Plug And Play
By Adam Sturrock
Indie Game The Movie (2012)
Director: James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot
Starring: Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes, Phil Fish, Jonathan Blow
Bedroom-dreamers, college-dropouts, keyboard-coders, basement-lurkers. From the cult following of Tetris and DOOM until now, there has been a general cultural disconnect with gaming. Games are violent. Games are nerdy. Games just aren’t intellectually fulfilling – say the critics. What we see in front of the tv are button mashers and expletive laden booms and blood with sprinkles of “Get to the chopper!” thrown in during the occasional adrenaline filled dash to the safe haven during an apocalyptic war. But is there something more to this?
Film makers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot seem to think so in this beautifully made passion project funded by two successful Kickstarter campaigns. What we see are a talented group of people behind the monitor, the coders who toil for months and years to put forth their baby in the hope that they can fulfil their lifelong dreams of success. What we get is a truly humanizing look at what makes gaming tick and also a look at the pitfalls of expectation.
Primarily focusing on two promising indie games, Fez and Super Meat Boy, we see the almost crippling expectation taking its toll on the creators. After winning awards for an in development version of his game, Phil Fish tries to cope with the break up of his company but that is the least of his worries. His 8-bit game Fez has met extreme fan frustration after being in development for 3 years. After being asked what would happen if the game didn’t work out, he bluntly said: “My incentive to finish is that I don’t kill myself”; dark humor, possibly, but such comments more than hints at what is coupled with such a labor of love. He nervously watches on as gamers play around with a demo, but when a possible glitch shows up time and time again, he fiddles frantically with code knowing that many eyes are on him to produce such a well made game. While coping with a very messy legal divorce from his business partner, Fish shows flashes of frustration but underneath, after talking to Tycho (Penny Arcade), he very quickly comes across as very well connected and the problems that he is ailing over seem miniscule.
The true star of the documentary belongs with the devs of platformer, Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillin and Tommy Refenes. It would be very easy to focus the lens on a “AAA” game developer such as Bungie or Sledgehammer but the fact that the subjects are condensed to small teams allows us to truly focus on their stories, thus making them relatable. Edmund especially, with a large section focusing on his childhood obsession with phobias and feeling isolated building towards his creation of his game, Aether. During many sections we see some truly touching interviews from everyone and that is one of the true strengths of the film.
In contrast, Braid creator, Jonathan Blow cuts a fairly forlorn figure. While being the voice of wisdom per se by talking about his experience of creating the most successful indie game of all time, we don’t get to properly pick his brain behind such success. After receiving near perfect scores upon release, he reveals that he was depressed by the fact that the same reviewers didn’t “get” his vision for the game. The public view of him as an opinionated heathen has not been lessened at all; he seems almost pompous at times.
What is frustrating is that after such focus on the creators’ struggles to make ends meet, the games go on to reach momentous success. Not that it lessens why we like them, it just feels that the subject matter has been overly produced in order to appeal to a large audience. It’s very nice to think that gaming is a meritocracy in which the cream rises to the top, but many, many developers fall by the wayside. After all the problems that they face, Edmund is able to buy a new house and it just feels like that the film makers decided to play it safe and focus on three games that had already met critical acclaim during previews etc prior to their release. By the end of the film, we might ask what if Fez was crippled by a lawsuit from the estranged partner? What if Super Meat Boy failed to meet expectations on the Xbox Arcade and bombed? Everything is neatly tied in a bow by its conclusion, but it is almost too perfect for it to feel totally satisfying.
What we get is a polished love letter to gaming that seems to not know to whom the film is directed towards. Jonathan Blow talks about how when making a game, they have to avoid making a polished game in fear of making it too mechanized; ironically this is exactly how the film turns out. What we see of the developers are often through interviews and as such, it makes us feel as if the personal moments that we do see of them are meticulously chosen, kind of like saying that the personalities and events that we see in Made In Chelsea are real and unscripted – honest!
Overall, this is a must see film for anyone who has a passing interest with video games. While not playing as close to reality as similar documentaries like “King Of Kong”, what we do see are the human elements of an often ostracised group with touches of care that many can relate to.