Videogaming doesn’t seem like great documentary fodder, since its appeal hinges on interactivity, something that can’t be depicted by watching other people play and talk about games. Yet both 2007’s The King Of Kong and the new Indie Game: The Movie have both succeeded by utilizing the fact that people care deeply about videogames to tell stories with broadly applicable themes. Where King Of Kong told a universal story of an underdog outsider trying to become a champion, Indie Game: The Movie does everything short of painting “It’s about the creative process everywhere!” on its title card.
The film focuses on four creative game developers: Braid’s Jonathan Blow, Fez’s Phil Fish, and Super Meat Boy’s “Team Meat,” Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. Each has a game at a different stage of development, and each developer has a different personality and camera presence, something mirrored by the film’s shot selection and editing. Blow has already completed Braid and speaks almost entirely in the past tense; Team Meat is about to release Super Meat Boy; and Fish keeps missing deadline after deadline with Fez. There’s a notable lack of diversity at multiple levels: all of the subjects are relatively young white males, and all are making two-dimensional platform games, which is something of a misrepresentation of the more vibrant indie game community.
All four developers share the apparently absolute conviction that making their game is the most important task they could possibly be performing, which quickly turns self-destructive. Blow’s self-seriousness ought to earn him an honorable David Simon Award For “You’re Loving My Art Wrong!” when Indie Game plays a montage of his online comments arguing with critics praising his game in too-shallow terms. The film is oddly edited in a way that tacitly supports this behavior, with the audio from an inane, excited Soulja Boy YouTube video laid over part of the scene, instead of any of the criticisms from the writers to whom Blow was responding.
Indie Game: The Movie is at its best when it focuses on Team Meat, specifically McMillen, who more than the other subjects seems to have used videogames successfully to express his psyche and personal history. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film comes when he describes how he made an early game, Aether, in order to connect with a niece with whom he identifies. He describes how his childhood alienation made him feel like a monster traveling through space, demonstrated by game footage. It suggests the emotional potential of videogaming that only the sort of indie games profiled in the film can pull off.
The documentary’s cinematography is often surprisingly lovely, but occasionally questionable. Fish’s anxiety is shown by a trick shot through a hotel bar mirror, or his descent into depression is depicted by a shot of him sinking to the bottom of the pool, filmed via an underwater camera. But do those gorgeous shots of roller coasters in Santa Cruz or the Charles River in the rain serve any purpose other than adding false gravitas to the film? This is, after all, a charge often leveled against indie games themselves: that they take conventional, inane game design and add aesthetic tropes associated with pretentious respectability to call themselves “art.” Initially that seems to apply to Indie Game: The Movie as well. Instead, they’re visual metaphors for the film’s flawed, ambitious, and charming subjects’ motivations. In the end, the formal artificiality becomes a strength, letting Indie Game: The Movie become the metaphorical examination for artistic creation it aspires to be.
Full disclosure: Current and former A.V. Club contributors Gus Mastrapa and Chris Dahlen are interviewed briefly, but neither play a major role in the film.
[Indie Game: The Movie is currently available for download here, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray at a yet-to-be determined date.]