Some Thoughts on Indie Game: The Movie

Nah, not really. But it's a cool image.

The sneakers-from-a-wire of our generation.

I intentionally avoided reading much about Indie Game: The Movie, though what little I heard was enough to establish two things: one, that it wasn’t, as I originally assumed, a satire or spoof; and two, that I had a healthy fascination with the subject matter. After much hype, it’s been released to the common public through Steam. I’ve now seen it. Some thoughts below.

I think people would be much more generous in their assessment of Blow if he didn't always look like he was distracted by correspondence with the mothership.

Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid.

  • Although “indie games” seems like one of those impossibly broad topics to whittle down to ninety minutes, I’m relieved they didn’t try to make it about everything indie—Arcen and Brendon Chung and Introversion and Cactus and Kickstarter and Cliffsky and Steam sales and Derek Yu versus Arthur Lee and all of it. But I’ve also wondered how it came to be that Team Meat, Jonathan Blow, and Phil Fish came to be the three starring picks. They have a few notables in common: all are public enough that one might call them “rockstars” of the genre, all their displayed games are platformers (which often seems to be the sub-genre most associated with indie), and all are success stories. It feels like a clear, albeit limited, window into the indie scene, and thematically works much better than I assumed it would. I worried it would be the videogame equivalent of a documentary called Literary Fiction: The Movie that starred Team McDune, Orson Scott Card, and some brief appearances from P.D. James. Thankfully, it is not that.
  • My biases were basically confirmed. I’ve long felt that Team Meat (composed of Edmund McMillan and Tommy Refenes) is a hoot, Jonathan Blow is brilliant in a sort of analytical and alien way, and Phil Fish is… well, I couldn’t be more ambivalent about him. At no point did the film challenge these assumptions. Which is okay, since it’s not a documentary meant to defy our expectations of indie devs.
  • It was fun to see different people take a swing at defining “indie,” and I wish that this segment had been given a couple more voices and a few more minutes. We’re presented a number of contrasting takes on what definition might contain the word, and none of them are really up to the task. My favorite was Chris Dahlen (how did all these folks from Kill Screen get into the movie?), saying, “Independent games are any game that a small team or an individual creator worked on to their own vision. Something that they just felt like making and coding and finishing.” Which strikes me as an entirely useless definition, and possibly the best definition.
  • I think the core theme of the film was that all creative acts require some level of sacrifice, but perhaps what transitions a game from mainstream to “indie” is the lack of a funding safety net. Explaining that the lack of a “safety net” is “really really really scary” is probably the most sane thing Phil Fish says during the entire film.
  • Jonathan Blow sure feels underutilized, acting more as a bookend than an actual member of the covered trio. The segments with him are almost an emotional relief—Team Meat is operating with very little financial support, and Phil Fish is having a meltdown, and Jonathan Blow sort of meanders into frame, says something calm and true about game development, and saunters on his way. The shots we get of Braid’s development are interesting, and his attitude—that making a finished game is difficult, but not as difficult as perpetual prototyping and never finishing anything—is refreshing.
As a thought experiment, I wish Blow had released the unpolished game first, just to see what people thought of it sans pretty graphics and music.

Prototype Braid versus finished Braid.

  • It was heartwarming to see the level of care and concern Edmund and Tommy had for their families, especially Tommy’s repeated hope to use the proceeds from Super Meat Boy to erase his parents’ mortgage. This made the ensuing development troubles all the more worrying. This is the kind of compelling frosting that half-baked Hollywood movies try to paste onto their cookie-cutter characters. It’s impressive that a Kickstarter-funded documentary managed to pull off investment for their pair of scruffy protagonists better than any of the movies I’ve seen this year.
  • Phil Fish’s Cyber Vision game that he made as a kid is hilarious, and his dad sounds rad. Too bad he’s so bonkers. At the thirteen-minute mark, he’s on a rant about how anonymous internet people are mean to him, and he says, “I don’t hear people bitch about Valve!” Thankfully, he realizes his mistake about half a second later, but his insistence that people complain more about Fez’s delay than Episode 3’s perpetual nonexistence struck me as either too subtle a joke or entirely out of touch. At forty minutes, Phil is asked what he’ll do if he can’t finish his game and he tells us (a couple of times) “I would kill myself.” At an hour and five, he’s saying that he’s going to murder his ex-partner at PAX and get thrown out. A while later he’s running around getting mad at people because his PAX display of Fez isn’t working. Most of the people featured in Indie Game: The Movie give solid answers to interview questions; Phil Fish gives assaults. By the time the movie was nearly over, his segments felt like insane commercial breaks from Team Meat’s launch day tensions.
  • Phil isn’t the only one saying silly things though. At one point, Edmund mentions that working hard on Super Meat Boy is like being in a concentration camp. Oh, Edmund. This isn’t much of a comparison, though: Phil Fish’s segments soon start to feel like performance art. As genuine as Team Meat’s segments were, Phil’s felt the opposite. For instance, a brooding shot underwater in a hotel pool (thick black glasses on, pensive downcast gaze, etc.) felt like possibly the most unintentionally laughable moments in the film. I mean, they had a camera down there, set up for him to jump in and look like the world was waging war on his videogame. I’m really curious whose idea that shot was, and how it was proposed.
And earns a few more, frankly. I guess he's only 18 or something.

