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Wot I Think - Indie Game: The Movie

First World Problems: The Movie

The long-awaited documentary about the creators of Super Meat Boy, Braid and Fez is out now and available for download from its own site, iTunes or Steam. Here's Mr Brendy C to tell you a few things about it before you spend your digi-groats on this much-feted film. Warning: could be said to include spoilers, if a documentary about some guys making videogames can be said to be spoilable.

Indie Game: The Movie is in the unusual position of being able to say it was using Kickstarter “before it was cool, man.” So it’s already vulnerable to the kind of folk who shout ‘hipster!’ at every twenty-something in a pair of milk-bottle glasses. Of course, our readers know better than that. As children, most of you will have undoubtedly been told the tale of The Boy Who Cried Hipster, the moral of the story being ‘don’t lie about there being a dickhead around, in case a real dickhead should actually show up one day to subtly insult your decor, or eat you.’ Being so well brought-up, I believe we can look at Indie Game: The Movie somewhat more fairly and see it for what it actually is: a good documentary which occasionally lapses into artificiality.

The film follows the ups and downs (such as they are) of indie game development, focusing on Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat (creators of Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish, the controversy-clad head of Polytron Corporation (makers of Fez) and Jonathan Blow, the oft-styled philosopher-king of indie games (creator of Braid). They are each at different stages of development – Team Meat has pretty much finished work on SMB and is only waiting for release to go ahead, whereas Phil Fish and his programmer Renaud Bédard are still deep in development. Jon Blow, being super protective about his upcoming game, The Witness, limits his interviews to being about Braid or development in general. Ups come in the forms of good sales and five-star reviews. Downs come in the form of debt, obscure legal wrangling or in the formless throes of depression.

On first sight the setbacks that accost each dev seem preposterously inconsequential when compared to any other hard-hitting documentary. So much so that I sometimes felt like reaching into the screen and slapping these people (lightly) in the face before telling them to regain some perspective. If you were so inclined, you could probably re-label the entire film ‘First World Problems: The Movie’. But I think to do that might miss the point, which is that the over-active soul-searching borne out by the subjects is truly important to them, relative to their position in life. Even if it feels like some of the things bothering them should be told to a therapist, rather than a camera crew.

At this point, it’s important to distance criticism of the people in the movie from technical criticism of the movie itself, which is always ludicrously well-shot, slyly edited and peppered with neat animations. The story-telling can be disjointed at times – flipping from one dev to another too often or unnecessarily repeating things to remind the viewer of what’s happening. At one point the doc went off into a little bit of videogame history on the side, talking about Blow’s inspiration for Braid from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. This was also kind of jarring in terms of narrative but actually a really interesting slice of creative inspiration that I secretly wished they’d explored more of. I think moments like this – the breakdown of a game’s design ideas – will be most interesting to people who follow indie games, whereas the majority of the movie focuses instead on appealing to a larger crowd by exploring the ‘human element’ of gamemaking.

Not that going for a more general, non-gaming audience bothers me. In fact, it’s good that games can be presented to The People as an art that its creators can and do suffer for, just like film or music. Of course, if you’re gonna watch it, RPS reader, be aware that you’ll probably already know half of what the movie tells you. But never mind – a bit of revision never hurt anyone.

On the human element, it became clear about halfway through the film that it was branching off into two main ‘stories’. Jon Blow (to me the most interesting of the lot) is put to one side while Team Meat and Phil Fish go through their respective crises. One of them comes out the other end triumphantly, while the other flounders in an existential pool of self-doubt (yes, literally). These two sides of the movie gradually become so different from each other, even in the way they’re shot, that it almost feels like you’re beginning to watch two different documentaries. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing and I’m about to explain why, in a way that will be dangerously close to over-analysis. But if you catch me doing that, just shout ‘HIPSTER.’ I’ll stop.

The difference between these branches comes mostly in the way the particular developers act. The segments with Team Meat feel the most genuine. Ed and Tommy talk to each other over Skype, Ed’s joy at getting good reviews is clear and Tommy’s anger and frustration when Microsoft fail to feature them on the XBLA dashboard is equally authentic. Whereas the Phil Fish segments are full of scenes of him apparently posturing or over-reacting to every little question. “What happens if you can’t finish the game?” the interviewer asks at one point. “I will kill myself,” he says confidently, without a moment’s hesitation. He even repeats it, for emphasis. “I will kill myself.”

The Fish storyline paints a picture of either a man with a real penchant for melodrama acting up to the camera, or a full-blown neurotic. I don’t know, maybe he’s both. I actually like Phil Fish on personal basis, having found him to be one of the most refreshingly frank people to talk to about games. But I can also tell this movie won’t endear him to anybody who has already made up their mind about his flaws.

The interesting thing is that as Fish becomes more and more extravagant, the stylishness and extravagance of the camerawork also increases. At one point he is left alone in a swish hotel waiting for PAX to kick off, wherein he enters a fit of anxiety, then rage, then ennui, whereupon the documentary decides to have some shots of him looking blasé and introspective from behind the bar, then in the lobby and finally swimming in a pool with his glasses still on. This is Indie Game: The Movie at its most deliberate and artificial, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop myself from thinking they were using an underwater camera specifically for this one painfully stylistic shot.

Meanwhile, back at Team Meat they’re counting up their day one sales with their respective families gathered around. What follows is a muted and cleverly edited – but also honest and touching – moment as the exhausted and genuinely depressed Tommy Refenes is brought back to life by the People of the Internet. I’d probably recommend Indie Game: The Movie for this scene alone.

And then! Back at PAX, the playable demo of Fez is beset by bugs and Phil Fish begins to scramble for the keys to the booth – the camera follows suit becoming a shakeycam, cutting like mad between shots of the broken game and Phil opening the cabinet to reset the console while shouting, “We’ve got an unstable build on our hands!” You half expect the following scene to be of him faced with a blue wire or a red wire, panicking over which one to cut, sweat dripping off the frames of his glasses onto the camera lens. Of course, it doesn’t go that far. He just has to continually reset the machine.

And that’s when you finally realise why the movie is so obviously splitting into two styles: the characters are beginning to be reflected in the camerawork. Phil Fish is infecting the documentary. All the while the subdued and naturalistic style of the Team Meat segments have remained bona fide.

Did one of you just cry ‘hipster’? Never mind then.

Let’s just say this. The difference between the Fish story and the Team Meat story – and how they’re shot – is the difference between a stylishly posed Polaroid of a lone man looking profound for an album cover and an imperfect but natural photograph of two guys having a beer and talking to each other at a kitchen table. I enjoy both kinds for different reasons but like many I come down more on the side of the naturalistic. Compare the shots of Fish looking painstakingly cool in his hotel with the brief glimpses of a tired Tommy Refenes injecting insulin while barely paying attention to anything but his computer screen. One of these feels instinctively more ‘real’ than the other.

My biggest concern before watching the movie was that it would turn into a hagiography, holding these indie game poster-boys up as The Exemplars of an art form. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Their characters are probed slightly more keenly than that. The brief section about Jon Blow’s ability to “materialise” in the comments section of every article about him was a realistic testament to the man’s once-crippling defensive self-consciousness. Likewise, Fish’s outspokenness and theatricality (or what most people would term his loudmouthedness) is plainly there for everyone to see.

If the aim of Indie Game: The Movie is to poke about for vulnerabilities in the characters of its subjects (and it pretty much admits this is the point) then I’d say it succeeded. And if you can forgive it the moments when its stylishness gets the better of it, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

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