I recently had the privilege of seeing Indie Game: The Movie, a Canadian documentary that looks behind the scenes at three well-known indie games: the commercially and critically successful Braid, the soon to be released Super Meat Boy, and the perpetually trapped in development hell FEZ. The movie was funded by two Kickstarter projects and features a soundtrack by Jim Guthrie of Sword and Sworcery fame.
More importantly than the games, Indie Game also looks at the developers behind them: Braid’s lone wolf Jonathan Blow; Super Meat Boy’s fiercely determined Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes; and FEZ’s beleaguered Phil Fish. The film gives an intensely personal perspective of the men behind these games, their backgrounds, their philosophies and the relationships they have with their creations.
Braid is a puzzle platformer that was released to widespread acclaim, making it the second highest selling XBox Live Arcade game in 2008. Critics loved its elaborate puzzles and unique time mechanics including a full rewind feature, but Blow feels that a lot of people who have played and reviewed the game have missed the point of the artistry in the game, particularly its story. Braid was conceived in opposition to the current trends in video gaming, and Blow is certainly not afraid to let people know it. The film documents some of the internet vitriol Blow has received for his views, but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He has genuine desire for an emotional connection with a player of the game through its story, and he feels disappointed that the majority don’t seem to ‘get’ it.
The film covers Super Meat Boy through its final weeks of production, and counts down to its release on XBLA. McMillen and Refenes are a close-knit team who live on the opposite sides of the US, conducting most of the game development through Skype. They are passionate gamers with true love for the artform and its storytelling abilities. McMillen’s wife Danielle and Refenes’ sister and parents are also featured, which gives a nice view on how important familial relationships are in supporting a developer, but also the toll that the stress and long hours can have on them. Super Meat Boy is finished on a very very tight deadline, and the scenes of both developers pulling all-nighters to finish it might hit a bit close to home for some! For me, the journey of this game was the most powerful emotionally – the stress of meeting the deadline, the shock and disappointment of Super Meat Boy not appearing on XBLA on release day (it was eventually released that afternoon and sold 20,000 copies in 24 hours), and the pure joy and relief as the first positive reviews for the game come out and both of them realise that they are on the cusp of the success that they’ve been working towards for all their lives.
FEZ’s journey started in 2008, when it started to win awards purely based on its trailer. It’s a colourful and whimsical puzzler using a unique mechanic – the world spins on its Y axis, rendering a 2D game into a 3D world. However, after 2008 the game and its developer encountered problems – the game subsequently went through 3 complete redesigns, and Fish’s business partnership dissolved acrimoniously, creating substantial legal problems. Fish admits his perfectionism is a large part of the delays, and the game has swallowed his whole life. The internet is growing very impatient with the delays, and Fish worries that there will be no interest left by the time the game is finally released. There’s a very sweet moment where he plays little games he made as a child with his father, and he seems to regain his joy and passion for gaming and developing.
A crucial moment for FEZ takes place at the 2011 PAX Prime, where Fish is due to debut the first playable demo. Due to his ex-partner’s refusal to sign the last of the paperwork ending the partnership, Fish is not legally allowed to show the demo in public. He goes ahead anyway, and even though the game is full of bugs and crashes constantly, the demo is widely well-received by attendees, and even Penny Arcade’s Tycho. After years of constant stress, towards the end of the film Fish finally gets the signature, and carries on developing FEZ. (FEZ was subsequently completed after the movie was filmed, and released to great success in April 2012.)
Indie Game is a very truthful film, and the emotions of all involved are powerfully raw. It has more highs and lows than Six Flags. It does leave you questioning why the developers do what they do at times, but what really shines through is their desire to tell stories through a medium they all love and respect. Everyone who has ever thought about making games should definitely watch it. Hell, even anyone who has ever bought a video game.
Indie Game: The Movie is available for downloading/streaming online, and also on Steam and iTunes
Braid is available on XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac and Linux
Super Meat Boy is available on XBLA, and PC/Steam. A mobile version is currently in development
FEZ is available on XBLA