As Rick and I are still very much in penny pinching mode, it’s rare that we splash out on an evening movie screening, but when we found out a friend had two extra tickets to a one night screening of Indie Game The Movie, we knew we had to scour the couch for change to make it work. The film was actually being screened as part of the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, but as part of a special pilot program they were premiering it across the country on the same night by streaming the Toronto presentation live via satellite into dozens of theatres all over Canada, including downtown Montreal. And other than a couple minor glitches midway through the film, I’d say the experiment was a success.
The film itself primarily follows two indie game developers, Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen of Team Meat, the sick geniuses behind Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish of Polytron, creator of the recent indie hit Fez. Jonathon Blow, the creator of Braid, the game most often cited as “Exhibit A” in the video games as art argument, also makes frequent appearances to discuss his own success and the challenges and joys of the indie development world in general.
Unlike 2008’s Playing Columbine, which tackled the issue of video games as art head on, Indie Game elegantly skirts the issue by focusing on the idea of individual creativity and expression (arguably key components in any work of art) and how they are better served in the indie development world. The film also drives home the stakes at play with a successful launch day often being the difference between living in your mom’s basement and buying your own house.
The meat of the film centers around Team Meat preparing to launch their game on Xbox Live Arcade and Phil Fish bringing his first playable demo of Fez to Pax East, despite the game having been in development for over 4 years. The tension for both teams is palpable throughout the film and Fish’s nervous pacing and stressed out ranting while waiting to see if his ex-partner will bring an injunction against him at Pax nearly gave me a sympathy ulcer. The film is gorgeously shot in HD and fits in nicely with the grand tradition of great Canadian documentary making.
What really makes the film work, though, are the subjects themselves. All three individuals are presented as passionate creative types with uncompromising visions that took risks and sacrificed (usually personal relationships) in order to pursue that vision and, God willing, reap the benefits. There are a lot of nerd tears, and Team Meat in particular comes across as so likeable that you do cheer a little inside when you see their incredibly hard work pay off.
Part of me wishes the filmmakers had followed at least one unsuccessful game, in order to better contrast with Super Meat Boy’s astounding success, but being that the film was completed a year ago, there’s no way they could have known that Fez would end up being the critical and financial success it has become. As it is, the film ends with Fez’s fate up in the air with Fish promising to release it in 2011, but now that the film and the game have both been released, the idea of Fez being a potential “failure” seems rather disingenuous. Also, both games happened to have been released through Xbox Live Arcade, as opposed to Steam or Playstation Store, so a little variety in that respect also could have rounded out the film a little better.
At the end of the day, though, Indie Game The Movie is really more about people than it is about video games or the video game industry, which makes it gripping viewing for gamers and non-gamers alike.