With all the buzz that surrounds the Halos and Assassin’s Creeds of the world, indie titles too often get lost. But Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s 2011 Sundance-winning documentary, Indie Game: The Movie, dives right into the world of smaller game creators and how they go about developing titles, handling criticism from impatient and unsatisfied customers, and competing on their own against the big names like EA and Epic.
Tough as it is, there’s no other suitable lifestyle for these people. The film follows four developers — Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, Phil Fish, who’s behind the five-year project Fez, and Edmund McMillan and Tommy Refenes, designer and programmer respectively of Super Meat Boy.
As different as the four are, they all agree on one thing: The worst job in the world would be working for a large company that creates “highly polished, highly commercial” games. For them, the potential for making a real connection with gamers far outweighs the comforts of a steady job making something they won’t love.
Besides that, Blow and Fish see vulnerabilities and imperfections as crucial to the character of indie games. As Blow points out, “if you don’t see a vulnerability in someone, you’re probably not relating to them on a personal level.” Fish takes it further: “Things that are personal have flaws,” he says, and because games are deep down an art form, and because players physically interact with them, a title’s success is, in part, based on its imperfection.
Indie Game shows how glamorous the independent game business isn’t. Indeed, much of it chronicles complaints about the business and fears about how much each producer has on the line. When Super Meat Boy isn’t available in the Xbox Live marketplace the day of its release, Refenes mutters about how he can’t do games anymore. Though of course, he does.
For these people, game development is all about the freedom to make the game they want, without focus groups or surveys or who knows how much market research. McMillen and Refenes designed Super Meat Boy for their thirteen-year-old selves, and they say the fact that Super Meat Boy himself doesn’t have skin represents the player’s vulnerability to the outside world.
The developers entwine their own personalities in these games, putting themselves into both the worlds they create and the one we call reality. So deep in are they that thier motivation isn’t so much the promise of success, but fear of failure and its consequences. Despite low, lonely moments and constant threats of walking away, their passions are too strong to give it up. In the end Blow, Fish, McMillan and Refenes all achieve some slice of success that they’d hoped for. So, go get their games.
By New York-based media writer Rachel Petzinger.