Indie Game: The Movie is hesitant to criticize its sprites
ndie Game: The Movie is chock full of heart warming stories.
The film follows three different games at various stages of development. Super Meat Boy, a platform game akin to Super Mario, designed by Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes is a hotly anticipated game that the men have given up much to put together.
Fez, designed by Montrealer Phil Fish, has been in development hell for four years. And lastly, Jonothan Blow deals with success after his indie game Braid gets popular.
The four taken together are interesting characters. Blow is plagued by his online persona, where he’s depicted as a bit of a twit who responds to any blog that mentions him. Fish, however, is the most tragic figure. Sitting in his barren Montreal studio, he sweats over his game like a true artist and when asks what he’ll do if he can’t finish it, promptly responds that he will kill himself. His personal life is a mess and it’s revealed over the course of the film that his former partner might be on the verge of suing him over Fez.
All four men are working as artists, just with a different canvas. “[I took my] deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them in the game,” said Blow. But this isn’t a tale that ends in woe. This is after all, an uplifting story.
The filmmakers, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, want to tell a positive story, I think because in many ways the story of their developers mirrors the act of releasing an independent film (that they funded through Kickstarter, no less). Their subjects are putting a piece of art— in essence, a piece of themselves— into the world for judgment without the support of the normal institutions that shape the gaming industry. We want them to win because it’s a classic underdog story.
But in doing this— in being so involved in the story— what is lost is the critical eye that makes a documentary film. As much as the stories of the developers were enjoyable, there were questions left over the film. Why was Fish in a legal dispute to begin with? What comments did Blow leave that made him the butt of many jokes in the video game world? And importantly, why is working for EA or any other large video game company so reprehensible to these creators? We can imagine the answers, but we shouldn’t have to when the filmmakers have access to the people who can tell us the story.
It’s a trend that has become in some ways worryingly present in popular documentary films. Rather than push subjects, filmmakers are content to present some in their most positive light— recent examples include Food Inc, and Being Elmo (the former posits, without so much batting an eyelash, that we can save the planet by buying organic food at Wal-Mart of all places).
In a recent slate.com article, book critic Jacob Silverman lamented the breakdown of criticism against the rush of social media. “If you spend time in the literary Twitter or blogospheres,” he wrote, “you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.”
The same, I think, can apply to any other community including documentarians and filmmakers. If Swirsky and Pajot had promised a hard-hitting expose of the gaming industry, would they have raised their Kickstarter funds? I’m not suggesting that they couched their film plans as a sinister plot to raise funds. Instead, Indie Game: The Movie is the product of a culture of “relentless enthusiasm.” People who love video games made a film about people who love video games, funded by people who love video games.
Swirsky and Pajot have told an uplifting story, but they could have told a more critical one.