Mind games: Developer Phil Fish (FEZ) goes borderline Charleton Heston when he finds out his former business partner threatens to sabotage his games unveiling at an important convention.
In Review

Indie Game: The Movie

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars - 'Outstanding - Starkie!'
Directed by Lisanne Pajot, James Swirsky
Starring Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes
Review by Clinton Stark

Indie Game: The Movie is one of the best documentaries of the year. Filmed on a budget of about $25,000 (raised via Kickstarter) and shot with a Canon EOS 5D, the film’s superb editing and beautiful cinematography conspire to bring us up-close and personal with the artistic brains behind independent video game development. Three actual Xbox Live games — Super Meat Boy, FEZ and Braid — and their creators are the focal point for an emotional, riveting hundred minutes. We witness the entire (and often extremely painful) creative process, from incubation and artistic design to marketing and testing. The goal: drive first day game sales as hard as possible. Then, if you’re lucky, pay-off your parent’s mortgage, buy a new car and get some sleep. But, interestingly there’s much more at stake here. Much more.

Because these guys don’t work for the big video game studios (Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, or Bethesda, for example) they’re unsung heroes of sorts, toiling in isolation, and programming at all hours; unlike the small armies of developers for slickly produced games like, say, Skyrim, Mass Effect or Call of Duty, which may easily employ a thousand people to create (“A thousand people!”), these are individuals trying to make it against the odds.

Far from being an expert, I did still know a few things about video game development going into this film.

For one, games take years to make. Even a seemingly modest title like FEZ, a quirky 3-D platformer starring a pixelized 2-D character, can take years of effort to bring to market. Not only that, it seems everything conspires against their creation. Long before FEZ was completed, Phil Fish ran out of money, and suffered a nasty breakup with his business partner; appearing exhausted and at wit’s end, he launched into a profanity-laced tirade, that ends with his assertion that murder is the only resolution. Fortunately, after some sleep and probably some hot cocoa, he appears stabilized as he watches video game enthusiasts test drive an early build of his game at a convention. FEZ was originally planned for a 2010 release, but finally launched earlier this year. The risk in delay after delay is that the market will change, and gamers won’t be interested in a stale concept. No one said this was easy.

When each of the games finally does hit Xbox Live, the drama really ratchets up a notch. Will dreams come true, or will they go down in flames, embroiled in lawsuits, in-fighting and dwindling bank accounts?

But, payouts can be huge. Top video games can generate a lot of money. A lot. As in Billions of Dollars. Big franchises like Halo often outpace blockbuster films (and in a modern day twist, themselves become movies). While indies, priced from $10-20 on WiiWare, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, don’t generate revenue on quite that scale, a top-seller can still make its creators multi-millionaires in a matter of weeks after launch. Take, a top tier PSN download that sells for $10. Several have crossed the 1,000,000 download mark – Castle Crashers has done twice that and then some. Do some simple math and you can see the payday for a small outfit with just one or two developers is not insubstantial.

What I didn’t perhaps grasp prior to this film was the unprecedented level of artistic passion that goes into these games. These developers don’t merely want us to just get a kick out of beating a level or a boss, they want us to feel attached in some way to the their world, to connect artistically and emotionally. High scores it would seem — and glossy cut scenes too — are beside the point. Those that question the validity of video games as “art” should see this film. Did Any Warhol go through this much anguish, self-loathing? Fortunately, I’m quite certain he never had to watch a “buggy build” of  his Campbell Soups piece crash repeatedly at its first public exhibition.

Independent game development still shot
Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen heads down on Super Meat Boy (Xbox Live) – will the game sell?

“I know that there is a kid out there who stayed up all night long for the game to come out and then didn’t get to school the next day because he was so into playing it.” says a drained, teary-eyed Edmund McMillen during one of the film’s more touching moments. “To think that I could make something that could have an impact on this kid even creatively and they’re thinking, ‘Hey, I know two guys made this. Maybe I can make something too!’ It’s just cool. It’s really cool. It feels really, really good.”

In otherwise normal social settings these personalities aren’t necessarily the most extroverted. Thankfully, these immersive worlds that they themselves create, prove to be welcome avenues for personal expression.

I was tempted to Google the games and developers (Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes) while I was watching the film to see how they ultimately fared – did the games score well with the critics? Did they sell well, and how much money did everyone make? Like entering a cheat code, that would suck the drama out of the affair – I went in to IGTM knowing nothing of the three games profiled and was the better for it.

By the end of the film, I was pulling for these intrepid, entrepreneurial artists. I could not bear to watch four years of someone’s life go up in smoke – all the effort, all that Dr. Pepper, all that frustration of dealing with Microsoft. When each of the games finally does hit Xbox Live, the drama really ratchets up a notch. Will dreams come true, or will they go down in flames, embroiled in lawsuits, in-fighting and dwindling bank accounts?

First time filmmakers Lisanne Pajot, and James Swirsky find themselves on stage at Sundance receiving and award for their documentary about tye trials and tribulations of video game development.
“It’s crazy” – First time filmmakers Lisanne Pajot, and James Swirsky found themselves on stage at Sundance receiving an award for their documentary about the trials and tribulations of video game development.

There’s even an entertaining back-story with Indie Game: The Movie; here we have first-time indie filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky – they’re as intriguing to me as the indie game developers profiled in the film itself. What creative minds can do with a simple DSLR and a limited budget is truly impressive. Editing is terrific, and there’s a visual beauty that belies the fact that it was shot by first-timers; especially watch for gorgeous, synchronized tracking and rail shots. A lush, intelligent score (Jim Guthrie) is icing on the cake.

I read that when they received word from Sundance that their film had been accepted as one of ten international documentaries, they burst into tears – right there in the middle of Starbucks. Everyone thought they were in the midst of a terrible breakup. Months later the pinch-me-factor must’ve shifted into overdrive when they found themselves on stage at the festival receiving an award for their work (and, yes, they did thank their parents in a blog post).

Indie Game: The Movie is a monumental achievement in independent film. It reminds us that artistry, perseverance, passion are alive and well in the digital age. More important, it celebrates achievement and risk taking. Safe to say, downloading a PSN or Xbox Live video game will forever have new meaning for me.

For those interested in the tech used to bring the film to life, here’s a complete (and detailed) list of the gear used for the production.

Indie Game: The Movie is now available on iTunes, and is also available to Netflix subscribers (which is how I watched the film – it looks terrific in HD).

Clinton Stark
Clinton shoots videos for Stark Insider. San Francisco Bay Area arts, Ingmar Bergman and French New Wave, and chasing the perfect home espresso shot 25 seconds at a time (and failing). Peloton: ClintTheMint. Camera: Video Gear