"Indie Game: The Movie" has finally been released into the wild. The much anticipated documentary centers on the creation of Super Meat Boy and Fez, along with the men responsible; Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes, and Phil Fish. It also seeks to enlighten the general audience on the magical work of independent games as a whole. Or one might assume.
People who will see this movie can be separated into two basic camps: those well-versed with the subject matter, and those who know nothing about indie games (or perhaps video games as whole).
Reaction among those who have seen it already, and who represent the first camp, has been mixed. Some are elated that there finally exists a cinematic documentation of something they hold so dearly. Others have taken issue with how it is presented, and in particular, the men who have been chosen to represent the indie game movement.
I've also spoken with those who fall into the second camp, who simply enjoy a good documentary, since it gives them a chance to learn something totally foreign. And their reaction? Sadly, a mix of quiet confusion and boredom. But the thing is, you don't have to be in the second camp to feel that way either.
First and foremost, the movie preaches to the choir. Quite passionately and at serious length. There is little doubt that directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot have strong feelings towards their chosen subject matter and the utmost respect for the stars of their story. Yet this causes several serious issues throughout.
The movie is a lengthy hour and 40 minutes. So when one considers how much time has been allotted, and the very title of the movie (again, "Indie Game: The Movie"), one might expect to learn a lot about the subject matter, right?
Things kick off with a succinct rundown of the modern indie game movement. Immediately, anyone who knows a thing or two, especially about the indie scene, will be perturbed by lack of any substantial mention of anything prior to 2008. Whereas those who know nothing about games will be blissfully ignorant about the missing past, yet another point of contention.
Very early on, one of "Indie Game: The Movie"'s driving forces (Refenes) says that he would never work for a major studio, like EA or Epic, because that sounds like "hell" to him. Fair enough, but why? Such a bold statement is not once elaborated upon. Mainstream games are addressed, but only slightly. And that makes absolutely zero sense, given that it would be the perfect chance to offer a contrast, as to why indie games are so awesome.
After the brief rundown, we get the chance to become more intimately acquainted with our principles; who they are, and why they make games. We're also introduced to Jonathan Blow, presented as the indie game guy who has officially made it. He's where the three subjects want to be at. The focus is squarely on McMillen, Refenes, and Fish's struggles, with the success that Blow has managed to achieve, along with the wisdom drawn from it, acting as commentary for the film's narrative.
The best part of "Indie Game: The Movie" is easily its first 40 or so minutes. From hearing McMillen recount his tumultuous childhood, which was tapped into as a source of inspiration later on in life, to watching Fish demonstrate the games he made with his father; this is by far the most enjoyable, fascinating, and most importantly, accessible part of the entire documentary.
Too bad this doesn't last forever. Eventually, the film sheds its somewhat lighthearted tone and becomes rather grim, by detailing the not so pleasant realities of an independent game maker. No one has it the least bit easy, which is vividly illustrated. That's absolutely necessary to convey, given how it's the truth. Yet…
It's simply too much. The lack of levity around the mid-point is fairly uncomfortable. That's not to say that humor should have been arbitrarily infused into the proceedings, far from it. But given the ultra slow pace in which everything unfolds, it's not such a shock how some in the audience might "turn" on the subjects, as sad it is to say. This is also when it starts to feels as if the directors are too in love with the subject matter, and it's unfortunate that their reverence for their stars backfires in such a fashion.
Some who consider themselves knowledgeable about video games may feel that the drama presented in the latter half is trivial. Such as when both McMillen and Refenes freak out over Super Meat Boy not showing up in the Xbox Live Marketplace on the morning that it should. Or Fish having an anxiety attack that his former partner has yet to sign the appropriate paperwork that would allow him to legally show Fez at PAX East. I disagree with those assessments, yet they're hardly surprising. Everything is presented in such super-dramatic fashion that it is indeed off-putting and lends towards cynicism. The ultra-stylish presentation of the proceedings also doesn't help in this instance, either. It also feels as if the directors were looking to artificially add excitement to their narrative. Keeping things nice and lean would have solves this problem, plus many others, and resulted in a far stronger movie as a whole.
Near the end of the film, there are some truly powerful moments. Watching Fish dealing with his much-anticipated game constantly crashing on day one of the PAX East show is compelling and heart-breaking. The validation that McMillen and Refenes receive when they break day one-sales records is a definite, well deserved, feel-good moment.
Yet when things are needlessly dragged out for dramatic effect, or the obvious is overstated, it's frustrating and tiresome. Worst is how there are several moments in which avenues could have been explored, but were not: like Blow explaining how he's frustrated by critics liking his games, but not for the reasons that he feels they should. It's such a fascinating concept that is not followed up, and it's not like time was an issue.
That's another thing: given the message how indie gaming is in some ways superior to the mainstream gaming, it's somewhat contradictory to constantly refer to the standards that the other side uses to determine a title's validity, such as sales figures and review scores. One would have wagered that such trappings are not necessary in an alternative environment. The basis of such success, even if established by the status quo, helps to provide a sense of context to these indie achievements. Too bad none of this is sufficiently explained to outsiders. Granted, big dollar signs are easily understood by all, but not everyone walking down the street knows what a Metacritic score is.
"Indie Game: The Movie" had the real potential to introduce the subject matter to an audience that might otherwise not be exposed to it. Yet it's hardly accessible nor even all that informative. And that last part, mostly due to the film's lack of focus and constant need to put its subjects on a pedestal, is sure to irk those who are less interested in validation and more hungry for insight.
"Indie Game: The Movie" is available for purchases from either the films's website, Steam, or iTunes. That last avenue also offers the chance to rent the film. One last thing worth mentioning: one of the few unabashed positives, is the fantastic soundtrack by Jim Guthrie, best know for Sword & Sworcery. His music for the movie can be purchased via his homepage as well.
Matthew Hawkins is a NYC based game journalist who once upon a time used to be an editor for GameSetWatch, currently writes for MSNBC's In-Game, plus numerous other outlets, self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of the Attract Mode collective, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on his personal home-base, FORT90.com.