SXSW Movie Review: INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE
Computer programming might be the least cinematic thing imaginable. It’s all about people sitting solitary in front of screens, typing. Even watching a fiction writer work would be more interesting, since we could at least read the words he’s writing. With coding the text is gibberish to 99% of the audience.
Indie Game: The Movie tackles a world where its protagonists are mostly sitting in front of computers, tapping away, and it succeeds because it gets inside the heads of these people, helping us understand them and their extraordinarily stressful world. The film is a documentary that focuses on three independent video games - Fez, Braid and Super Meat Boy - and the individuals or small teams who make them.
Directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky get some really intriguing psychological vantage points of these guys. To a man (and they’re all men) they’re neurotic in some way. Phil Fish, who has been developing a game called Fez for about five years, seems to be a ball of endless anxiety and anger. Edmund McMillan, half of the team on Super Meat Boy, seems the most adjusted, but even he is generally an anti-social loner. His partner, Tommy Refenes, is a completely socially alienated mess. And Jonathan Blow, whose game Braid is the most successful indie game in history, is unable to stop himself from commenting on any article with his name in it and is torn up by players who don’t fully appreciate the pretentious aspects of his game.
The struggles these guys face getting their games done are monumental, and makes for some really tense, anxious stuff. But there’s also triumph that evens it out, and is truly touching and moving.
The big problem with the film is that it never lets the audience into the video game development process. I wanted to see the progress of a game from basic concept to finished product and to better understand the technical obstacles and demands that have these guys staying up all night. There’s talk of games not meeting milestones in the development process, but I never understood what that meant. The directors obviously decided to focus on the human side of game development, but I would have liked more time spent letting me in to the behind the scenes aspects of this world that even most gamers don’t know about.
Still, the human stories are great - if sometimes frustrating. Jonathan Blow comes across as some sort of weird alien, and Phil Fish seems like he needs a swift kick in his ass to get over his inability to let Fez go. The big star, for me, was Edmund, who looks EXACTLY like Guillermo Del Toro and whose loner aspects don’t come from misanthropy or sociopathy but from a gentle inward artistic streak. It’s lovely meeting his wife and seeing their nerdy, cramped life and realizing that sometimes two loners make a great team.