Monday, July 16, 2012

Blogorium Review: Indie Game - The Movie

 Here's a great example of a documentary that takes a subject I wouldn't normally be interested in (the developers of independent games) and making an engrossing film that I thoroughly enjoyed. I guess between The King of Kong and Indie Game: The Movie, maybe I should rethink the whole "why would I want to watch a movie about gaming?"

 I guess there's a built in assumption I have based on knowing how boring it is to watch someone else play video games (or for someone to watch you) that this would somehow translate into a cinematic experience. I know, it's short-sighted and ridiculous, but when I first heard about Indie Game: The Movie, my initial reaction was "eh." Positive reviews kept coming and when the opportunity arose, I said "why not" because I do like to try out movies I wouldn't normally gravitate towards*.

 Not knowing much about the world of independent game developers (to be honest, I haven't really played that many indie games), I came in with no real expectations about what directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky would be documenting. Indie Game: The Movie showcases four developers of three games - Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, one of the most successful indie games ever.

 Team Meat is closing in on finishing their hotly anticipated game, with Refenes and McMillen working on either coast (Asheville and Santa Cruz) working feverishly to meet Microsoft's X-Box Live Arcade Game Feast promotion. The stress of taking the flash version of the gory, politically incorrect Super Meat Boy - which involves a skinless boy trying to save his bandage-covered girlfriend from and evil fetus in a jar - is wearing on Refenes, who is broke and has no social life to speak of. McMillen, the less socially inclined of the two, is nevertheless feeling the strain on his marriage as they reach the final stretch.

 Phil Lord's Fez, announced at the Independent Games Festival in 2008, is still trapped in a constant state of development four years later, and the anticipation towards his game is turning into open hostility. Lord and his one Polytron employee Renaud Bédard have torn down and rebuilt Fez from the ground three times, but the conceptually fascinating game - a 2D pixellated character discovers the world is actually 3D - requires hand designed textures and its open-ended levels are difficult to explain to the waiting masses. With his former partner threatening a lawsuit, Lord is wracked with anxiety about debuting the long-awaited demo for Fez at the Penny Arcade Expo, but with his booth set up an attendees lining up to play it for the first time, he faces another nightmare: the Fez demo has a number of "game killing" glitches, forcing him to restart the game while players stand aside.

 Blow, who created Braid in a burst of experimentation and included his "deepest flaws and vulnerabilities" in the game, was met with acclaim upon release in 2008, but it came at a cost to the designer. Despite the accolades, Blow felt that reviewers and players of Braid were missing the deeper messages and themes of the game, and in his attempts to defend his intentions, he was treated as someone with thin skin who looked down on his audience, tainting his experience and success.

 There's a small moment when McMillen and Refenes are voice chatting on Super Meat Boy's release day, and Edmund says something to the effect of "do you remember that game Braid?" and Tommy laughs and says "yes." While the overall conversation is about the possibility of beating its sales record, based on the section about the reaction to Braid (including screengrabs of people criticizing Blow), it did make me wonder if Team Meat shared that opinion as well. (Another interviewee jokes that Blow "must have something better than Name Alert" because of his supernatural ability to locate any time he's mentioned online and post a comment.)

 Indie Game: The Movie is less about the development of the games than it is the people who make them and what drives them to devote so much time and energy. There's surprisingly little footage of coding, and other than a section devoted to Lord's in-progress design of Fez's background textures, the film is more about the four developers and their games are in the background (albeit an ever looming background for Team Meat and Polytron). Edmund McMillen's story about one his earlier games, Aether, mirroring how he viewed life as a child and then discovering a drawing his grandmother kept that validates him is touching. Lord, introduced through footage of winning an award for Fez in its conceptual state and through online interviews when he was "hot," is quick to put a human face to the guy being lambasted for not delivering his game fast enough.

 While it shouldn't surprise anyone that people are unfairly maligned online by their "fanbase," it is nice of Pajot and Swirsky to show us what all that piling of feels like to someone trying their hardest to make concept reality, and not blithely ignoring them or leading them on. Fez did come out in April of 2012, by the way - the film was completed before its release.

 So Indie Game: The Movie, like The King of Kong, is successful because the people behind the games are so fascinating. I've never been much of a Donkey Kong player, nor do I have an X-Box, so I can't play Fez or Super Meat Boy from the XBLA, but I will probably look into Braid (it's available on the PSN), and I did try the demo for Warp, one of the games that plays during the closing credits. Indie Game: The Movie was made possible by Kickstarter, and it's a fine example of a independently funded film that gave me insight into a world I might otherwise have overlooked. It comes highly recommended by the Cap'n.

* Okay, so that hasn't been the case lately; I mean, let's look at every review since this summer started. Clearly I need to get back on track with what you wouldn't normally see.

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