zophar53's Blog

Posted on Feb 4th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under RF Cinema, Indie Game The Movie, movies, video game movies, documentaries, discussion

Happy Super Bowl Sunday, and welcome to another edition of RF Cinema! This month we're looking at our first documentary, Indie Game: The Movie, from 2012. This wasn't the first documentary about video games, but it was one of the first that gained huge popularity by focusing on three of the most well-received independent games at the time, Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Fez. Just as indie games were starting to become more noticed by the mainstream media and their quality was starting to improve, it was an insightful look into what it takes to make a video game with a small team.

This is a movie that really doesn't have any spoilers. Most gamers are familiar with these games, their developers, and the success they achieved, so there's really nothing to spoil. But I figured I'd mention it all the same.

Indie Game doesn't take a fly-on-the-wall approach, as it's heavily focused on intimate interviews with the developers, but there is no narration. It chooses to let the people speak for themselves, helped along by music from the amazing Jim Guthrie to enhance the atmosphere and mood. This approach is very appropriate for the subject matter, and allows an insight into the mind of a struggling artist, making them extremely relatable. Also, by focusing on games in different stages of development, the viewer is able to see different perspectives. Braid was released in 2008, so by the time Indie Game was being filmed the world had already played and embraced it. This shows during the interviews with its primary developer, Jonathan Blow. Of the four, he comes across as the most calm, collected, and emotionally well-balanced. Whether this is due to the fact that he was basking in the glow of his success, or that he's just a chill guy in general isn't apparent. What it does mean is that his sections focused less on the trials and tribulations of game development, and more on the aftermath of his success and his thought process of creating Braid. Blow is a truly fascinating individual and it's always a pleasure to see him talk about his work. Braid was a pretentious game that had a lot of underlying themes that were extremely ambiguous. It was interesting hearing Blow say he got depressed when so many people loved his game but completely missed the true meanings behind it.

The Super Meat Boy sections are perhaps the most complete picture of the independent game development process of 2012. Released in 2010, the timing was perfect for the filmmakers to look at the tail end of the development cycle, as well as the stress of release day. By the time I got to the part of the movie where Team Meat (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes) are literally on camera staring at the XBLA dashboard, refreshing the page like mad and freaking out that their game doesn't appear to be showing up as soon or as prominently as they were expecting, I genuinely felt for them. By then, McMillen has described how one of his first games was inspired by his neice, Refenes has told us how broke he is, and they've both felt a certain amount of alienation both in life and in the video game space. They're the kind of developers who grew up playing the same NES games I did. They have Aqua Teen Hunger Force posters on the wall, couldn't imagine working for a faceless conglomerate like EA, and wouldn't want to be doing anything else. To me, they felt like the video game versions of the theater kids from high school who moved to New York or LA to become the epitome of the starving artist stereotype.

Imagine spending three years of your life to get a game made, only for it to not be there on release day

One of most moving things for me was hearing McMillen clarify the idea behind Meat Boy himself. "It wasn't a thought of 'he's made of steak' or whatever else. It was more 'he's a boy without skin'...so he's exposed to the elements. Maybe he's always in pain, he just deals with it, but the smallest thing can kill him." He goes on to describe his love interest, Bandage Girl, as more than just his girlfriend. He needs her; she completes him emotionally and physically as a metaphorical outer shell that protects him. This realization was unexpected and profound when I first saw it, and it shows that even in a light-hearted and comically violent platformer like Super Meat Boy, there's often a deeper human level underneath it all. The film pulls no punches, and follows this up with a scene of McMillen accepting an award at the Independent Games Festival in 2005 for his work on Gish, an independent game released in 2004. We see McMillen propose to his girlfriend on stage then cut away to him back home worrying about if his wife is able to stay happy with him while staying home all the time and looking at his back as he works on the game.

Don't they make the cutest couple?! Dr. Fetus is such a jerk.

Fez was released the same year Indie Game was, so it wasn't possible for the movie to follow that game all the way through release, but what it lacks in completeness it more than makes up for in attention-grabbing film. It's primary developer, Phil Fish, is pretty widely known in video game fan circles for his tendency to lash out when challenged or stressed, and there are few things more stressful than indie game development in the age of the internet. His struggle to cope with criticism and hardship are very visible here. For about the first half of the movie he's fairly collected, but the more he's able to show the game and the closer it gets to release, with the hype and expectations building, the cracks in his shell begin to show.

It's easy to look at Fish and think he should just develop a thicker skin or act less rashly, but it's hard not to empathize with the pressures of financial emptiness and thousands of gamers begging for his game while thousands more take to forums to bombard him with vitriol. During Fez's 4-year development cycle, Fish experienced the near-death of his father, his parents' divorce, a breakup with his girlfriend, a falling out with his business partner (which made for major complications as the game neared release), and the loss of funding. During one of the rare instances in which we hear the interviewer ask a question, she asks Fish, "What would happen to you personally if you couldn't finish the game?" His response? "I would kill myself. That's, like, my incentive to finish it. Is then I get to not kill myself." Hearing this from most other developers, it would likely be a pretty obvious moment of facetiousness. McMillen and Refenes describe how dire things would get if they don't finish their game or if it doesn't sell, but when they do it, it's with a nervous/terrified laugh. When Fish says it, with a completely deadpan expression right after explaining the hardships he's endured to that point, and the background music completely drops out, I literally get chills. One gets the impression that he really doesn't have the mental fortitude to be an indie developer.

