Run Time: 96 minutes
The signature shot to James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s Indie Game: The Movie shows a joystick suspended on hydro wires. A Koji Kondo-esque bop-bap melody, by Jim Guthrie, unfolds reflectively. We watch in awe.
If your mind blanks at the name Koji Kondo, I will inform you that he is the age-old composer of Nintendo’s biggest video games like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. Having said that, you don’t need to know Koji Kondo to enjoy Indie Game: The Movie, an important new documentary that sheds light (and humanity) on the raving and starving artists of, um… video game developers? Who knew.
We all know of Hollywood as the Magic Factory, where friday-night comedies seem to materialize in the theatres weekly. It’s easy to forget that minds made this artistic merchandise and it took probably several months to write the script and another year or so for filming and post-production. Same goes for video game creators. They devote hours-on-end to finalize vintage arcade games that may not even attract many players. How devastating the risk.
Just imagine spending years with your face inches from a computer screen and your fingers repetitively typing in cryptic algorithms and code. You are not creating the next state of the art Call of Duty, but a more traditional Pac-Man-like concept where a tiny creature runs, jumps, and parries its way up 2D obstacles and over spinning saws. An easy criticism could be “nothing happens”, “it’s so repetitive”, or “well, this is basic.”
Trust me, the developers are listening and, believe it or not, negative critical reception means their life. We learn this is the case from Super Meat Boy’s creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, Braid’s Jonathan Blow, and FEZ’s Phil Fish. They have devoted their lives, literally, to improving and finally launching their game on the live gamer market. Tommy confesses that his social life is dormant and all of his nights involve fixing glitches and fighting his insomnia.
I wasn’t expecting this with Indie Game: The Movie: it is an existential documentary. It boldly studies its subjects as they wrestle with their life’s purpose and brood dramatically in darkly lit rooms. Swirsky and Pajot’s camera pans gently around the subjects and their living space, giving us almost an ethereal presence, as the subjects are comfortably under the auspices of us. The overall grace of Swirsky and Pajot’s style captures the required intimacy.
Time in Indie Game: The Movie is accounted for by when FEZ and Super Meat Boy will release. FEZ has been in development for quite some time, which left gamers wondering if Fish called it quits. Fish asserts that it’s only him and one other creating the game, compared to the usual staff of 1000 you might find at EA or Ubisoft. I wanted the documentary to explore more the recalcitrant relationship between the indie and commercial video game industry, but Swirsky and Pajot mostly stick to the former.
Indie Game: The Movie is a character study. It digs deep into the minds of people many readily dismiss as nerds, hermits, and pasty-skinned couch potatoes. Arguably, McMillen, Refenes, Fish, and Blow possess traces of these qualities, but they carry boundless energy, imagination, and skills that are worthy of an artist. Fish, in particular, is a perfectionist running headlong into bankruptcy because he is religiously insistent on fixing every minor bug in FEZ. He’s like the pedantic painter who uses the tip of the bristles to tweak the minute details.
Ultimately, Indie Game: The Movie is about artistic fallibility. All artisans are vulnerable and it is best if they channel their limitations into their creative concept. That way we can understand that a human made this and heart and soul consists of each block and pixel of every level.
And finally, Indie Game: The Movie makes itself accessible to every aspiring artist, because it taps into those fundamental feelings of bringing your creativity to life and hoping others respond to it. Perhaps the most profound moment in the film is when Blow, drenched in the fame and fortune of Braid‘s success, rues that although everyone loved his game, no one truly understood it. It’s reassuring to know that even video games have still waters that run deep.
Indie Game: The Movie is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.