Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Indie Game: the Movie – my thoughts


I must admit, when I first heard about “Indie Game: the Movie” I thought it had potential. Make a documentary about how small independent developers make games. What does it take? How long does it take? Why do they do it? Is it worth it?

I guess I was looking forward to all the different takes on those answers, and more. Watching the trailer, they seemed to be on the right track as far as casting their movie. They gathered the dev teams for “Braid”, “Super Meat Boy”, and “Fez”; three “indie hits”. I mean these guys did it. They made it to the big time, therefore their stories must be pretty interesting right? I mean, these are the “indie pros”, which sounds pretty oxymoron-ish, but that’s the best way I can describe them. Surely they must know what they’re doing.

At least that’s what I thought going into it.



What we see for the most part, over the course of the hour and a half movie, are the stories of Phil Fish, the Super Meat Boy team of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, and Jonathan Blow…who seems to almost be mentioned as an afterthought with as little camera time as he gets.

Phil Fish seems to be so self absorbed and self centered, not to mention pretty mentally unstable, that he rebuilt his game “Fez” four times and missed repeatedly every deadline thrown at him. This is someone who literally said, “F#%$ You!” to his potential “fans” and can barely go a segment without threatening to kill someone (including himself). Phil was either so behind on his schedule, or so insecure about his game that he thought it would be a good idea to make a flurry of changes to his code the night before showing the game at the PAX convention…and then he seemed actually surprised when the game was unstable and crashed every few minutes. Really…this…THIS is the face of “Fez”?! And this is the guy that the Canadian government entrusted with a grant to begin development on the game, before they pulled the grant….(probably because of missed deadlines….but that’s just my guess).

Then we watch the team of Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen who are pretty interesting to watch because they’re such polar opposites. Edmund is pretty outgoing and loud both with his voice and his tattoo covered appearance. While Tommy looks most comfortable tucked behind his computer monitor in his parents basement. Tommy is very much Igor to Edmund’s Dr. Frankenstein. Mirroring that Frankenstein mentality, Edmund’s game design past seems to be centered around taking the limits of what is publicly acceptable, and then pole vaulting beyond that line. Historically this approach works pretty well, mainly when you’re trying to send a message, prove a point, or start a revolution. But looking at his past games, including one featuring a shooting penis, and vagina boss battle, I’m unsure whether Edmund ever has a point to prove, or if he just enjoys pole vaulting.

Then there’s Jonathan Blow, the creator of “Braid”, who seems to only get thrown in as a commercial break from the other two stories. Jonathan appears to be the developer that has most of his brains not only intact, but highly functioning. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s possible, from the director’s point of view, that he didn’t have enough tattoos, or wasn’t psychotic enough. Jonathan Blow is a pretty normal guy.

In actuality, Jonathan should have been the one featured here since his game “Braid” would go on to become the 50th top grossing XBLA game, while “Super Meat Boy” and “Fez” are nowhere to be found in the top 100 grossing games. But there’s no way the director could have known that at the time.
And I guess that’s the main problem I have with the movie. It’s not really a documentary. It’s more of a “Hollywood” documentary that highlights the wild and crazy aspects and sweeps a lot of the real facts to the side because they aren’t deemed “interesting enough”.

As a result of this selective vision, it portrays “indie developers” primarily as self centered, egotistical, depressed, loners that live under a rock…or under a rock in their parents basement.

So, for the record, let me state I am an indie game developer. I’m happily married, live in a house, have two outstanding kids, four cats, and a dog. I have a pretty “normal”, and awesome, day job as a professional game designer. I kick into “indie mode” after hours and on the weekend for many reasons. Yes, I do enjoy indie development because of the freedom it provides but I also do it for a lot of reasons.

I do it to learn new things, and to experiment with new techniques and technologies. I do it to teach my kids, many things which school doesn’t have sufficient time to cover. I do it to try new theories in a variety of fields. I do it to teach players a variety of things, hopefully in a fun, interactive way. But most of all I do it…because it’s fun.

Fun. A single, simple three letter word and the one element that is strangely missing from the development process in this movie. “Indie Game: the Movie” shows development as a high stress, laborious thing, that people sacrifice their entire lives for. In the movie, the only time you see smiling faces, is when the game is done, or on the faces of the people playing the game.

Judging by the movie, viewers could safely assume that the game development process is this frustrating, soul sucking thing that crushes the human spirit.

While game development can feel that way at times, it’s also exciting, exhilarating, enlightening, surprising, rewarding…and fun. Game development has puzzles to solve and things to explore and discover. It’s filled with trial and error and maybe even some restarts. There’s always a budget and timelines to manage and you have to be aware of random events.

Each of these elements will probably sound familiar to gamers. In many ways creating a game is a game in itself. The main difference is that you’re never quite sure if the game you’re playing will have a happy ending and you find the gold treasure, or if everyone dies (figuratively speaking of course).

A good brainstorming session can be this explosion of creativity and ideas. It’s loud and crazy and unpredictable. Observing a playtest session can lead to an epiphany of an idea that was never considered in months of development by the game team.

It’s all of these things that make game development (as a professional or as an indie) so great. And it’s all of these things that “Indie Game: the Movie” never gives you the slightest glimpse of.  

So to all those that watch this movie thinking that it’s an “authentic”, “honest” look a the indie game making process, you’re only getting a very thin, selective slice of the picture heavily dipped in drama and tension.

And to the “indie pros” Phil Fish and Tommy Refenes specifically, if making a game does actually make you feel as miserable and stressed out as this film portrays you…you’re doing it wrong.

No comments: