I attended the screening of Indie Game: The Movie, at the Game Developer's Conference today. In their words, it "chronicles indie developers and IGF nominees/winners Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow (Braid), exploring their dramatic journeys as they created and released their games to the world."
I don't really like doing reviews, as I'd rather just talk discuss a thing than review it. People like reviews, so if you need one, here's that: "I think Indie Game: The Movie is an excellent film that deserves your effort to see it and your money to support it."
This isn't the first time I've felt not up to the task of communicating the vibe of an indie game event at the Game Developer's Conference. The emotional power and weight of this film isn't really something you're going to get from this text, so you'll just have to imagine. We get to see the messy and personal journeys these game creators went on (and are still going on). It's really all about the drive they have, and showing us just how extreme that drive has to be to actually complete their projects. It takes a certain kind of person to do what they're doing, and this film shines a light on what it is to be a creator, and just how troubling it often is.
Jonathan Blow has it easiest of any of the subjects here, because the film takes place after his success with Braid. Still, Mr. Blow gives almost fatherly advice about being indie, explaining just how opposite the indie mindset is from the mainstream game mindset. A big company doing a big production wants to polish away every rough edge that anyone might bump into, he says, but an indie project is about expression, which includes vulnerabilities of both the game itself, and of the creator. Blow's own motivation to make Braid (or rather, to make *something* that required that level of commitment and investment) came from his own disillusionment with his carrer. Would he really end up never having done what he always aspired to? It was too depressing of a thought for him, and so he needed to try. We see very clearly that money and recogonition were not his motivators AT ALL. It's the need to live up to his own personal standard. It's just unacceptable for Blow not to try, no matter what the consequences may be.
Meanwhile, the Super Meat Boy creators were even more extreme in their motivations. We see that they have sacrificed a great deal to be doing what they are doing, and that their entire beings are invested in it. Tommy Refenes mentions that he's given up any concept of a social life, and that even if he were to go out with a girl, he wouldn't have a car to pick her up or the means to pay for her meal. He also explains his passionate hate for some AAA games he thinks are total shit, and that he thinks working at EA would be akin to being in hell. He's also completely and totally sincere when he tells us that he doesn't care if his game makes any money or whether it's liked by anyone. He's doing this for himself, and boy does he mean it. His partner Edmund McMillen is on the same page.
There's a secondary theme of the film that has to do with how these creators react to the public playing and/or reviewing their games. It's clear that all four creators were motivated virtually entirely by intense internal needs, and yet they all are faced with being publically judged. Blow, whose game has the highest metacritic score of an XBLA game, said he became obsessed with reading about his own game once it was all over the internet. This thing that had been a personal journey of his for years was now talked about by everyone. He was even upset by perfect 10/10 reviews because often he felt people had completely missed the substance of what he was communicating with Braid, and that they wrote reviews that covered only the most surface level. He also responded frequently across the net in the comment sections of blogs and reviews, correcting and debating people. This lead to a negative public image of himself that is unfair and that "got away from him entirely." I certainly recognize that, though I am fully supportive of such posts by creators, as I do the same. It's deeply mysterious that the public would prefer creators to stay silent rather than to enter into such discussion.
Phil Fish also dealt with a flood of who he calls "internet assholes" who posted hate toward him for years simply because it was taking him so long to finish Fez. After winning an IGF award in 2008, Fez was never shown again publically, until last year's PAX show. Unforgiving "fans" were often not understanding of how much work was involved.
The real theme though, and the reason this film is so weighty, is about the pressure these guys were all under. Phil Fish is quite literally on the edge of a nervous breakdown. His father was diagnosed with fatal cancer, his girlfriend left him, and his business partner got into a bitter legal dispute with him. He is the first to tell you that his identity is no longer separate from his work: he is "the guy who's making Fez." He says with complete seriousness that he would kill himself if he can't finish his game. And with such extreme personal investment and passion, it's all the more Eath-shattering when something threatens his ability to make the game at all.
Edmund and Tommy were shaken just as deeply with their work on Super Meat Boy. The work becomes all consuming, and Edmund at one point refers to it like being in a concentration camp. These creators have all created their own prisons in a sense, constructed by their own ambitions. We get a strong sense of what Edmund is really like...which is emotionally troubled, and not just because of his work, but in general. That's no slight on him as he explains in detail that he's always had problems and monsters, social issues, anxiety, and weird thoughts. Super Meat Boy is a kind barfing up (in the nicest possible way) of his subconscious. The character of Super Meat Boy is made of meat, meaning he has no skin and can be harmed by almost anything, even salt. His goal is to be with the girl character of the game, who is literally made of bandages. That's what Super Meat Boy needs to be complete, to be protected and healed.
Edmund's wife supports him endlessly though intense pressure and bouts of his depression. I honestly don't know how he would have made it through making Super Meat Boy without her, and her devotion is inspiring. Toward the end of production, Edmund said he was on the verge of completely cracking and giving up at least three times, and sometimes he'd sit in a bathtub full of hot water until it became cold, as the only thing he could think of to relax even slightly. This is all for something that might make no money and that everyone might hate. They were fully prepared for that possibility and said they'd do it all again even if that happened.
In the end, Indie Game: The Film demonstrates what it's like to be a creator, regardless of the medium. Games are a particularly grueling medium in that the minimum effort to create even a bad game is far, far more effort than the effort in some other media. It takes *years* of intense work just to create a complete and functioning game, which for all anyone knows will turn out terrible. I think creators of any kind will be relate to these game-makers, and that the appeal of the film far transcends anything specific to games.
The meta-twist to this was hearing the subjects of the film and the filmmakers talk about it on the panel following the screening. While the personal dramas shown on screen were very well told, they are the kind of dramas that I know about already, being involved with games. What I hadn't considered at all though, was the personal hardships of the *filmmakers*. They too were creating a monster of a thing, a thing requiring years of effort by their small team of two people. They too had to cast off working for other people in order to pursue doing their own project their way. While they were following these game-makers who were totally uncertain of what, if any success lay before them, the filmmakers wrestled with what their film was even about. Apparently they had followed other indie game makers as well, and made a big decision that involved quite a lot of passionate arguing to cut out the others in order to refocus the film on the three stories told.
At one point, an audience member asked them about the possibility of them doing a series of web films that people could pay for so they could tell more and more stories like this. Filmmaker Lisanne Pajot responded mock-terrified, "So you mean this wouldn't end?" which echoed the earlier theme of creators ending up trapped in and overwhelmed by their own work.
I thought it was interestingly ironic somehow that Phil Fish mentioned he agreed to do the film at all after he found the filmmakers were cut from the same cloth he was, so to speak. They all had that intensely indie spirit and the need to keep going no matter what.
Congratulations to Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky on being skilled creators in their own right, and for bringing to light the difficult process of creative work.