Review: It’s Not All Fun and Games in ‘Indie Game: The Movie’

By  · Published on May 18th, 2012

Editor’s note: With Indie Game: The Movie opening up in Los Angeles today as it begins its theatrical run, we thought it only appropriate to re-run this Sundance review, originally posted on January 20.

They say to truly be happy you should “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but what does it mean to take something you love doing and try and make it your career? Or at least something you dedicate the majority of your time to? Those who are writers or make films or music usually get into it because they love reading/writing, movies and music, but there is a caveat to this idea that people do not always realize. Even if you are “pursuing your dreams,” at the end of the day, work is work. It may be more exciting and different than your average 9–5 cubicle life, it is still a job with deadlines, pressure, and stress.

Indie Game: The Movie follows three sets of video game creators (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, creators of Super Meat Boy; Phil Fish, creator of FEZ; and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid) each at different points in their careers (and the games they are working on) to show not only the process of being an independent game creator, but what happens when you pour yourself into something that you eventually have to leave up to other people to determine its success. None of these creators are in it for the money (although there is certainly money to be made here), but rather all three started making games because they loved playing them as kids and wanted to make their own. Each comes from a generation that grew up gaming and really becoming a part of that world from drawing sketches of their favorite characters to figuring out how to put together their own rudimentary games making the next logical step becoming game creators themselves.

Being independent has many advantages – it allows you to be endlessly creative, explore any and all ideas, push boundaries, and create your ideal gaming experience. However the downside is the lack of funding to make your game and when you do have funding, staff and running up against deadlines set by your backers to get your game out. Indie Game takes viewers inside this experience as McMillen and Refenes work to get Super Meat Boy out to the public under their distributor’s timeline while Fish has been in development for so long, he fears the public has forgotten about the initial hype for his game, FEZ. Blow faces different challenges as his game Braid was a commercial success, but that success came with some backlash as he tried to interact with his players too much and also has to live up to his success with his next game.

While Super Meat Boy, FEZ, and Braid are all different games that offer different gaming experiences, the thread that seemed to run through all three was this idea of vulnerability after creating something so personal and then allowing others to not only experience it, but interact within it. Each of these creators put personal experiences into their games whether they were working out personal demons or creating their idealized world. Of course many artists do this whether through film, music or writing, but with video games players can actually go into that experience and react to it – good or bad.

Just as Sundance itself is a reminder that independent filmmaking is alive and well, Indie Game shows that thanks to the Internet and digital distribution, more and more developers are able to take their creative ideas into their own hands rather than being forced to rely on someone else to get their vision out to the public. While this makes for an exciting time that is allowing different visions and voices to take to the marketplace, Indie Game shows that no one is an overnight success and these games are tirelessly worked on by their creators who probably think their vision is never quite done, but have to let it go at some point.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky create a moving documentary that not only sheds light on what exactly it means to be an independent game creator, but how that experience can be both rewarding and isolating. Both video game fans and casual gamers should find this documentary not only interesting, but compelling as you watch these real life stories unfold and experience the various emotions that come with creating something from scratch and then releasing it into the world.

The Upside: Indie Game succeeds in not only showing a behind the scenes peek at what it takes to make a video game (no small feat!), but the people who bring these creations to life. It is a personal journey for each of these creators and it is impressive to watch their sketches and ideas come to life through their games.

The Downside: If you are looking for a more game-heavy narrative, you may be disappointed here as the film focuses more on the personal stories of the creators than the games themselves.

On the Side: Who else wanted one of those plush toys Edmund’s wife, Danielle, made? Is she on Etsy?