It’s difficult, as a gamer, not to get excited about a documentary about videogames, and specifically, the world of indie game development. It’s also easy to be disappointed.
To be excited for something is to generate an aura of hype around it that will fail to dissipate on the day that you can finally experience it. In many cases, this leads to disappointment. However, in the case of Indie Game: The Movie, it’s the first time I felt as though I’d been mis-sold by a series of promotional shorts and trailers as to how the finished product would play out before my eyes.
Indie Game: The Movie, for those who don’t know anything about it, is a documentary created by two people (Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky) that introduces the viewer to the world of indie games – videogames created by small teams of developers without the financial support of a publisher. To be a full-time indie game developer is to put yourself through hell, with no safety net, your reputation constantly on the line, and the task of making everything happen for yourself.
The problem with this definition of an independent game is that the examples used in Indie Game: The Movie, primarily the games Fez and Super Meat Boy, don’t quite fit into this category. Fez‘s development was partially funded by the Canadian government, and a monetary prize that came packaged with an award from the Indie Games Festival – before the game was even released, or properly playable. Super Meat Boy, while lacking external funding, had a publishing deal for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade – a deal all indie developers would be thrilled to get.
Thus, the problem is presented to the viewer early on, if they happen to know anything at all about the scene the documentary claims to cover – is this really the world of the indie? Does this include funded, soon-to-be published games, simply battling with deadlines and marketing issues? Well, no, it doesn’t, and this is why the promotional material that generated so much hype on a personal and international basis is so misleading. Childhood gaming, game jams, game design, iPad ports are all topics covered by the various shorts released by these filmmakers, but almost none of them made it into the documentary itself.
What you’re left with is a smattering of opinions from a couple of games journalists, other indie developers of such financial success that the theme of the struggle disappears for stretches of the piece, and of course the developers of Fez and Super Meat Boy. The problem isn’t the story of these two games and their journey towards release – it’s that the documentary appeared to be aiming to cover the indie scene as a whole, and simply runs with two examples with minimal input from or analysis of anyone or anything else. There is one exception, the most interesting example in the entire film – Jonathan Blow’s Braid.
A game about heartbreak, time travel, and also a project that put its creator in six-digit debt before making him a millionaire, the story of Braid is worthy a documentary in itself. Its creator is a visionary – known across the industry as someone who appears whenever he is mentioned on the internet, who insists on pushing games further and further into unexplored territory, and who is a divisive figure no matter who you talk to. But he features little in the documentary, because his tale has already concluded, and is of little dramatic value.
Honestly, the tragic woes of Fez and Super Meat Boy are worth the watch, but it’s odd, as someone who plays and makes games, to wonder when exactly you’re going to see more information about the process of design and development, about the difficulties that affect people who aren’t lucky enough to make a deal with Microsoft or have a booth at Penny Arcade’s world-famous PAX games convention. We see little of the people who attend game jams and submit their games to various sites hoping for a Steam deal or some sort of inclusion in the grand scheme of things.
By no means is it worth disqualifying successful developers from the documentary I’d pitch myself, as there are moments when it’s really worth having that level of experience on camera. Edmund McMillen’s talk on how he taught players the controls in Super Meat Boy is a highlight, and interesting whether or not you design and make games yourself. But input from more varied sources would be better.
The filmmakers themselves claim that the documentary will be expanded with three hours of extra footage that they’ll put on a special edition of the film, but it feels like too little, too late. The documentary itself is a surprisingly short eighty minutes, and this makes me wonder if they had to make a decision between showcasing the entire indie game scene, or just focusing on two stories. As it stands, the documentary does indeed educate you on how these developers felt and acted in the run-up to release, but there’s a lot of drama and not a lot of information, which in a documentary strikes me as somewhat odd.
Perhaps the special edition’s features will perform the task of educating through documenting on film, but as it stands currently, Indie Game: The Movie falls short of actually being captivating. Instead it simply reminds us that big companies are careless, indie developers that have incredible opportunities still can’t see the forest for the trees, and that the plight of the little developer without the golden ticket just doesn’t seem as interesting. Feel free to watch it and see for yourself, but it seems like a kick in the teeth to be denied the exciting variety of opinions and insights that the trailer and other promotional materials claimed to offer. Hopefully, Indie Game: The Movie: The Game might be better, if anyone makes it.