“Indie Game the Movie”: Highs and Lows of Indie Game Development

Indie Game the Movie

Indie Game the Movie (2012) shines a light on three of the most successful and anticipated indie games of the last few years. Filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky interviewed the creators of BraidSuper Meat Boy and Fez in order to get the pulse of the world of indie games, and to understand the stress, pressure and rewards that come along with it. As someone who works in the game industry, I have been dying to see this film since it released in 2012. It doesn’t disappoint and delivers an entertaining and revealing look into a small, but growing, sector of the game industry.

The focus is mainly on Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the team behind Super Meat Boy, as well as Phil Fish, who created Fez. Jonathan Blow is also present, though to a lesser degree. His game, Braid, set a high bar for successful indie releases, which led to many other developers chasing his coattails, and praying for that level of success. Blow discusses the burden of creation, and his frustration with many critics and audiences not truly understanding Braid’s intended meaning. To these creators, this is more than just a game, it is a culmination of their life’s passions and ambition.

Getting independent games in front of an audience was once nearly impossible. However, the presence of online stores such as Steam has really helped indie developers get their foot further in the proverbial door. Just about anyone with the skills can make a game now, which has led to a large influx of creative work that would never be released by a large publisher. Indie games stand to make a couple million dollars should they be successful. This is small change for companies like Capcom or Naughty Dog, but for an indie game team of two people, it’s big money.

The film is gorgeous, brimming with beautiful shots containing colours that are vivid and crisp. Amid this visual delight, Pajot and Swirsky ask probing questions about each creator’s work, and personal life. All of them were obsessed with games as kids, and have continued their obsession into their careers. The life of an indie game developer may sound like a dream, yet often times it is anything but. Hours of work, punishing schedules, and self-doubt plague each and every one of them.

This pressure often leads to on screen fits of rage, which I found to be incredibly grating. Phil Fish in particular quickly shifts from a sympathetic character to extremely annoying at the drop of a hat. Fish is a somewhat polarizing figure in the indie gaming community, garnering both scorn and sympathy. Gamers can be notoriously brutal, and their cruel treatment of him was partially documented. At the point of filming, Fish was having a difficult time personally and was also the target of gamer wrath for his inability to deliver on promised delivery dates for his highly anticipated game. Interviews with Fish reveal a sensitive individual crumbling under the pressure of his own ambition. Unfortunately, as the interviews with him progress, discussions of his demons, shortcomings, and the difficulties of his work give way to the rants of a petulant child, lashing out at his critics, would be fans, and himself. His near constant explosions of rage made it clear that he is ill-equipped for dealing with this level of stress and was very hard to watch.

All discomfort aside, Indie Game the Movie succeeds in capturing the spectacular highs and crushing lows of independent game development, and reveals some of the more successful personalities in the industry.