Film Review – Indie Game: The Movie

Indie Game The Movie PosterIn roughly a span of forty years video games have carved out their place in the modern world. From Pong to Mass Effect 3, the game industry has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. To some, though, the industry hasn’t really gone that far in the direction games should go. Dissatisfied with over-bloated, special-effects driven, mega-budget narratives such as the Mass Effect series or Halo or Modern Warfare, where a thousand people spend upwards of five or more years making one game that everyone is supposed to love. These people who also want to make games have decided to do so their own way, on their own terms, with just themselves and a relatively nonexistent budget. They are the indie game developer.

There’s a moment toward the latter half of the film where game developer Phil Fish is showing his game Fez at PAX East, a convention for video game consumers, and the game is having programming issues and not playing appropriately. Fish is clearly frustrated by the moment. He’s worked for about four years on the game and it’s still not finished at the time of the convention. In a series of candid shots of Fish at various locations around his hotel in Boston, where the convention is held, he talks in a voice-over about the frustrations behind the scenes that have been mounting for some time. It’s a telling moment, one that could almost seem like it’s coming from an over-privileged place, if not for the context of the history he’s up against.

Much like the movie and music industries before it, the game industry started in such a financial way that only those with the capital could make games that were then mass distributed. Sure, you could always make games on your Commodore 64, or Mac 2e, if you knew what you were doing, but outside of your group of school friends, there wasn’t an outlet to allow others to play your games. It wasn’t until 2005 that the game company Valve started allowing third party games to be sold on their online website, Steam. This led the way for other game providers, such as Sony and Microsoft, to create online stores where players can download games directly to their systems. In turn, this created a platform, or arena, where the indie game developer can finally have a forum to distribute their creations.

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In the history of video games, we are at an interesting and crucial moment, where the DIY aspect of crafting a commodity is viable. People can make a living working for themselves and making games that the public wants to play. And it’s only going to grow as awareness is raised. Indie Game directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky have done a superb job of capturing the burgeoning movement and the people at the front-lines of the wave who are helping lead us into an unknown. Following two teams of developers—Team Meat, developers of Super Meat Boy, and Polytron, developer of Fez—we are taken through a crucial moment in each game’s birth cycle. For Team Meat, it’s the months leading up to the release of their first game, Super Meat Boy. A suburban tale of personal artistic crafting done on a dedicated, punk rock aesthetic, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are a new breed of artisan blazing a path to success on a new digital landscape.

Alongside Team Meat, Phil Fish of Polytron has been working diligently on his game Fez for a handful of years and is prepping for his appearance at the convention PAX East. Fish is almost presented as a cautionary tale; with his haphazard approach to goals and business leading to a general delay of the game (as of this review, the game is now available for download on the Xbox Marketplace), it would seem as if Fish is headed towards some meltdown. Instead, though, Fish represents another new breed of artisan; along with the Team Meat guys, he’s a person with a mission. Despite his shortcomings, he’s a warrior on a structured front-line who’s leading the charge into a new, more interactive approach to entertainment.

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Shot with a stunning HD look, Indie Game is a substantial documentary that uses its material wisely and delivers an entertaining as well as educational look into the new world of mass active participation in critical thinking. As a new generation is being born with iPads and phones that provide games at their mobile fingertips, their anticipation of a certain level of interaction is only going to increase. Video games are the new medium of storytelling, and just like the invention of the motion picture a century earlier, they’re seeing a birth of the moment where the masses begin to have their interactive say. A place where daring ideas will be introduced, at the possible cost of loss of respect and alienation of consumers. It’s a new frontier, and we are only breaching the shore of whatever potential lies in wait.

Indie Game: The Movie opens today at SIFF Cinema at the Film Center.

Final Grade: A


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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