If you love indie games, or make indie games, you gotta check out the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. It’s the sort of flick that can stir something up. In the last month or so, I’ve joined in several conversations about the movie, and interestingly enough, I found that people took different things away from it. All thought the movie was worthy of the indie scene. But for different reasons. Here’s two interesting takes!
John Master Lee’s View
As someone that is knee deep in making indie games, I found the movie particularly inspiring, while at the same time quite depressing. And I’m not just talking about the way the film is structured, which was clearly designed to get you to root for the underdogs and then bask in the glory of their triumph in the end. It’s clear the devs in the movie struggle to make their games, and the twists and turns and trials and tribulations are worthy of any big screen drama, as well as their epic wins in the end (just so happens every game dev featured in the movie went onto making it big. That’s just not the case with most indie devs, unfortunately.) What inspired me was how these guys stuck to being indie, no matter the cost to their sanity, or livelihoods, because to them, it was the ultimate creative freedom they knew they wanted.
Any of these highly talented creators featured in the film, from the creator of Fez, to Braid to Super Meat Boy, could have gone and worked for a big game developer/publisher, and lived comfortably. But they didn’t. They knew they wanted to do it indie style. And they knew that if they didn’t they would have lost the one form of expression they had that eased their soul. For these creators, making games was their outlet. Their voice. And whether or not they were disillusioned, they felt like doing it this way was their only salvation. That strength in self belief is simply uncommon in so much of today’s generation of creators.
That being said, it was depressing seeing how these guys suffered for their art. Especially because so much of it was avoidable had they been part of some network that provided some guidance for them. Simple guidance on project management, or business negotiations, or even marketing, could have saved them much of the heartache they felt throughout production. Or even a simple support network where people can turn to so they don’t feel so isolated in their journey. It’s even more depressing to think how some game publishers know this and prey on this knowledge, making life even tougher.
Quite frankly, it’s because of this movie that inspired me to get this site going. And why so many people wanted to help out. Indie devs work in a vacuum at times, denied access to best practices and or even a support network because they just don’t know where to turn to. Making indie games should an inspiring tale, and it should feel like that through the creative process. But man, seeing how these guys struggled just might turn off some prospective indie devs because it all feels so daunting!
Drew M-M’s View
I was equally impressed with Indie Game: The Movie, but walked away with a different take than John Master Lee. The thing is, the movie does two things really well, but those two things don’t necessarily compliment each other all that well.
First, Indie Game: The Movie argues that game design is a real skill, a worthy artform, and something worth analyzing, just like plot structure in film or tonal structure in music. The idea was clearly to defuse that old argument about games not being art, but just having art in them. Indie Game: The Movie don’t have sections on the beautiful visual design of David Hellman, or on the kickass music of Danny Baranowsky, for the simple reason that those sorts of detours would distract from the topic at hand. The topic at hand is game design, which only games have, and which is amazing.
So then there’s the other thing that Indie Game: The Movie does beautifully: it builds a myth of what an indie developer should look and act like. Now, it does that freakin’ beautifully, even though doing so is arguably not a great idea. I mean, there are plenty of indie developers out there who are not straight, white, male, living in North America, making some form of platform game, and/or initially releasing that game on the Xbox Live Arcade—but you won’t see those folks here. Indie Game: The Movie serves as an introduction to indie games overall (and even positions itself as an introduction to games as such with its awesome breakdown of how level design works), but then limits its scope one particular corner of the indie scene. There’s no malice there, but there is definitely myopia.
Which is not to say that the three games are identical, of course. For starters, at the time of filming, they were at three very different points in their lifecycles. Braid was already enshrined and beloved. Super Meat Boy was in the process of becoming a massive hit. And Fez showed immense promise but also stood a decent chance of never being released.
And the games themselves, heavy Mario influence aside, really couldn’t be more different. Braid is anaerobic and philosophical. Super Meat Boy is endlessly kinetic and has poo jokes. Fez is machine logic incarnate, full of hidden patterns and the kind of glitchy reasoning you can only find in games.
Still, this is a specific species of scraggly auteur—”Why do we all have fucking shitty beards?” asks Tommy Refenes on Team Meat’s commentary track—positioning themselves as spefic kinds of folk heroes: Jonathan Blow as an obtuse guru, Team Meat as a manic-depressive garage band, and Phil Fish as a mercurial visionary. All of which is only half-true, but as other writers pointed out, that myth-making is right in the tissue of the film, from the text to the editing to the cinematography.
So yeah, introducing the world to indie games, and making a case for why they matter? Amazing. But then immediately calcifying our collective image of the people making indie games? I don’t know, that seems like it might make the indie scene seem way more exclusive and way more homogenous than it actually is.