braid, dr. fetus, edmund mcmillen, electronic arts, fez, gomez, indie game, james swirsky, jonathan blow, lisanne pajot, meat boy, microsoft, netflix, pax, penny arcade expo, phil fish, plants vs. zombies, playstation, polytron corporation, popcap games, princess bandage, renaud bedard, tommy refenes, warcraft, wii, xbla, xbox, xbox live arcade
A few nights ago, I was laying in bed searching for a movie to watch on my Kindle Fire. I know, a 7-inch screen isn’t the proper way to watch a movie, but my wife was asleep and the laptop was soooo far away (about 20 feet). I’ve had Indie Game: The Movie in my Instant Queue for about a year, so I finally decided to plunge into it. Of course, I had no intention of watching the entire thing, but damn it if it didn’t suck me in. So I watched the whole thing. Indie Game is as it should be – a fun look into the world of video game developers who work outside of the big studios to produce games without interference. It focuses on two games being prepared for launch: Meat Boy designed by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, which is about a skinless boy who is trying to save his girlfriend Princess Bandage from evil Dr. Fetus and Fez designed by Phil Fish (who is featured prominently in the film) and Renaud Bedard, in which “you play as Gomez, a 2D creature living in what he believes is a 2D world until a strange and powerful sentient artifact reveals to him the existence of a mysterious third dimension.”
Here’s what Meat Boy looked like (it no longer is available as the creators have since brought out Super meat Boy):
Here’s what Fez looks like:
Video games are the highest grossing form of entertainment in this country – more than movies, more than music – be they on a console (like an XBox, Wii, or Playstation), web-based or PC like Warcraft, or mobile games like PopCap‘s Plants vs. Zombies. So it’s no surprise to see a film like this tackle the nuances of the industry. What McMillen, Refenes and Fish have in common is they don’t want to work for a big studio like Electronic Arts. They want to create the games they want and that can’t be achieved under the thumb of a huge corporation like EA, much in the way that independent filmmakers don’t want studio producers giving them shitty notes on how to make a film more marketable.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of these two teams as they struggle to complete their games for release or demo at a trade show showing all of the emotional ups and downs that they encounter along the way. Team Meat are basically given given about three weeks to complete their game so they can debut it on XBox Live Arcade (XBLA), so they struggle to complete the design and test the game to make sure it’s ready, which isn’t the easiest thing to do as McMillen and Refenes live on opposite coasts (Santa Cruz and North Carolina).
Fish’s situation is a little different. His game isn’t complete yet and he is in a dispute with the co-creator of Fez, who has left their company Polytron Corporation. Fez garnered a ton of buzz when it won the Excellence in Visual Art at the Independent Games Festival in 2008, but Fish and his co-creator (who was never named in the film) struggled to complete the game, literally redoing it three times. After the co-creator left, the game was in legal limbo. As Fish has nearly completed the game, he wants to debut it at PAX, Penny Arcade Expo, but without the signature of said co-creator allowing him to do so, he risks incurring a lawsuit and having to pack up his booth before he even shows off his game. Should he or shouldn’t he? Oh, and to add to the misery…the co-creator is going to be at PAX to show off another game he has designed. So when he makes his choice, another set of headaches come his way further complicating the situation.
The stakes are pretty high for these three gentlemen. Money is running out for all of them. McMillen‘s spent basically two years seated in front of his computer and he’s worried that it’s affecting his relationship with his wife, who is actually extremely supportive and just wants a hairless cat as a pet . Tommy is worried about his parents debt and just wants to help them get out of the red. Fish has to worry about whether he missed the opportunity to build on the buzz he created 3 years prior, if people will still be interested in playing Fez.
Directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky use a very effective structural tool by having Jonathan Blow, creator of the super-sensation Braid, detail portions of his success and the troubles he had with producing such a successful game. By interspersing these tidbits from Blow throughout the the film, it gives us a nice chance to keep both of the stories of the Fez team and Team Meat separate and coherent. Blow is especially eloquent in how the success of his game wasn’t what he expected, that he expected more people not just to like the game on a surface level, but to really get the deeper meaning of it and how it depressed him when those expectations weren’t met.
So we see the two trajectories of these teams head toward their endgame. Team Meat finishes their game just under the gun, but encounters issues when Microsoft/XBox neglects to put the game in the download arcade for the first 8 hours of the release day. And Fish finally gets his former co-creator to sign off on the rights issues with Fez, but in his demo at PAX, the first player at his booth encounters a game breaking bug. Does it all work out for them? I guess you’ll have to watch or do some research.
This is a really fun movie even if you aren’t into gaming (which I am not). Getting a glimpse into this world is both fascinating and alienating. The dedication that these gentlemen put into their visions of these games, which are really extensions of themselves, is AMAZING. The amount of work that goes into these games is stunning and to put them together at all is a tremendous accomplishment. That it’s possible to make millions of dollars for doing it makes it all the better.
This film does stream on Netflix.
Here’s the trailer: