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Indie Game: The Movie

Posted by martinteller on May 4, 2014

A look behind-the-scenes with the developers of three high-profile independent games.  Jonathan Blow reflects on his experiences making the enigmatic “Braid” and his feelings about the reactions to it.  Phil Fish is struggling to complete development of his perspective-twisting game “Fez”, and races to complete a showable version — and overcome legal obstacles — in time to demo it at the PAX East conference.  Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes put in long hours, sacrificing their social lives to finish “Super Meat Boy”, an ultrahard platformer with a macabre style, racing to meet a deadline for a crucial XBox Live launch.

I’m a programmer myself, but I work with business software.  My work will never make me famous (or rich), but the flipside of that is it will also never subject me to close public scrutiny.  The internet won’t be buzzing with nitpicky comments about flaws in my code or design.  Indie game developers are especially prone to the pitfalls of public discussion, as their personalities are more deeply woven into their software.  They don’t have a monolithic company brand to hide behind: the games are themselves, and the comments become personal.  Some crack under the pressure.  Blow lashes out at reviewers who love the game, but for the wrong reasons.  It’s clear that he’s passionate about his work, but public relations are not his strong suit.

And then there’s the fact that programmers are often not the most socially graceful people around to begin with.  Fish comes off like an arrogant, self-pitying jerk.  One isn’t surprised to hear that both his girlfriend and his business partner have abandoned him.  The film’s greatest misstep is that we never hear from this former partner.  In fact, in the credits they even say that they made no attempt to interview him.  When I heard Fish’s unhinged rants about this partnership that somehow went horribly awry, I very much wanted to hear the other side.  For all his talents, Fish seems like someone I would not want to work with, and there’s a certain amount of enjoyable schadenfreude when things go wrong for him.

McMillen and Refenes come off the best of the bunch.  Their setbacks and triumphs are the most deeply felt, and they seem like reasonably well-adjusted and admirable folks.  Refenes at times wallows under the pressure, but he always seems to bounce back (though there is a tense moment where we see him compose a brusque and very unprofessional email to Microsoft).  McMillen has a charming relationship with his patient wife.  We want to see all good games get rewarded with success, but on a personal level, it’s McMillen and Refenes we root for most.

I don’t know if this is a film that will appeal much to those who don’t care about videogames.  Unlike, say, The King of Kong, it doesn’t seem to reach out to a broader audience.  But I think anyone interested in gaming (or programming) on even the most casual level would find something interesting in the problems these guys face, and the painstaking work and careful consideration that goes into quality game design.  I wanted to hear more from Blow, and anything at all from Fish’s former partner, and maybe a bit from other game developers.  But the film does one very cool thing in the end credits: it showcases several other videogames made by independents.  It’s a nice tribute to the indie game community at large.  Rating: Good (79)

IMDb
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