I love videogames. Not in the way I love my family, of course. But it isn’t a hyperbolic love, either. I’m not the kind of guy who says he “loves” his morning coffee or a good cheeseburger. Rather, it’s the kind of love that stems from deep appreciation and a familiarity that started in early childhood and continues to this day.
When I was a kid, all video games were was fun. They were at once an adventure and an adversary to be defeated, whether with friends or alone. It wasn’t until later that I began to think of videogames as art, a tough concept to swallow for many people.
After all, how can a simple game achieve a level of artistry that transcends mechanical perfection?
It’s that question that directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot answer, perhaps accidentally, in their 2012 documentary “Indie Game: The Movie.”
For the uninitiated, an indie game is just what you’d expect to it be: a game made independently of huge AAA publishers. Much like in the film industry, making a game independently allows for more freedom of expression.
However, unlike movies, what videogames lack is the general public acknowledgement that the “Transformers” movies that grace our screens bi-annually aren’t the pinnacle of cinema. Unfortunately, most non-gamers tend to lump all video games into the same pile as the scads of military shooters that no one seems to realize are exactly like the ones released last year.
But “Indie Game: The Movie” disproves that. It is the story of artists who struggle to bring what is, ostensibly, a piece of themselves to life.
The story follows the development of two games: Super Meat Boy, one of the best-selling indie games of all time, and Fez, a game whose development was famous for its long delays. Additionally, it features some retrospective input from Jonathan Blow, the one-man developer of Braid, a game that is often touted as the best example of videogames-as-art and is responsible for kickstarting the Xbox Live indie game boom.
The glimpses of the two games are radically different. The former is of the two developers struggling to get through the final push as their scheduled debut approaches rapidly, while the latter is of a frustrated developer stuck in development hell, much to the frustration of an increasingly angry public.
The developers of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, are an odd couple. Tommy is an often morose, sickly-looking stick of a man who handles all of the code, and Edmund is a burly, joyous guy who does much of the art design.
About a year into the game’s development, Microsoft offers the team a chance to participate in a promotion dubbed the “Game Feast,” which would put them at the front. After reluctantly accepting, the two must somehow finish their game in a month.
The majority of the film is about this period, wherein Tommy, who bears the brunt of the work at this point, lives a nocturnal, solitary life surviving on microwaved food and Waffle House specials. He has no social life and no money and no time that is not devoted to finishing the game. Understandably, this lifestyle begins to take a toll on his health.
While Edmund doesn’t have to do as much work as Tommy, the sheer amount of hours spent in front of his computer is straining his marriage.
And yet they’re happy to do it. Well, maybe happy is the wrong word, but the pure excitement of something that is completely and totally them is an attractive prospect.
Fez’s developer, Phil Phish, echoes this statement.
Growing up with a dad who loved computers and videogames, Phil knew from a young age that he wanted to be a game developer. However, while Super Meat Boy was speedily developed in a little under two years, Phil’s project, Fez, was much more troubled.
At the start of development, Phil had met with success. The game was being awaited excitedly. He even won an award for his concept when he had basically nothing to show for it.
Then he falls off the wagon.
The film opens in his fourth year of development. By this point, Phil has redesigned the game three times, has had a partner quit and has fallen into relative obscurity from the limelight he had occupied when the game was announced in 2008.
Now he is plagued with legal problems and other delays, and the game isn’t anywhere close to where he promised it would be.
While it’s certainly interesting to see the stories behind the games, the real meat (no pun intended) of the documentary is observing the passion with which these people work on their projects.
The true magic comes in the last 15 minutes, when you see the sheer joy in Tommy’s and Edmund’s faces as their game surpasses Braid as the bestselling Xbox Live game of all time, giving them the knowledge that some kid, somewhere is having fun and cutting school to play the game that they created. It’s in watching Jonathan Blow talk about how he watched Braid come to life before his eyes, and hearing Phil answer the question, “What will you do if you can’t finish the game?”
“I’ll kill myself,” he says plainly. “That’s my reward for finishing the game: I get to not kill myself.”