I briefly considered doing a Vlog on the film, but since I generally planned to just blather on with a stream-of-consciousness about it without much editing or post production I figured text would work just as well. Hey, if I’m going to be lazy, I’m going to be really lazy. Anyways, my haphazard, unorganized, likely-to-change-over-time thoughts on the movie having only just seen it:
First, of the three developers that were chronicled in the film Team Meat’s story was by far the standout – primarily because it was the only complete story. We ride along with Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes from the dark days late in the dev cycle, and along the way find out a bit about what drives each of them to work on this crazy project. We watch the hype slowly build for the game, the panic during the failed launch day ad campaign, and their emotional reactions to releasing a phenomenally successful game shortly after launch.
In contrast, the Jon Blow segments felt almost wholly vestigial. Braid had been out for years by the time filming for the documentary had started, but Blow refused to unveil anything about his still-in-production Witness. As a result his segments have no story, no arc, no drama – it’s mostly just philosophical musings on the nature of indie development used as a framing device for the other two subjects. While that works okay, he feels a bit wasted in that role.
The Fez/Phil Fish/Polytron story is probably the weakest, for a whole slew of reasons. First, it’s a tiny sliver of the game’s development – from late 2010 to sometime in 2011. The game has already been in development for three years by the time we meet up with Polytron, and we end well before the game comes out. It’s essentially just a random year of stressful development where the only substantive tension comes from the uncertainty about whether an unnamed former business partner will sign a release to let Polytron show the game at PAX. While this is where Fish comes off as most sympathetic given the stresses he’s under, it’s also too ambiguous and underdeveloped to drive a whole third of the film.
As a result of looking at three different game development teams at three different points during the development process, the film feels like it lacks structure – even for a documentary. But for a film that wants to be about struggling artists, it also has an odd preoccupation with material success. The film takes time to point out the millions of dollars that a very narrow selection of indie games have made. It uses sales figures and metacritic review scores as victories without really discussing aesthetic or artistic fulfillment. It even uses a “man panning/digging for gold” metaphor throughout the film to describe its subjects.
The film is titled “Indie Game: The Movie,” but it isn’t really about the games. They show footage from Braid, Meat Boy, and other titles, but the film has almost nothing to say about them. It also isn’t about the actual development process – the film isn’t about mechanic design, it isn’t about visual aesthetics, it isn’t about programming rasterization techniques or physics engines. It’s effectively a struggling artist story, but one that’s more interested in the “struggling” part than the “artist” part. We’re divorced from the creative process because of when we come into the development of the games. All we have left is the struggles of men who have risked everything for a dream – these could easily have been people betting on their dream iPhone app.
And while chasing your dream is commendable, we’re divorced from the strongest possibility of failure because they all have publishing contracts from the get-go. The creative work has been done or, if it is still happening during the film’s production, occurs entirely offscreen. The film really could have been called “Stressful Final Stretch Software Crunches: The Movie” and it would have been mostly apt (less Jon Blow talking about indie games).
This is obviously just my own biases shining through, but I was hoping a film called “Indie Game: The Movie” would be more about the games more than the men behind them. Something closer to a Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, or at the very least a functional history of indie games and the role they play with a focus on these three titles as contemporary anchorpoints for discussion. Instead we have a documentary about the final months of development for two software projects – and while that can be plenty stressful and dramatic, I’m afraid it’s also not all that profound for those without a direct stake in the project.
Ultimately, Edmund’s speech at the end is probably my favorite bit. It feels earnest, and it the closest we get to a bit of structure in the film – opening early on with his childhood and ending with him tearing up at the thought of influencing a new generation of gamers is by far the most emotionally engaging element of film. While the film as a whole makes mistakes and is sort of a listless ode to “having a sad about software development”, the Team Meat story arc functions well. Really, if they could add some Team Meat footage and cut it down to a 30 minute short about that, they’d have a fantastic little short-form documentary.