Over the past few years, a bunch of indie-game documentaries have sprung up, covering anything from individual developers to cultural movements. Many of them strike a self-congratulatory air, understandably chuffed at the creativity emerging from the gaming sphere nowadays. Game Loading: Rise of the Indies is the latest of these docs, and after a piecemeal unveiling at gaming events across the globe, it’s finally out. But while Game Loading dishes out its fair share of backpats, it’s more notable for its examination of collaboration, community, and creativity, and how those forces make games more interesting.
Games are a unique art form, states interviewee and developer Zoe Quinn, in that they bring together visual art, sound design, music, writing, and code under one umbrella. They’re like cinema in that regard, only with an extra technological edge. They can be big, dumb, popular entertainment, or they can say unique personal things. But unlike cinema, they also feature the element of play. Play, posits Game Loading, is how we learn; it’s how we socialise; it’s how we experiment, discover, and make ourselves happier.
Game Loading’s particular interest lies in the “weird art stuff” end of game development. Connections are drawn to the thriving hobbyist scene of the 1980s - the difference being that today, the tools are more sophisticated, more graphically-oriented, and accessible to more people. All the major game-making apps are name-checked: Unity, Game Maker, Construct, Scratch, Stencyl, Twine - though it’s also stressed that experimentation and modifying existing code is a strong entry point. And it can happen early! Game Loading features footage of actual kids making actual games, which makes me envious of how accessible game-making is to this (ultimately doomed to a life of economic and environmental disaster) generation. It also makes me want to write a game.
The design process examined in Game Loading is not a technical one, but rather collaborative and human. Most of the teams featured in Game Loading are of between two and five people, and many don’t even live in the same place. The two developers of The Stanley Parable, for example, collaborated exclusively over the internet, meeting (onscreen) for the first time at the IGF awards. And the internet affects distribution too. iTunes, Steam, and their ilk mean that indies can self-publish, and major consoles’ downloadables open up vast audiences for these developers. But - and I’m super glad the doc went here - the internet also opens up vast audiences for ripoff artists. Vlambeer’s Ridiculous Fishing is a prominent example - the game it grew from won awards at Fantastic Arcade before being developed into a full title - but before it could be released, a clone went to market and made an enormous amount of money. I sympathise with those guys - I’ve faced the same thing, to an extent - and it’s one of the rare moments of pain documented in Game Loading, amidst a sea of optimism.
That optimism is best embodied in the film’s presentation of community. Events like PAX, Fantastic Arcade (“which is also a little movie festival”!), Game City, and GDC are lionised as spaces where people can create, share, and learn. The developers interviewed come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and share ideas at festivals and game jams - it’s a utopian vision that’s supported by my experience (which admittedly is pretty much just Fantastic Arcade). An interesting development is the interaction between games and other media. New games are crossing over into realms not traditionally associated with games, engaging players musically, intellectually, and even physically, and they represent some of the most cutting-edge explorations of interactive design today.
About the only seriously negative aspect of the gaming community in Game Loading is, quite rightly, the problem it has with harassment. The film was shot pre-GamerGate*, but that only serves to demonstrate how harassment and silencing of women and minorities in game development isn’t a new thing. GamerGate made it more focused and visible, but gamers have been exclusionary for a long time. Here it’s described as a reaction to difference - to games as a form becoming something new and unfamiliar.
And that’s the idea that emerges at the optimistic heart of Game Loading: the future of games is a bright and varied one, thanks to the breadth of people in the field. Sure, some indies operate in commercially successful genres, but it’s the outliers that push the medium to new places. Whether creating a visual novel about the Japanese culture’s treatment of women in Analogue: A Hate Story, or investigating poverty in Cart Life, or sharing personal thoughts about the death of one’s child in That Dragon, Cancer, games are absolutely as varied as cinema. Through meeting the people behind these games, we gain a better understanding for the new forms of entertainment they’re creating. Being entertaining just means that the work is engaging you on a fundamental level. It can make you laugh, make you cry, make you afraid, make you think, or yes, stimulate the brain’s reward centres in a traditionally gamey “fun” way. But all those approaches are valid entertainment.
Game Loading performs the rare balancing act of preaching to both the converted and the uninitiated. It certainly appealed to me as a stalwart indie supporter, but it’s also a doc I’d comfortably show my mom, to demonstrate how games can be more than “all that blood and violence”. It’s also extremely self-congratulatory, portraying indie gaming as a wonderland where anything is possible. But to a certain degree, it is that wonderland. Game Loading feels like a document of a turning point in the game industry and culture, where assumptions are being shattered and new opportunities seized. Ultimately, it’s about people, and that’s its - and indie gaming’s - greatest strength.
* Predictably, GamerGaters have been targeting the film’s Steam release, despite it having been shot pre-GamerGate and never mentioning it, tagging it with things like “Villain Protagonist,” “Dystopian,” and “Fictional Narrative”. That’s a problem with GamerGaters and it’s a problem with Steam. It’s not a problem with the movie.