Creating things hurts.
Just how much it hurts is the subject of Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary by Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot. Indie Game has been showing at a small handful of screenings around the world and is about to get a digital, worldwide release on June 12. The film follows three indie videogame makers—Phil Fish, of Fez fame, and Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy—during various stages of creating their videogames. Another designer, Jon Blow, who released Braid in 2008 to great financial success, acts as a fourth, more reflective voice throughout the film, commenting on what he feels now that his game has been out for some time.
When Swirsky and Pajot started shooting Indie Game, work on both Fez and Super Meat Boy was well underway. It is important to note that these two games were not plucked from obscurity by Indie Game’s directors, but had already received substantial media attention. Fish had already been making Fez for years. McMillen and Refenes had released an earlier version of Super Meat Boy in 2008.
The weight of this is already obvious at the film’s beginning. Fish, in particular, seems quite personally burdened with the pressures of Fez: his expletive-filled outpouring of frustration against internet commenters early in the film has a good-natured humour about it, but it is nonetheless revealing of how high Fez’s demands have been.
Indeed, the key factor in this documentary is pain. Fish, quite early in the film, openly admits that he is so emotionally invested in Fez, that, if he failed to finish making the game, he would probably kill himself. The mental health of all designers involved in Indie Game is actually deeply worrying. There seems to be very little happiness or pleasure involved in making an indie videogame.
Perhaps there is some pleasure at the end of the film, where we see overwhelming critical and financial success for Super Meat Boy, but even then it is tempered with sadness. Super Meat Boy’s programmer, Refenes, cries when the release of his game emotionally sinks in, and it is not with happiness: this is the end of his life as he has known it for the last two years. Similarly, Jon Blow, in a revealing sequence, admits to going into a depression when Braid was released. Despite the financial and critical success the game brought him, he felt that very few people understood his creation. He did not find the artistic connection he was looking for.
Swirsky and Pajot have chosen their subjects well. The three designers come across in Indie Game as indelibly more fallible and human than their reputations (largely cemented after the release of their games) would suggest. Fish is a quiet and thoughtful young man with a soft French-Canadian accent, prone to deep, deep frustration. McMillen is goofy but stoic, and seems to cope with the pressures of game-making the easiest. He and his wife, Danielle McMillen, are an appealing couple, and much of the film’s warmth comes from his relationship with her.
In this sense, Indie Game is a film that is about four creative people. It is really only incidentally about videogames. It could be about artists in virtually any other media form, save for the technical complexity at hand and the instant feedback and fan networks provided by the internet. This may seem like a criticism of the film, but it is the opposite: not only does it make Indie Game more accessible, it implicitly makes the argument for understanding games as a cultural form. The creative medium here is incidental, as the concerns are shared.
The film is at its weakest, however, when it does focus on the videogames themselves and the designer’s artistic motivation. The search for meaning in Super Meat Boy and Fez is largely confined to the retelling of childhood memories: these designers loved these kinds of games when they were children, and so they want to make similar games now. This is all well and good as auteur myth-making, but it does not give much insight into videogame culture as a whole. There is also a slightly distasteful focus on the money-making possibilities of indie videogames throughout the film. Although it is wonderful that the years and years of work for the designers was financially rewarded and validated, money-making is rarely a very interesting thing to talk about, especially in discussions of culture.
Yet the core of Indie Game remains the pain of creation, and more pressingly, the pain of putting your creation in public. All of Indie Game’s designers must face the fierce, inarticulate criticism of videogame culture. This criticism is usually not very insightful, but bombastically loud.
The most interesting question asked by the film, then, is whether this pain is the creator’s fault for not having a thick enough skin, or videogame culture for being so harsh and unrelenting? It is easy to leave a one-sentence comment on a YouTube video that cuts deeply; it is substantially more difficult to make the game that prompts the comment.
There is, of course, no easy answer, and as a critic myself, I do not believe that giving out pass marks for making anything at all is a useful route to go down. But perhaps there is space for understanding how deeply personal the creation of things—games, documentaries, even reviews—can be.
Creating things hurts. Coming to terms with their public reception is a much more difficult thing indeed.
DISCLAIMER: I supported Indie Game: The Movie’s Kickstarter campaign in mid-2011, and therefore, my name is in the (very elongated) credits. This was well before I was writing for Crikey and I do not feel it has coloured my opinion of the film.