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REVIEW: Indie Game: The Movie

For a good amount of people who hear the words “indie game” the first titles that pop in their heads are BraidSuper Meat Boy and, more recently, FEZ. Almost all gaming enthusiasts have tried their hand on at least one of these titles at some point and most people who play them agree that they’re very strong, well done games. But what about the people behind the games? What about those who give up everything to sit in front of a screen for 100+ hours a week to ensure their product is worthy of their own insane standards? 

Jonathan Blow, after the critical success of Braid, is still struggling with the overwhelmingly positive response to his game and considers starting a new one. Phil Fish talks about his childhood, FEZ and four years after the initial announcement decides to take it to PAX to be seen for the first time publicly. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Fenes (“Team Meat”) finish their 2 year project Super Meat Boy and eagerly await its release onto Xbox. Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary film created by  James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot that provides a deeper look into the lives and personalities of the developers and of indie games in general.

It’s been two years in the making and Super Meat Boy has been submitted to Microsoft. Tommy Fenes, programmer extraordinaire and one half of “Team Meat”, wakes up to the surprise that their front-page advertisement for Super Meat Boy on the Xbox dashboard isn’t there. Angrily, he calls and emails Microsoft repeatedly and has what one can define as a break-down. Edmund McMillen, on the other hand, decides to wait it out and does his best to live a “normal” life without thinking about the issues their game could face. For the last couple months, both he and Tommy had worked harder and faster than they ever thought possible to meet a last-minute promotional deadline. Their story focuses almost solely on their differing personalities, background stories and issues as they wait out the painfully long time between finishing their game and seeing it go live.

Jonathan Blow has been involved in video games for roughly 22 years.  In that time, he’s been credited with various work in games as well as creating various prototypes and small game projects that were doomed to never get finished. One day, Blow put his mind towards stepping up and finally completing a game in full based on a discussion he was involved with regarding using time manipulation as a gameplay mechanic, giving birth to Braid. A critical and instant success, Braid is still regarded as one of the “highest rated games of all time” which has been both his curse and blessing.  While many people enjoyed his game, Blow took issue with peoples’ varying interpretations and became infamous for remarking online against people who “got it wrong” in message boards and comments. As he gets ready to work on his new game (The Witness) he recounts some of his experiences and plans for the future.

To say Phil Fish is passionate about game development might be disengenous to both Fish and the concept of “passion”… obsessive would likely fit better.  Announcing his game FEZ perhaps a bit too early in development has lead to a shit-load of problems for Fish as he battles his obsessive perfectionist nature, time schedules, business partner legal issues and angry fans for 4 years before finally showing a playable demo at the Penny Arcade Expo.

It’s always hard for me to review documentaries as the presentation of facts and real situations don’t lend themselves to criticisms very well.  My experience of Indie Game: The Movie was all around a decent one; presented as a “Only One Night In Canada” showing, the film was live-streamed to 37 theaters across Canada at the same time via satellite with a live Q&A using twitter after with filmmakers James Swirksy & Lisanne Pajot and Phil Fish. The stream to our theater in Calgary was surprisingly steady with only one real stutter issues when Jonathan Blow was speaking, which I personally didn’t mind as it only lasted maybe 30 seconds but I was underwhelmed by the length of the Q&A since it was essentially only 2 or 3 questions. All around, extremely interesting documentary and exactly what the gaming industry needed: a truthful, academic look at the production of independent video games and the people behind them.  My biggest problem was the focusing solely on the stories of FEZ and Super Meat Boy extensively, but am to understand that there is roughly 200 hours of extra video content recorded that will in some capacity be featured in the special edition of the DVD release along with web videos available now. I highly recommend this film to anyone and hope everyone who sees it supports it appropriately.