Too bad there's no cheat code to get you everything you want, right? Actually, in the age of Kickstarter, there sort of is. If fans are willing to front the cash, they can help realize pretty much any ol' niche project, whether it's a graphic novel biography of Nicola Tesla, or a film giving you the closure you never got on that cult TV show you loved. And after you helped back the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, I found myself wondering if this is really what you wanted. The thing is, I think it may be; and that's the main problem with this film.
Indie Game: The Movie comes off as a labour of love made by fans for fans, and really for no one else. It hopes to be a small survey of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into developing independent games. Instead, the film is a series of missed opportunities. Co-directors Lisann Pajot and James Swirsky are more interested in portraying their subjects as martyrs--sacrificing their financial, mental and even physical well-being for the purity of gaming--rather than giving us a real understanding of the process.
I realize that many mid 90s thrillers taught us that watching someone sit at a computer and code is not compelling cinema. But then again, neither is playing Donkey Kong, and yet King of Kong managed to be one of the most compelling documentaries of the last 10 years. It's all about context. We need to know what a winning hand looks like in this world so can decode the drama when all the cards are laid down.
Instead, we get a lot of complaining. Jonathan Blow, developer of indie blockbuster Braid, frets that, his game was not enjoyed by the public the way he meant it to be. Tommy Refenes and Edmund Mcmillen, co-developers of Super Meat Boy, explain the personal stresses of hitting release date (but only in terms of a financial scalability argument). Phil Fish, creator of Fez, frets over the high expectations created by early demos of his game -- and the possibility that he may never meet them. This can all be affecting stuff, but for everyone but Fish (who feels his professional reputation is on the line) the stakes are never made clear - and most feel self-created. Refenes lives with a loving family that clearly supports him in success or failure. Blow's ego seems to be driving his displeasure with the way his game is played. Even Fish's inability to deliver on his promise is self-inflicted, as he constantly rebuilds the project from scratch. Only McMillen registers as someone with relatable issues, as we see him and his new wife both deal with the intense - and lonely - work of development (even if their goals to buy a house and a hairless cat aren't the things of mythic storytelling).
I may be simplifying the story, but I'm no more guilty than the filmmakers themselves. Indie Game: The Movie takes everything its characters say as gospel, when the real drama exists at the edges of these stories. The fact that Blow struggles with the exact same issue that has stymied artists for centuries is a natural entrance to the video-games-as-art debate. Refenes' need to make a specific release date sure is important to him, but what is driving that date? Who are Fish's investors, and why is he in a legal battle with his strangely mysterious ex partner? And surrounding all of this is a big, decidedly non-indie entity: Microsoft and it's Xbox Live Arcade storefront. Each of the developers are dependent on this for the success their games. Indie Game: The Movie has no interest in this paradox. It's a disservice to both the film's subjects and audience not to place these smaller struggles in the larger context.
Initially, I was willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, citing limited resources or time (the standard indie filmmaking problems). Then I saw the credit almost proudly stating that the filmmakers "did not attempt to contact" Fish's partner, who is simply rendered as 2-dimentional pixilated villain. They were so committed to their subjects' points of view that they didn't even try to give this world another dimension. Another unintended irony, perhaps.
So while the early promise may have been enough for you to invest your money, I hope the final product met your high expectations. It didn't for me.
Please insert coin,