Directed by: Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky.
Featuring: Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes.
Roger Ebert has been engaged in a debate for years now with gamers as to whether or not video games can be considered art. His argument is convincing – because the gamer changes what happens in the game, it cannot be art. Even though we all filter a film, a book, a painting, music or anything else through our own our personal experiences and interpret things in our own way, we all see the same thing when we see a film, we all hear the same thing when we listen to music, etc. But the same cannot be said of video games, so they cannot be art – at least according to Ebert. I never really had a dog in this fight – I’m not much of a gamer myself. I own a PS3, but I bought because it was a Blu-Ray player, and would allow me to play the one video game a year I buy – the latest installment of EA Sports NHL series, which I’ve been doing on various platforms for most of my life now. I hope that Ebert sees Indie Game: The Movie however. It may not change his mind as to whether or not games can be considered art – but I think you at least have to admit that the game designers featured in this documentary have the souls of artists. While most may just see a silly game – a way to kill time – they see it as a way to express themselves to the world. And really, isn’t that what artists do?
Indie Game: The Movie follows four independent game designers, who are at different stages with their games. Jonathan Blow created Braid, which when the movie begins has already become a huge hit – both financially and with the critics. But while you would think Blow would be happy with this, instead he says when the game became a hit, he fell into a depression. He would show up on pretty much any message board discussing his game, and answer any criticisms the game received with long, detailed responses, essentially annoying everyone. He was disappointed because people saw his creation as little more than a fun, entertaining video game – and not the heart and soul he poured into it.
Then there is Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who have spent a long time building their game – Super Meat Boy – about a boy with no skin, who has to save his girlfriend, who is made of bandages, from the clutches of the evil villain. Think Super Mario Brothers, except much harder, and with more blood, and you’re at least on the right track. Edmund talks about the years he has poured into this – how he was a lonely kid, and video games were his outlet, and how he got started designing games that express that vulnerability. Tommy is lonelier than Edmund – at least Edmund has a wife – but Tommy has next to nothing, and has sacrificed everything for the game. The movie count downs to the unveiling of their game on Xbox Live – to see if all their hard work pays off or not.
Then there is Canadian Phil Fish, who won an award for his game Fez way back in 2008. But that was little more than a prototype, and although the award made him a celebrity in the game world, Fez was nowhere near ready to be unveiled. He gets funding, and thinks his game will be ready by 2010. Then 2011. By the end of the movie, he plans to have it out by early 2012 (which apparently, he did). If you think movie message boards can be brutal on directors and actors – just look at some of the things said about Phil Fish on the boards devoted to these types of things.
Indie Game: The Movie is a fine documentary – fascinating in its way looking at these four men who devote their lives to this. They don’t work for the major game companies – which often have hundreds of people working on a single title, and millions of dollars of funding. These guys do it by themselves – or with a very small team of people. This is not a job for them – they have no idea if their work will ever pay off or not – but rather this is an obsession for them. For them, designing video games are their calling. I do wish the movie was a little deeper – that it cast a wider net to look at more than just the successful crop of indie game designers, but people who struggle even more than they do. Or even if the directors had pressed a little harder when interview subjects. It does seem like the filmmakers are fans, and there may be a little too much gushing during the film.
So, are video games art? I still don’t know the answer, and I doubt I ever will. Yet, what Indie Game makes clear is that at the very least, there are some people who take it as seriously as any artist ever has – willing to sacrifice everything for their obsession. I’m not sure it’s art, but it’s not just fun and games either.