminating bits on the process of actually making games. One motion graphics-aided scene in which Jonathan Blow breaks down the level design in Braid is surprisingly lucid, explained by Blow as a kind of dialogue that directs and anticipates the actions and thought processes of the player. "When he's talking about game making, he's presenting some really nice technical information, but what he's getting really jazzed about explaining to us is that he's actually having a conversation with the player," says Swirsky.
'Indie Game: The Movie' reaffirms that yes, video games are made by real people.
Edmund McMillen is similarly motivated, explaining in the beginning of the film how games allow him to communicate with people without "the messy interaction that comes along with actually getting to know them." He explains throughout the film his idea of Meat Boy — his charming, buzz saw-dodging protagonist — as not so much a boy made of meat, but a boy without skin whose struggle to rescue his love interest, Bandage Girl, reflects his emotional bond with his wife, Danielle. "He doesn't just love her," he says in the film of the two characters, "He needs her, because she completes him."
There's also Fez creator Phil Fish, whose self-conscious anxieties slowly unravel before the rolling cameras as he prepares for the surprise premiere of the highly-anticipated game at a major video game expo in Boston. A controversial figure within the indie gaming scene, the pressure Fish faces in finishing his 4-years-delayed game is amplified when a tense legal situation from a personal relationship-gone-sour threatens to stop him from showing the game at all. "If this fails, I'm finished," he says at one point. "I don't think I'll ever work in games again." (Fortunately, Fish did finally release Fez last month to much praise from critics and fans alike.)
The audience at the film's sold-out premiere at the IFC Center in New York last night appeared to consist of mostly gamers, fans, and some game developers. But the two filmmakers say they're always surprised to hear reactions from the non-gaming masses. Standing outside after the first of two screenings that evening, Swirsky says he was approached by a father and his embarrassed-looking teenage son trailing behind him. "He came up to me and said 'I hate video games — I hate that he plays them and I just can't stand them ... but I really really enjoyed this movie, and I shouldn't have and didn't think that I would,'" Swirsky recalled when we spoke backstage after the show. "It's not like he's going to go home and download Fez or anything like that, but it kind of bridges a little bit of understanding between this knowledge gap between generations."
Indie Game: The Movie is screening now through May 24th in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with more details on a physical and digital release coming next week.