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Indie Game: The Movie (Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, 2012)


The trials and tribulations of small team creation in a big media world are sketched out in the scrappy documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Directed by first-timers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, the film begins with a promising thesis, showing how children who were enthralled with a consumer culture from birth decided they wanted to turn the videogame media they love into a means of self-expression. Rather than examine what makes these creators tick, though, the filmmakers give the game developers a platform, resulting in an extended series of interviews in which these emo artists rehash their myriad setbacks, complaining both about the anonymous hate they receive on the internet and the lack of full understanding they feel once they get critical praise. This is certainly a self-important bunch, which curtails empathy for their cause, but the filmmakers do little here to either advance that cause or challenge their cloistered worldview.


Indie Game: The Movie focuses on the production of three particular independent games, named Fez, Super Meat Boy, and Braid. One is still a work in progress, one is on the cusp of releasing, and the third is already a critical darling and a commercial hit. The creators speak endlessly about the personal qualities of their game designs and talk about the sacrifices made while waiting for that first check to come in, but one wonders about the industryís failures, who undergo this development purgatory without a happy ending at the end of it. Indeed, the filmmakers seem a bit too complicit with their subjects, presenting this indie game movement as something of a gold rush. This sensation that the filmmakers are too close to their interviewees is further evidenced by both the extensive access that they have with their subjects, the numerous camera setups in which the developers appear to be posing for the directors, and the generally uncritical attitude that the film takes. The film becomes a cheerleader for its subjects, which limits its ability to understand them.


This isnít to say that Indie Game: The Movie is a useless commercial. It does a good job of demonstrating the intense hours spent coding and crunching before deadlines and is aware of the toll that such labor takes on personal lives. This begs the question of how much freedom these developers, who all ultimately are tied to Microsoftís whims, really have. By not giving us a sense of what the corporate alternative to this business model is, Indie Game: The Movie fails in its attempt to help us to understand the industry as a whole. Throughout, the movie at least remains visually interesting, both due to the large amount of footage from the developers' finished products and from the filmmakers' willingness to use web sites, blogs and videos to advance its story.


Still, something about Indie Game: The Movie feels like a half truth. To these eyes, these games arenít created first and foremost as art, but rather seem to be commercial repurposings of popular platform running games with new art styles. More experimental and more obviously ďartisticĒ uses of game design, by artists such as Feng Mengbo who uses gallery spaces to demonstrate his work, are neglected entirely. Indeed, while the first half of the film suggests that art is the primary motivator for these creators, the second half of the film fixates on sales and external approval in a way that is entirely at odds with their stated intent. Itís this shift in stakes that is Indie Game: The Movieís biggest disappointment.




Jeremy Heilman