From first-time filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky comes INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE, a bold documentary that seeks to shine a light on one of the most tragically misunderstood art forms in contemporary society: video gaming. Filmed from three distinct vantage points – Jonathan Blow (creator of BRAID), Phil Fish (creator of FEZ) and “Team Meat”, consisting of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (creators of SUPER MEAT BOY) – INDIE GAME takes all of our romantic notions about the struggling artist and throws them out the window, instead opting to show a more human, realistic depiction: pale, isolated nerds in front of computer screens that have poured their hearts, minds and souls into line after line of code, all with the single-minded goal of reaching out and connecting with the rest of the world. Because that’s what this film is really about: the inherent need that every artist has to form some bond between themselves and the audience – to feel useful, and needed, and relevant. And, to this end, Pajot and Swirsky succeed in spades, crafting a triumphant story that’s fun, heartbreaking and inspiring, all in equal measure. As Fish himself declared at the Q&A after the film (which was simulcasted to almost 40 screenings nationwide through HotDocs): there will be children today who watch this film and decide that what they want to do with the rest of their lives is make games, and that’s amazing.
What’s remarkable about the film is how it doesn’t treat video games like some oddity to be dissected and explained. Instead, Pajot and Swirsky opt to simply thrust us into the lives of these four programmers, giving us access to their dreams, their fears and ultimately their reason for getting up in the morning. Marriages and social lives are sacrificed, lawsuits are filed and emotional stability is in constant flux as the artists (for artists they are) beat themselves bloody against monitors and keyboards, the only canvas they know how to see themselves in. And as I watched these men laugh and cry and scream in frustration, I found myself wanting nothing more in the entire world than to see them succeed against the commercialized, corporate bullshit that constantly seeks to crush them. I wanted to shake down every fanboy who spouts anonymous hate on the internet at any of these well-meaning men, to show them what their nonchalant comments can do to the psyche of a fragile, isolated artist.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the internet plays a massive role in INDIE GAME. It was mentioned in the Q&A how fan forums and the general web of online information essentially play the fifth character in the film – one of three true antagonists (the other two being the monopolized corporations and the artists themselves, though Fish has the unpleasant fourth hurdle of being in a lawsuit with his former, unnamed business partner). And though it starts innocently and funnily enough – a montage of excited user comments from a fan forum, championing and celebrating one of the impending releases – things quickly turn hostile and vicious, with fans calling out the programmers for not getting the games out in time (or because they decide that they don’t like what they see) and leaving our heroes to wallow in despair as they do their very best to please thousands of people they will never meet. It’s a depressing and eye-opening reality that many consumers will never truly understand: that their tendencies towards negative anonymity has a real, tangible effect on the people who are just trying to make them happy. That this is more than a business transaction to them; they’re trying so, so hard to connect to other people through the only outlet they can. And what they get instead is a sea of falsely entitled whiners, many of whom will never actually appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears goes into the product that they’re stamping their feet over for one reason or the other. Even in spite of the amazing reviews that BRAID receives upon its launch, Blow still spirals downwards into depression, shouting desperately for somebody to understand the game – not just play it. To see the man behind the code. To understand the man behind the code.
And if dealing with belligerent fans and one’s own demons weren’t enough, our heroes still have to overcome the nearly impossible hurdles that are the big corporations of the video game industry. In this way, INDIE GAME becomes something of a parable for all contemporary art as it becomes commercialized and distilled down. Fish and co. spit out facts with obvious rage, trying to plead their case for how much the deck is stacked against them: while the newest GRAND THEFT AUTO game took five years and a staff of 1000 (one-thousand!) to complete, Fish has spent a similar length of time working on FEZ with one other person. One. Still, the fans violently clamour for more, threatening to move on to greener pastures as their attention wanes. And it’s not just limited resources that hold them back, either; Microsoft is shown explicitly screwing over “Team Meat” in their launch day marketing campaign, proving how little big business cares about the little guys.
Is it all worth it? Maybe. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the film gets a (mostly) happy ending, as all of the games (with the exception of FEZ, which hadn’t launched yet at the time of the film’s completion – it has since gone on to find huge success) find great success, both critically and commercially. Yet the turmoil that these artists undergo is ongoing, and the validation of their hard work is treated as a true victory by some and a false, unreality by others. But, then again, if they weren’t struggling, they wouldn’t be real artists – would they?
INDIE GAME is a huge success of a documentary, and despite its obvious appeal to gamers, it’s a triumphant story for artists of any medium. It’s a rare, optimistic look at how contemporary artists can still overcome the absurd monopolies of their respective industries, and it should be celebrated for that alone.
Everybody loves an underdog story.