I’ve been a bit lazy recently. Last film review I did was for Alpha Papa which was over 2 weeks ago. The reason for this break is because I came across this little show that has been around for a few years and decided I’d catch up on it. Some show called Breaking Bad. It ain’t too shabby. You should watch it. When I’m done with Breaking Bad I might try watching this other cult show called Game of Thrones or something. I dunno, never heard of it. Anyway, after finishing season 4 of Breaking Bad yesterday I remembered that I have this site and decided to watch a film. That film was Spaceballs… but then I figured I’ve seen that, like, 4,000 times so instead I watched Indie Game The Movie. I guess you could click the link for my review. Don’t worry, I’ll cover Spaceballs at some point.
Indie Game The Movie is a twice Kickstarter funded documentary that follows a few independent videogame developers as they work towards getting their passion project released. There’s interviews with Jonathan Blow following the successful release of his first solo project, Braid. We follow the contentious Phil Fish as he tries his best to convince people that Fez will see a release (it did) and as he builds towards demoing it to the public for the first time in 4 years. Most importantly though, the film follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they hit the crunch time on the way to releasing Super Meat Boy on Xbox Live Arcade. I’ll come back tot hat pair later, because without them the film would not be half as compelling. They are this film’s heart. Dual directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky got this film made on a desire, shared by a lot of backers, to get videogames featured and represented in film in a manner that, for once, wasn’t derogatory or ill informed. They succeed, massively.
Having worked for a year in a low level games industry job, there’s a lot in Indie Game The Movie that I can relate too having seen how a game comes together and just how much work goes into the completion of a game. I should explain what “The Crunch” is first. For those that don’t follow games or know much about development, The Crunch is the time when the development schedule has started catching up to the release date and the sheer number of problems that still need resolving are so many that the developers have to pretty much ignore their well being and lives in order to get the game finished. This means long hours of bug fixing and, yes, removing content just to get the game out the door on time.
See, scheduling the development of a game isn’t the same as filming a film. When you make a film you shoot the scenes and get it right as soon as you can and move on. With games you make a scene as right as you can first time but that’s before everything else is ready. And when those parts that are ready drop in, you may see more of what the game will be, but you’ll also see a lot of unexpected problems arising. See, if a developer tweaks one aspect of a game to make something work it can make another part of the game break. I remember one crash bug we had on a game I worked on that was caused because the game’s volume was set to 7 in the options. But fixing that could easily cause another problem later. There’s a reason game release dates slip all the time. I’ve previously compared completing a game as being akin to working out a giant math problem, except you start thinking you know the answer and you only have half the equation. Each number you add or subtract effects the answer and it’s the developers job to find a way to get all these numbers to add up to either the original answer or as close to it as possible. Imagine the numbers round on countdown but played with 12 billion numbers. Also, you’re not Carol Vorderman. When a games release comes near everyone has to crunch.
The crunch is what Edmund and Tommy’s part of the film is all about. We see the toll the hours Edmund is putting in is taking on his wife. He works from home but, as she says, she only ever sees his back. They have plans for a better life but so much of that depends on Edmund and Tommy’s Super Meat Boy getting finished, released and it being a success that you feel the distinct chance that they may not get their dream. This is foreshadowed by a scene at the start of the documentary where we see Tommy looking on Xbox Live marketplace on the game’s release day only to see Super Meat Boy is not there. When, a little way into the film, you learn that they are crunching because Microsoft have asked them to finish the game within a month to be part of a big promotion you’ll start to feel their personal dread as you wonder if all the work, and the toll it has on their family was for nothing.
Whilst Edmund is experiencing the struggles making the game is having on his wife Tommy is working at his home on the coding and bug fixing and we see just how much he is sacrificing to get this game completed. He is running out of money fast. He laments in one scene that he doesn’t go out anymore. That he couldn’t afford to take a woman out on a date because he can barely afford to feed himself. That he’s waking up at 4 in the afternoon because he didn’t go to bed until 9AM that morning due to the work he’s putting into getting Super Meat Boy finished in time to go through Microsoft certification. He tells us how supportive his family is and how they’ve had to re-mortgage a house they built 4 years for paying it off just to get by.
This pair of developers, who together form Team Meat, are the story that will hold you through this film. Theirs is a powerful and very human story and (dammit) a touching story at that. They do not hide anything. They talk of their passion for the games they grew up with. They talk mechanics and game design in a manner that makes me wish more people discussed these core tenants of game design. Edmund talks about his childhood and the troubles he had growing up which had visualised themselves in his games (I suggest Aether and The Binding of Isaac). All this results in, quite frankly, euphoric reactions when we see the love their game receives. These guys are superb people and they deserve your money for their games because they are making honest, beautifully designed games.
A lot of the film also follows Phil Fish, who many will know as that guy that just cancelled Fez 2 because he threw a tantrum. I’ll admit it here. I’m not a fan of Fish. I feel for the pressure he must feel he is under and I fully understand that he may not like the vitriol he often inspires. But when you’re making creative work that people want to enjoy, when you actively say things to antagonise and when you refuse to say anything positive when given the chance, then you had better be thick skinned. Fish, at times, does come across as a decent guy. Seeing him show his early forays into development is a joy. As is his genuine passion for design an iteration. But he spends a large portion of the film bitching and complaining about his former partner at Polytron, Jason DeGroot. There’s animosity there for sure, but man, suck it up and stop being a child. It doesn’t help that DeGroot is not interviewed for this film to provide his side of the story. He wasn’t even asked to be a part of the film, a fact later amended to the film’s credits. I’m not sure what happened but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fish had said he wouldn’t be a part of the film is DeGroot was. Pure conjecture but that’s just the sort of guy Fish comes across as. Phil Fish, by the way, is an excellent designer and developer. That should be made clear. Fez is a superb game and I’m kinda glad he cancelled Fez 2. Because that would have just been a waste of his potential. He just needs to shut the hell up sometimes.
The stories revolving around Team Meat and Polytron are both tied together with interviews with Jonathan Blow, another contentious character in gaming. At least he’s earned it and learned to not whine as much these days. He brings experience to the film’s narrative. He has already had his game release, and to much deserved success. He’s also been a part of the larger side of the games industry. His interviews are largely there to provide context and reflection on what game development can mean. What game design involves at a granular level. He also, in some way, provides a glimmer of hope for the lives of McMillen, Refenes and Fish as we see a independent developer who has managed to claw his way out of debt by producing a great work.
Indie Game The Movie is documentary magic in a bottle. Somehow Pajot and Swirsky managed to strike gold with the 3 development teams they chose to focus on. All three teams are varied personalities with different stories but what they all genuinely share is a love of game design as an art form. Also, they share the fact that all their games followed over the course of the film paid off as great works. The lack of interviews with DeGroot and maybe the occasionally overly artistic moment of directing (Fish underwater? Or in a bar? No thanks) may provide some element of detriment to the film but overall it is a powerful, touching and industry validating work. The games industry deserves to be represented in an intelligent manner via the art of film. This is easily the best representation of videogames committed to film to date. I’d compare this to Barry W Blaustein’s Beyond The Mat as a film that can open the eyes of a form of entertainment to people that have likely written it off by now. Even if you have no interest in gaming, watching Indie Game The Movie may well be enough to change your view.