Reviewed by Jack Rodgers

While the debate over whether or not video games should be considered meaningful art continues on, the charming documentary Indie Game: The Movie points out that, either way, the medium is producing its share of starving artists. Despite a few missteps and narrative threads that go nowhere, the film does a compelling job of finding the human stories behind the pixelated characters of several games. It also manages to make the act of developing a video game feel, if not glamorous, then at least like a creative process with the same pressures, setbacks, and victories as any other medium -- no small feat when designing a video game consists mostly of exhausted, disheveled programmers staring at a computer screen for hours on end, surely the least cinematic depiction ever of an artist at work.

Indie Game spends most of its time chronicling the development of two video games made outside of any corporate environment. There’s Super Meat Boy, designed by Edmund McMillen and programmed by Tommy Refenes, which combines a quirky, gross-out sense of humor with the play mechanics of the murderously difficult games of yesteryear that required lightning reflexes and split-second timing. The other game is Fez, which boasts a gorgeous art style and a point of view that provides a 2D perspective of a 3D world (the camera keeps rotating to reveal new aspects of a landscape that appears at first to be flat), but its unique look comes at a steep price: almost four years after winning an award for Excellence in Visual Arts at the 2008 Independent Games Festival, Fez has yet to be released. As deadlines are missed and designer Phil Fish’s personal life slowly implodes, online fans angrily ask if Fez will ever be released and the project begins to look more and more like the video-game equivalent of Apocalypse Now. Finally, the doc keeps cutting back to comments from designer Jonathan Blow, whose Braid, one of the most critically acclaimed and successful independent games in recent years, is an inspiration to the other men and provides hope that all of their hard work could pay off.

An early interview with Refenes does a great job of exploring the dichotomy that drives all of these artists. On the one hand, they’re connected to each other by their deep love of video games, something that, until recently, would have placed them outside of the mainstream. But as Refenes discusses his lifelong passion for games -- exemplified by a tour of his bedroom in his parents’ house, which is wallpapered with posters from the 8-bit era -- he also admits that he has become disillusioned with the state of the medium. When he insists that there’s no way he could work for a massive company like EA and trashes best-selling games like Modern Warfare and Halo: Reach, he sounds less like a gaming geek and more like any creative spirit who bemoans the fact that big businesses have taken over his artform and replaced real innovation with anonymous products that are dumbed down to appeal to the widest possible audience. You don’t have to know Samus Aran from Megaman to understand his frustration.

By contrast, McMillen (who looks like the California version of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro) takes a more optimistic view, talking about how video games and drawing helped him cope with a difficult home life growing up. As he speaks, we get to see artwork from his childhood (including one memorable picture of a man with a monster trapped inside him) and footage of a video game he previously made, in which a world that’s slowly falling apart is meant to symbolize his feelings of alienation. Filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky don’t spend nearly as much time delving into what makes Phil Fish tick, but that’s only because there’s no time for him to stop and think about what inspired him when the development for Fez yields one disaster after the next. In the end, Fish’s attempts to prove to skeptical gamers that Fez will be released soon and is worthy of its early hype leads him to show it off at the video-game festival PAX, where he must deal with unexpected glitches and a former creative partner who might threaten him with a lawsuit if the game is shown in public.

Oddly, the full details of Fish’s legal situation and his feud with his unnamed partner are never properly explained. At one point, he says that his partner stands to make a fortune if he simply agrees to let the game be released, but if that’s the case, then what exactly are they arguing over? It seems strange that Pajot and Swirsky use this situation to generate so much tension but never bother to clarify it, and the only resolution we get is when a business associate of Fish’s says that he believes the partner is leaning towards an agreement. As a result, Indie Game ends with the fate of Fez still in limbo, though the game was ultimately released on April 13, 2012.

Perhaps the documentary would have been better served if it had followed Fish for a little while longer and cut back on its interviews with Blow, who just isn’t as interesting since he isn’t seen working on anything new. In spite of this, Indie Game still packs a surprising emotional punch, and by the end of it you’ll definitely be rooting for its profiled designers to find success. The film’s focus might be the world of video games, but the story it tells has an appeal wide enough to draw anyone in.

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  • Released: 2011
  • Review: While the debate over whether or not video games should be considered meaningful art continues on, the charming documentary Indie Game: The Movie points out that, either way, the medium is producing its share of starving artists. Despite a few missteps and… (more)

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