First demo of the day and the game glitches out

This is where Indie Game excels. It makes you connect with these developers and shows that games are made by real people with histories, feelings, and struggles. I want to see them succeed and be rewarded for making such incredible games. But it also isn't afraid to shed light on the darkest parts of the journey. It's a harsh industry. You can make the best game in the world but if no one sees it or buys it then you have nothing, and all of the time and money you've spent are effectively for nothing. Watching Refenes send out emails to Microsoft because they haven't flipped the switch to put his game on XBL yet and seeing Fish frantically looking for keys to Fez's display kiosks at PAX East because it glitched out and he has to reset it, you're so invested in seeing them succeed that it's crushing watching them fall.

Fortunately, all three of these games were tremendous successes, and anyone who's played them can attest to their quality, so it's no surprise when things shift to celebration. It's heart-warming to see McMillen hardly able to describe his feelings as the sales figures roll in while his wife dances in the background. Seeing Refenes crack his first smile of the movie as he watches people play the game online, and seeing people blown away by the Fez demo at PAX while Jerry 'Tycho' Holkins (one of the founders of PAX) stops to check the game out and express his excitement to Fish, it's rewarding to see the fruits of their labor. The movie ends before Fez's release, of course, but it ends Fish's arc on a high note. His game was innovative, unique, and filled to the brim with hidden secrets, the most mind-blowing of which don't even begin to show themselves until you've finished the game for the first time.

Fish demonstrating how hard it is maintain perspective on your game when you've been so close to it for so long

Watching Indie Game: The Movie five years later, it's hardly as fresh as it used to be. Game documentaries and indie games have exploded with popularity, but that's a good thing. This is an industry that has always been terrible at transparancy and preserving its own work. Now more than ever, it's important to get a window into game development. For aspiring game developers, they need to know what they're getting themselves into. And for gamers, a look behind the curtain of game development is vital to appreciating them and their creators. Even bad games are made by real people putting in real effort. Closing out the movie, Jonathan Blow says it best. "Things that are personal have flaws, they have vulnerabilities. If you don't see a vulnerability in somebody, you're probably not relating to them on a very personal level. It's the same with game design." This is a beautiful movie, and one that should be required viewing for game developers and gamers alike.

I'm curious to hear what others thought of Indie Game. Let us know if you got as much out of it as we did in the comments below. The discussion thread is also still open here, so don't be shy.

For March, I chose a movie I've wanted to showcase ever since I made my list a year and a half ago. The Thirteenth Floor is one that, judging from the comments on that article, most people either hadn't seen or hadn't even heard of, but were pretty interested in watching. Released in 1999, before The Sims, before Second Life, and before the Oculus Rift and Vive turned virtual reality into more than a joke from the early 90s, it tells the tale of a tech company who develops a virtual world modeled after Los Angeles in the 1930s. It's so real that the creator of the simulation starts using it to live a second life of carefree shenanigans. When he turns up dead and one of the simulated people discovers that his world isn't real, things get pretty intriguing.

It's worth noting that the trailers for this movie are a bit strange. Some of them make it seem almost like a horror flick, which in my opinion is not necessarily representative of the final product. There are some horror elements toward the end, but overall I'd describe The Thirteenth Floor as more of a slightly noir-ish sci-fi film that takes philosophical influence from Philip K. Dick. Also, stay away from the longer trailers (over 2 minutes), as they blatantly reveal the big twist. I can't stand it when studios do that.

As usual, below are the (non-spoilery) trailer for The Thirteenth Floor as well as its IMDB page. This movie was fairly quickly forgotten in the wake of films like The Matrix, which debuted the same year and took the world by storm, so I'm not sure how easy it'll be to find in physical format. It's worth checking your local used media store, but the DVD and Bluray copies I was able to find on Amazon are way overpriced so I don't recommend going there. Fortunately, it's available digitally on Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, PSN, and the Microsoft Store. Enjoy some football (if that's your thing) and see you next month!

The Thirteenth Floor (1999) on IMDB

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Indie Game is a classic. I've seen it several times and always enjoy it. I'm still baffled that there was no compilation disc release that contained the 3 games together. Seems like a no-brainer.

Never heard of Thirteenth Floor but looks like something I'd enjoy.
Yeah, I'd love to see physical releases of these games, but to my knowledge Super Meat Boy is the only one of them that got a physical copy. If I'm remembering correctly.
Nice review!  I haven't seen this yet, but if memory serves, it's on Netflix.  I might have to look it up and add it to the queue...
@MetalFRO: It used to be on Netflix, but I don't believe it is anymore. However, it is on Amazon Prime Video, if you're a Prime subscriber.
@zophar53: I am indeed - I'll check it out, thanks!

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