Phil Fish mocks his detractors.

  • Jim Guthrie (composer for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) has his music scattered throughout the documentary, and it feels great. When I’m a millionaire, I’m going to have that dude score my life.
  • Another scene that struck me as simultaneously poignant and funny was when Jonathan Blow talked about how misunderstood Braid was, and we were shown shots of rapper Soulja Boy’s review of the game in which he keeps jumping off of ledges and rewinding time, and laughing “There’s ain’t no point to the game, you just walk around jumpin’ on shit.” I suspect most people didn’t “not get it” at quite the same Soulja Boy level of not getting it, but I could also see how that kind of reaction could be incredibly demoralizing to someone who had tried to create something a bit more profound than a game “for people who smoke.”
  • The end of the movie was satisfying, especially the different reactions to success that people had. Edmund’s boisterous relief contrasted with Tommy’s exhausted relief was fun to see, especially as the two communicated over Skype and laughed at how their game was received. Jonathan’s own reaction that seeing reviews at all, whether positive or not, was a “very negative experience,” was very humanizing, especially in the context of his addiction to tracking the reviews, feedback, and mentions that were generated when Braid was released. I suspect that if I ever released something that had taken me years of work and sacrifice, the sheer terror/relief of its reception would cause a few mysterious emotional tics along these lines.

Overall, I’d call Indie Game: The Movie a success. Phil Fish gets to ham it up (he can announce later that he was injecting intentional drama into the mix), Team Meat gets to tell a compelling story about the excruciating process of creating an indie game, and Jonathan Blow gets to make some design observations. The documentary itself was well shot, scored, and directed, and almost always felt natural. So all in all, a good product.

Posted on June 12, 2012, in Indie and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Phil Fish came across as a dick in the movie. It would have been much better without him.

    • I’m not so sure. I think one of—if not *the*—main themes of IG:TM was that the act of creation (and everything that goes along with it, like criticism) is affecting, even excruciating. Phil Fish does come off as extreme, but other than a few out-of-place scenes (swimming pool!), his story seemed to fit.

      Also, it didn’t seem like his support network was as developed as Edmund and Tommy’s. And he’s really young. And stressed.

  2. Phil Fish’s parts were a little crazy, but I was involved with his part of the story as well. I actually didn’t notice the staged nature of the underwater scene, and it almost worked… I think that the some of the scenes should have been re-shot, with a little less crazy.

    Blow’s parts did seem like bookends, and I agree also that it did provide some relief and contrast to the rest of the film. Honestly, I would have like to see more about his career and his company. Is he a one-man show?

    • That’s interesting that the underwater scene worked for you! There were a few scenes that felt obviously staged to me, but I don’t mean that as a criticism of the movie — it’s pretty common for documentaries to try and liven up their subject material, after all.

      I agree that some of the scenes could have benefited from a re-shoot. Had I been the filmmaker, I would have asked Fish if he really wanted to voice his thoughts about murdering his ex-partner on camera. I hope Fish is doing alright following all the post-Fez and post-movie buzz, because he’s clearly talented, if perhaps a bit fragile.

      And good question about Blow! I believe he’s the only designer of his current project, The Witness, though I don’t possess any personal insight into that so I could be wrong. He was the sole designer of Braid, though my understanding is that David Hellman did most of the art and a few different composers created the music.

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