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Indie Game: The Movie – A game reviewer’s perspective

When I wrote about my experience with Braid after watching Indie Game: The Movie, I only briefly explained what I thought of the Kickstarter funded documentary. I prefer to avoid writing about film because there is usually a stroke of brilliance I fail to see them; an analytical and critical ability that is much more developed when regarding video games. With this documentary, the subject matter is what I’m familiar with – it’s what I write about. So when I evaluate the film with criticism or praise, I feel comfortable sticking to my words, even if they represent the opinion of the minority.

Since the presence of video games in society is still very much new to most people, I approach books or films about them cautiously. I fear that people, who praise books about the relevance of video games, or people that praise films about the video game development process, praise them just because it’s about video games.

What I mean is that there is still a constant battle between video game enthusiasts and people in larger society, to prove that video games are a significant form of entertainment that is not just for children. There is a constant battle to gain the respect and professionalism of other entertainment mediums, so books and movies are made to prove why video games should have that same respect.

When I approach a book such as Extra Lives (which I’m reading right now) or a film such as Indie Game: The Movie, I first think “Is this actually insightful, or do people praise this because it’s an attempt to legitimatize the hobby they adore?” As someone who is informed about this industry, I watch this movie and see ideas or stories that I am somewhat familiar with. I was there when Super Meat Boy was released; I followed when it was reaching unexpected sales numbers. If someone not nearly as informed were to watch the movie, would they understand the difficulty of the process?  Unless you are developer or someone similar, I don’t think we can understand otherwise. Indie Game: The Movie, despite being actually well done in following the developers and their life while making their game, doesn’t give you a pure recounting of events.

The process of game development varies drastically depending on the size of the team, the amount of funding and they type of game being developed. For independent developers, there is always a struggle with time. The team of usually a few or just even one person will constantly have difficulty keeping up with the amount of work needed to be completed. The documentary does a perfect job making that idea clear to the viewers, as throughout the movie there is a constant reminder of how much each developer had to sacrifice to give their game complete dedication.

Phil Fish was working on his game for years, so long that to those who anticipated its release, were uncertain of its existence. What the movie failed to address was that Phil Fish did a poor job planning his game. It’s only natural to feel sympathetic towards Phil and the hurdles he had to overcome to complete Fez, yet it was never analyzed that it was a huge mistake redesigning Fez multiple times. While it does happen during the development process of video games, a redesign or reimagining of the game, regardless if it makes the game experience better or worse, is not practical.

Planning of development should be done at the beginning as drafts, story boards, level designs, ideas, etc, should be all laid out. Therefore, while I do to a certain extent acknowledge the problems with inexperience when tackling a project for the first time, I do not feel sorry for someone who has spent far too long making a game because of their poor planning.

So does Phil Fish really care if I feel sorry for him? I would assume not. His game is selling well, players speak highly of it and it has received critical acclaim. The stories of Phil Fish, Jonathan Blow and Team Meat are great stories to see told. No matter the content, I will always find it interesting seeing people take what they love to do each day, to then be rewarded – emotionally or financially – for their hard work. It’s unfortunate however that I feel like the movie, since it is a movie, uses film techniques such as emotion inducing music or still frames of a sad developers to force an exaggerated reaction out of the viewer.

My awareness of film techniques caused me to somewhat make reactionary comments in my article about Braid. While I do believe in sticking to my words, I will admit my mistakes. I am still learning, though I will not use that as an excuse to say stupid things. At the moment, while I don’t agree with my comments about the movie by saying that it made me feel like a “terrible person”, I understand why I said that. As a reviewer, I want to approach each game equally. I try to put aside my love for a franchise or hate for a genre, and really analyze the game for its quality.

Watching the movie made me feel like a “terrible person” because I didn’t want to have that emotional attachment to games. If I didn’t think Braid was a very good game for example, I didn’t want to feel obligated to say otherwise because I felt sorry for Jonathan Blow and what he had to sacrifice in order to complete his game. He deserves to be rewarded; he dedicated a lot his life to making this puzzle- platformer that many enjoyed. But what he deserves and the quality of his game, specifically when writing a review or being critical, should not be in the same space.

My perspective is different from most people. As difficult as it may be, I try to look at games fairly because of nature of what I write. If you are someone who doesn’t have to worry about that, your opinion of Indie Game: The Movie may drastically differ. You may finish watching and feel inspired by each developer’s commitment to creating their game. Or, like me, you will finish watching and feel somewhat cheated at the idea of well placed, sympathy inducing music. When I go back to my initial question when approaching video game movies or books, I think Indie Game: The Movie does a generally great job exposing to the world the process of game development. Whether the movie will resonate with people who don’t play games, is something that will be ultimately interesting to see.