The video game industry is still relatively new, its only about thirty years old and with this documentary we see how its become a new medium for artists to express themselves. Following three separate developments of independent video games, all three a variation of a platform based game. The film tells a story of the developer and the emotional strain that comes with being on your own, separate from the mainstream industry.
The three games that take focus in the film are Braid, a platformer that incorporated a fantasy genre and rewind function for unique gameplay. The documentary looks at developer Jonathan Blow after the game’s very successful release and how he deals with having his game be interpreted by the public and how those opinions differ from his own. Fez was 2D/3D platformer that gained early recognition when it was announced at a game convention with its developer Phil Fish becoming an Indie game celebrity because of it. Four years later and the game still hasn’t been released as the film follows Fish’s struggles both professionally and personally to complete his game before its initial interest is lost forever. The final story told in the film is that of the upcoming release of SuperMeatBoy, its two developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes creating a game that represents their own desires for what they believe a video game should be.
All of these games are true passion projects of its creators, through the documentaries access of archives and interviews it shows how difficult it can be for these people to thrive in this industry. They are not associated with any major company, the success and failures of their games rest of their shoulders alone, there is no support staff, it is there full creative vision. The film takes a greater focus on SuperMeatBoy and Fez over Braid as the story of their developments really show the struggles that the indie game developers go through. Tommy Refenes and Phil Fish are shown to have financial issues, the popularity of their game being their only salvation, they really put everything they have into the product. Fish also finds himself in complicated legal battles over Fez with an embittered former business partner, you wonder why one would devote their life to one game. The story of the documentary is that indie game developers put their souls into their work, everything they have goes into the creation of the game, they make a sacrifice.
The structure of the documentary doesn’t really show the business side to indie game development. SuperMeatBoy already has a deal with X-Box, Braid is already released and not many details are given on Fez. So while you can see the passion and personality of these people, it isn’t clear how they release the games they love so much. This absence isn’t needed to tell the stories of these creators but a personal look at how the industry has been changing because of the new influx of independent games would have been cool to see. So the films focused structure on the people of the film rather than the business does work especially with the SuperMeatBoy and Fez stories, Braid does not get much focus. I think this film would have been a lot stronger if it followed one game right from the beginning from inception to release. I understand the filmmaker’s intentions to cover different experiences but I think a stronger emotional impact could have happened with the full process being depicted on-screen.
The film uses a lot of talking heads but does have moments where documents narrative. The coverage of Fez’s display at PAXEAST and how SuperMeatBoy’s developers dealt with their game’s release date reaction show both the bad and good to being independent. It’s an impressive documentary for a growing medium with some strong emotion to it, it is about artists risking everything for what they believe in with no promise of any reward. It is a stimulating viewing for anyone intrigued by this industry or someone who wants to become a game developer themselves.