The first line in Indie Game: The Movie, a Sundance-winning documentary that chronicles the struggles of independent game developers, is the following: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
That incredulous statement, spat from the mouth of a 30-year-old game programmer named Tommy Refenes, punctuates the entire 96-minute film, a chronicle of the tumultuous series of ups and downs encountered by a handful of indie game developers leading up to the releases of their games.
The film was screened at the IFC on 6th Avenue today, and we were one of only three people in the theatre. It’s a shame, too–even though our video game knowledge extends mostly to old school games like Super Mario and the more popular contemporary Xbox games (Portal and Borderlands are our favs), we still found the documentary to be a fascinating glimpse into just how much time, energy and passion goes into making the kinds of games we play every day.
Indie Game pits the big name game studios against scrappy independent developers hoping to achieve glory with the games they’ve painstakingly constructed pixel by pixel. The film centers around Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillan, a programmer and designer, respectively, who are working on building their first big commercial game: Super Meat Boy, “the adventures of a skinless boy in search of his girlfriend, who is made of bandages.” It follows the two as they work on perfecting the game before its release on Xbox Live, and contrasts that with the story of Jonathan Blow, the creator of the widely-acclaimed game Braid, as he looks back on what it was like to helm one of the most popular indie games of all time.
“Jonathan Blow is kind of the worst,” we have scribbled in our notes. At one point he laments the fact that people loved Braid, but they didn’t necessarily ‘get’ it. Even the tiniest quibble with the design can bring these devs to their knees, something Mr. Blow acknowledges when he admits he was made depressed for months by the negative comments he received about himself and the game following its release.
The third story line revolves around FEZ, a video game that received much hype when it was first demoed, but one in which its designer–Phil Fish–has been working on for four years, with no end in sight.
Couple that with the fact that Mr. Fish had a falling out with his original business partner, who throughout the film refuses to sign a document that would allow Mr. Fish to demo the new version of FEZ at PAX, a video game expo.
Shortly into the film it becomes obvious just how emotionally invested all four of the leads are in their craft. At one point, the interviewer asks Mr. Fish, “What would happen if you didn’t finish FEZ?”
“I would kill myself,” he spits back, point blank. My reward for finishing the game would be that I don’t have to kill myself, he clarifies.
Despite all of the characters’s relative success, the film hammers home one key point: making an indie game is much more is grueling work than producing one with thousands of employees at a big studio like EA, though Mr. Refenes insists he would never work for them anyway because he “doesn’t make shitty games.”
Throughout the film, we’re reminded that all four developers created the games to express themselves, to make themselves feel less alone in the world by making others feel less alone, too. In the end, despite much financial and critical success, it’s unclear whether they’re less–or more–alone than before.