An incredible shift is happening in video game production. Like with film after the advent of cheap video cameras, production of the medium is now accessible to outsiders. No longer does one need the increasingly larger crews of coders and artists. Now, a handful of skilled (or even not so skilled) programmers can create something that’s equally or more compelling than a title from a traditional game studio. In fact, these games are often more exciting. Rather than first person shooters that only iterate in graphical quality and the addition of zombies and/or Nazis, these are games that can stretch their limbs, break the box, or hearken back to ideas that are older and less flashy but fresh from dormancy and filled with potential.
The functionally titled Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary embedded inside of this movement. Though it begins on and touches aspects of this growing and important shift, Indie Game eventually finds itself in working to show that game development is as legitimate as any other form of art, though not in so many words. Rather, the film allows the developers that it follows to speak to the amount of emotion and self that they have poured into their work. It’s incredible how similar their speech is to that of a filmmaker or writer. They experience the same hang ups, the same fears. They see pieces of themselves inside their work.
More than anything, these notions work to build the film’s core message. It’s narrative however lies in the personal struggles that accompany bringing this personal expression to the public. We learn about four developers and hear about the path they’ve taken in bringing their game to the market. When asked about his troubles, one rattles off a list of personal problems that have cropped up in the past year, not one of them a strict development issue. Another developer dreams of paying off the remaining portion of his parents’ mortgage. It’s a sweet and surprising notion after the frustration that we’ve watched him present up to that point.
The biggest issue the documentary hits is in its narrative. One can’t help but get the impression that the footage was all taken in a short span of time and is trying to provide the illusion that they’ve been following along. The film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be because of this. It doesn’t have enough to really explore anything broader. There’s much to speak to regarding this movement’s broader implications, that half a dozen people are disrupting major studios in major ways. Instead, our main narrative is that of the developers bringing their games to market, but unfortunately, they haven’t been with these developers long enough to really show us that.
The film does however show us some of simply the biggest names in indie games, and that’s certainly something cool to learn about. As it is though, the film struggles in its presentation of the characters. It makes a bizarre choice of opening on a moment that chronologically should (and does) appear at the film’s end and only serves to paint one developer as spoiled and unlikeable (not to mention disorienting the viewer while they’re at it). These are all weird characters, and though the film chooses to balance their eccentric moments with some really nice heartfelt ones, a slight rounding of rough edges may have been to their advantage. Without these outbursts and oddities, we could still get an accurate sense for who these people are. These moments don’t enhance that, they simply hinder our ability to care about them. Instead, we spend half of the film viewing one developer as a jerk until we realize that, though he’s certainly odd and stressed, he’s a nice guy when it comes down to it.
We learn little of what it takes to develop a game. Really, this film is about tantrums and waiting and deadlines, albeit a bit toned down from how that sounds. There is a really interesting story here, and while the film manages to hit on that every so often, it’s mixed up within the five other stories that it’s uncertain if it should be focusing on. The developers’ emotions is a pretty good spot to stick with, but unfortunately, without interesting context, it’s hard to be particularly compelled. Of course, the context is interesting, it just isn’t in here. One of the three games it follows was released only months after this film debuted (earlier this year), but the film chooses to leave us hanging. I’ll admit production scheduling is a bit more complicated than I can speak to, but it comes across odd and unsatisfying ending the film so near to the game’s release without a word to it.
Indie Game shows us two developers in a personal and representative environment. It’s a little off-putting, but it helps to embellish their character and build this narrative. Otherwise, though we do get the other two developers at their offices and at a game convention, we’re only treated to general interview footage and b-roll, lots and lots of it. There’s b-roll of the ocean. B-roll of the apartment complex. B-roll of the pier, of the sand, of a yard, of a street, another street with some palm trees. Oddly enough, it decides to go creative for just one shot that visually relates a developer with his character, though in a heavily staged way. It is, at least, shot effectively, though fairly out of place.
Another recent documentary, Side by Side, got into the fine, geeky details of a medium, in its case, cinema. It compiled a history of footage and presented dozens of well informed speakers. Indie Game: The Movie, though produced through the same audacity and limited funding as the projects it covers, shows us a narrow scope, and though it does manage to pull together a narrative that works, the broader sensibilities never quite come into focus. We have one developer shown sparsely and dropped halfway along. Another gets weirder while the other two get more normal. This speaks to narrative, but it doesn’t speak to their development process or the massive impact that its having. Indie Game has interviewed David after taking down Goliath, but all it comes away with is David talking about how stressful the encounter was.