It is extremely appropriate that Indie Game: The Movie debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, given the number of parallels there are between filmmaking and creating indie games. Both require very small teams to work together with limited funding in order to create something that might never see an audience when it is finished.
Luckily, the film made quite an impact at Sundance, resonating with audiences and with buys. After the snow storms cleared, HBO and producer Scott Rudin announced it had picked up the film in order toturn it into a scripted series for the channel. At surface value, it seems like an odd choice for HBO, as there is plenty of documentary style material in the indie game space to create a documentary showabout indie gaming.
Programmed for Success
But lest you cry Grandma’s Boy about the world of fictionalized video game development, we’re happy to sit back and see what HBO manages to do with the property, which directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky have assured us is not a sitcom. We’re also hoping that the original film will be seen by the masses, because it is a fascinating, touching look at the world of indie games and the work, sweat, and tears that go into making them.
The film follows the development of two titles, Super Meat Boy by Team Meat (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes) and Fez by Phil Fish at Polytron, and their stories are stitched together through interviews with Jonathan Blow discussing his game,Braid. The directors spoke with multiple developers and ended up culling this film together from over 80 hours worth of footage, and these are the stories that they felt were the most compelling.
A Heart of Meat
It’s hard to argue with that, and even non-gamers will feel the frustration and elation as they watch this film. A packed house at the first screening was brought to tears through the saga of Super Meat Boy as the film follows it until release day on XBLA, where it isn’t even featured on the Dashboard. You’ll also ride the seesaw along with Phil Fish as he shifts from joy, to melancholy, to purerage at times as he struggles to finish Fez.
The true heart of this film is Edmund from Team Meat as the slightly off-center, nerdy guy that everyone loves. He’s a self-described strange guy who used to draw pictures of monsters when he was a little kid, and now he’s doing that as a job full-time. We see him at the2005 Independent Games Festival, where Edmund and team win the grand prize for Gish (which bears McMillen’s distinctive art style),and he takes to the stage to propose to his girlfriend Danielle.
He carries us with him as he and Tommy work, miles away from each other, to try and turn SMB into a game that people will want to spend money on, and his joys are our joys. His tears are our tears. While we don’t want to spoil the film for you, you’ve probably heard of Super Meat Boy, so you might know where things are heading, but it doesn’t make the visual of their journey any less agonizing or emotional. While Tommy bears the weight of the frustration of SMB, Edmund carries the joys and triumphs, making the two of them ideally suited to be one development team.
The Wizards of Code
With Phil Fish and Fez, it’s more an exercise in frustration as we see him struggling to finish the game, while alternately trying not to be depressed and to keep himself from killing his former business partner. We catch up with Fez about midway through its development cycle (which is going on five years now), and follow Fishall the way to PAX East 2011, where the game was first seen and played publicly. He struggles with a constantly crashing build as it ends up being one of the most impressive indie games at the show (and you’ll see him interviewed by our own Blair Herter).
You’ll also hear some surprising revelations from Jonathan Blow, who says that he was deeply depressed in the months after Braid came out. Even though it was a success, he was frustrated that people were not understanding what he was trying to do with the game. The video review by Soulja Boy (featured in the movie) sure didn’t help with that. What is interesting about the film is that he is offering commentary from Braid after being a huge success, while we see Super Meat Boy being released, and following Fez a few months before release (Fish says the game should be out in early 2012).
Is it cruel to admit that we would have liked to follow one game that was a complete flop? There’s no telling how Fez might actually do, but after spending time with it, we are already huge fans of the title and can’t wait for it. But while we’re seeing the triumphs of video game development, shouldn’t we also see its tragedies? With that caveat aside, Indie Game: The Movie is definitely worth your time, and should be seen by everyone in the video game industry on the publisher, developer, and consumer sides. According to Pajot and Swisky, the movie will be seen at more festivals, and we hope it will be coming somewhere near you very soon.