Disclosure: I contributed to Indie Game: The Movie’s development through its Kickstarter campaign and received the title free and a “Special Thanks” credit as part of the tiered reward system.
One thing that becomes abundantly clear walking around the halls of E3 is how much game development has become a science. Titles are pitched, given a precisely-calculated budget with precisely-calculated personnel, developed to include specific features at certain milestones, and then marketed on specific focal points by teams of public relations agents. Games didn’t used to be this way, they were developed by one or two people in garages who just hoped to make enough money to make their next title and not have to return to the land of retail work… or worse. Those people are still around, but now they’re making iPhone games or Xbox Live Arcade titles – a class of games that didn’t exist ten years ago. Indie Game: The Movie takes a look at three of these developers as they bring their games from hand-sketched drawings to a title you download to your console.
The first arc covers Ed McMillen and Tommy Referenes, together known as Team Meat, as they build the gleefully sadistic platformer Super Meat Boy. I didn’t know McMillen personally during my time at Newgrounds where he built Flash games in the early aughts, but he did inadvertently introduce to dead baby jokes (because haha, right?). Building the somewhat perverted Super Meat Boy was a personal journey for him and Tommy, who lived on opposite ends of the country. The film cuts to outspoken Quebecois game developer Phil Fish (and you come to understand his nature quickly) who had spent years building puzzle-platformer FEZ, initially to public acclaim, but later to impatient resentment. Both of these teams face incredible challenges without an elaborate support system around them. They’re the ones handling the business and the media while putting the art and code in. More importantly, both are running out of money and as the pressure mounts to complete their games, they fall into states of severe depression. Team Meat struggles with Microsoft to promote their game while Fish faces a lawsuit from an estranged former partner if he displays FEZ game to the crowds of PAX East.
In much the same way we appreciate a successful rebound from a dark situation (or can relate more to face-eating zombies over cats being rescued from trees), the weakest portion of the film comes from the third arc involving Jonathan Blow and Braid, one of Xbox Live Arcade’s first breakout titles. Watching his various prototypes become completed levels is insightful, but there’s very little to fret here. Blow is well-funded and Braid goes onto critical and commercial success, yet he still falls into a months-long depress upon release. Why? Because people don’t understand his game. Blow comes off as pompous auteur until we see a video of hip-hop doofus Soulja Boy playing the game, exclaiming, “there’s no real point to the game! You just jump around and shit!” and you start to see where Blow is coming from.
It’s a shame that these smaller titles seem to be ghettoized in appeal and support compared to triple-A superstar titles like Halo 4 or Call of Duty, but while all three of the games featured here were successful, many more aren’t. Those people still face the same obstacles and emotional fallout that these guys did. Indie Game: The Movie works effectively to present a genuinely human side to the garage developers that, despite all the odds, bring us some of the best gaming experiences that never see a store shelf.