As I fought my way through the crowds at last year's Penny Arcade Expo in Boston, I came upon a single kiosk for the game Fez. I didn't know much about the game other than its status as an anticipated indie project. I didn't know anything about Phil Fish, the man who designed Fez. In fact, at the time, I assumed Fish was like many exhibitors at the show, a PR representative there to spout a list of features, a release date, and the cost of the game. I didn't even flinch when I saw him digging around in the kiosk, desperately resetting his game for the millionth time after glitches ran it into the ground. The game wasn't working and I didn't really care. There were other games to be seen: Battlefield 3, The Darkness II, The Old Republic. It wasn't until watching Indie Game: The Movie that I realized what a mistake I'd made.
It's easy to take game development for granted. As a reviewer, it's almost a requirement. We'd risk compromising ourselves if we knew the true extent of the work that goes into every game. It's convenient, then, that Indie Game: The Movie happens to follow the development and developers behind three absolutely amazing games: Fez, Super Meat Boy, and to a lesser extent, Braid. I'd rather not know the hardships of those poor souls behind random shovelware Wii games and cheap movie tie-ins.
This, however, is a story worth telling. Indie Game: The Movie focuses on four different independent developers: Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat, Phil Fish of Polytron, and Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid and The Witness. We see the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez, following the former to its eventual release and the latter to that fateful day at the Penny Arcade Expo.
The film is a profile of these few men who see game design as their life's work. It portrays independent game development as a heroic, insane effort that requires the utmost sacrifices. Documentaries always face the danger of over-dramatization, but Indie Game: The Movie remains intensely honest throughout. It turns a niche, esoteric topic into something universally relatable, without ever dumbing it down.
By learning what makes these men tick, we are exposed to the personal stamp on each of these games. Super Meat Boy may not have the depth of Fez or Braid, but we learn that it's every bit as artful. These men draw from personal experiences, whether it's the child-like wonder of their first days playing games or their stories of love and loss.
When McMillen shows the childhood influences that shaped his previous game, Aether, he paints a perfect picture of video games as a form of expression. By showing games in such a personal light, the film offers a way to look at games that most people rarely consider.
Even as someone who has accepted games as an expressive medium for years, the experience was enlightening. I can't imagine what it's like for those that don't play games. In many ways, Indie Game: The Movie is a love letter to misunderstood members of game culture. Finally, we have something that so perfectly explains what we never could. It's a film anyone can watch and enjoy. Even Roger Ebert may learn a thing or two.
That universal appeal is aided by the film's surprisingly traditional narrative. The stars must have aligned with this one, as the film takes the audience on an engaging journey that really has everything. There are highs and lows, laughs, and tears, and a cast of completely fascinating characters that bear their souls to the audience in their most vulnerable moments.
Footage of Phil Fish wandering his hotel came off as quirky hipster fodder in the trailer, but in the final film it's actually an honest moment of contemplation. He's gone through so much just to show his game to an unsuspecting audience. That the documentary frames his struggle so beautifully only adds to the scene in the final film. There was so much room for pretentiousness in this film, but it always remained honest and personal.
If there was anyone being pretentious it was me. I failed Phil Fish that day at Penny Arcade Expo, but this film teaches an important lesson — often the next big thing and the next best thing aren't the same. That military shooter may look impressive on that giant screen, but give that little guy shoved in the corner a shot. While everyone else wants to take your money, he may be the only one who wants to show you his soul.