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Indie Game: The Movie

'Indie Game: The Movie': The Kotaku Movie Review"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,
PC Gamer
Indie Game The Movie review thumbnail

Boys in their bedrooms, drop-out dreamers, shut-in gore fetishists - if ever a film were to quash the red-top stereotypes of game developers than this would surely be it. Indie Game: The Movie follows four of the most thoughtful, hard-working and sensitive young fellows you could probably find in this business or any other, and is both a clarion call for the thrilling creative freedom of independent development and a grim warning of its near-lethal stakes.

The sheer graft underpinning the development of Braid, Fez or Super Meat Boy is writ large here, and accompanied by no small amount of heartache. Charting half a decade of development, the filmmakers cherry-pick from a catalogue of dramas, as the four developers struggle with the threat of financial oblivion, acrimonious legal wrangles, corrosive relationships with corporate gatekeepers, depression, insomnia, bad diets and eccentric facial hair.

Just how much they sacrifice to ship their game, and just how much they suffer both before and after, makes for moving viewing. The film deftly sketches their characters, too: a shot here of the meticulous Jon Blow, developer of Braid, sitting with stiff poise in a bare apartment; a shot there of Super Meat Boy’s Tommy Refenes drowsily pawing through a pile of grease-stained to-do lists. Refenes and his Team Meat partner, Edmund McMillen, are an endearingly asymmetrical duo - the tattooed, moustached McMillen is relaxed and warm, but touchingly vulnerable, while the skeletal Refenes is dryly cynical and seems permanently exhausted. You suspect his energy levels might improve if he didn’t survive on microwave burgers.

It’s Phil Fish, however, who offers the most wrenching story of all. While everyone seems willing to kill themselves to make their game, only in Fish’s case does this appear to be a literal threat. His game, Fez, has been in development for years by the film’s start, and has yet to ship when the titles roll. You get a glimpse of the reason for this in Fish’s painstaking pixel-perfect overhaul of the game’s textures - the third they have undergone. Like all of the film’s subjects, this man is a perfectionist, possibly to the point of self-annihilation.

Curiously, though the film expertly explains the passion it fails to describe the projects at which it is directed. Sure, we know Braid does something funny with time, and Fez goes all 3D - but how these things are manipulated to create elegant puzzles and transcendent epiphanies goes unrecorded. Blow even describes sinking into a depression when Braid’s rapturous reception failed to acknowledge his meta-narrative, but we never even understand how brilliant Braid’s time-contorting mechanics are, let alone what its meta-narrative entails. For the uninitiated, all three of the featured platformers might end up looking very similar, and though the film focuses on the human story behind these developments, the intelligence and intent of their construction surely deserves more space. As it is, without a ready explanation of the games’ ambition and worth, the film undersells the development as something akin to tilting at windmills.

There are some striking insights when the devs are allowed to discuss the design process: Blow describes how he structures his game as a dialogue with the player, so that the mechanics tumble out as minor revelations during play. Making an intimidating conundrum isn’t the interesting thing, he suggests, but bringing the player to a comprehension of it. Perhaps this answers Blow’s own puzzle: one reason for the lukewarm response to his narrative ambitions may be that they appeared opaque for opacity’s sake.

Some of the connections the film makes are a little crude and possibly overly-manipulative: McMillen talks about his game’s protagonist, Meat Boy, a character whose absence of skin leaves him vulnerable and in constant pain. He needs his girlfriend, who is made of plasters, to complete him. Cut to: interview with McMillen’s girlfriend. It’s a metaphor, see.

The film also sags in its last part, apparently not quite sure what to do with Super Meat Boy’s tremendous success, except repeat it several times. Oddly, it even revisits a long mission statement Blow gives at the film’s start. Maybe the filmmakers were hoping for material provided by the launch of Fez, but Phil Fish’s ever-retreating schedule evaded them. The lack of conclusion to his tale does leave something of a void, although it is heartening to know, as we now do, that he has probably since become rather rich.

Was it worth the effort? Refenes pays off the mortgage on his parents’ house, McMillen buys his girlfriend a hideous cat, Blow pours millions into his next development (The Witness), all because they ship their games and people love them. By the fortuitous choice of its subjects the movie escapes the difficulty of wrangling a heartwarming tale from bankruptcy and suicide, but it’s not a story without moments of bleakness. Indie Game: The Movie is an inspiring film, and even if it is rather vague about the specific appeal of the games themselves, it delicately articulates the passion, idiosyncrasies and brilliance of the developers as they pursue uncompromised creativity - and at what cost.
Indie Game: The Movie - Valve
Indie Game: The Movie is Now Available on Steam!

Follow the creation of the games Super Meat Boy, Braid and FEZ through this Sundance award-winning feature documentary. Critic’s Pick of the New York Times and declared a “Must See” by Ain’t It Cool News. Watch the full theatrical cut in 1080p HD.

Braid - Valve
Indie Game: the Movie is Now Available for Pre-purchase on Steam. Act now to save 10%.

Follow the creation of the games Super Meat Boy, Braid and FEZ through this Sundance award-winning feature documentary. Critic’s Pick of the New York Times and declared a “Must See” by Ain’t It Cool News. Watch the full theatrical cut in 1080p HD.

After almost two years of painstaking work, designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes await the release of their first major game for Xbox, Super Meat Boy—the adventures of a skinless boy in search of his girlfriend, who is made of bandages. At PAX, a major video-game expo, developer Phil Fish unveils his highly anticipated, four-years-in-the-making FEZ. Jonathan Blow considers beginning a new game after creating Braid, one of the highest-rated games of all time.


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