Independent video-game production provides the milieu for an empathetic portrait of artistic anxiety and risk-taking in Indie Game: The Movie. Eschewing the usual overextended focus of most modern subculture pop docs, Lisanne Pajor and James Swirsky’s nonfiction film confines itself to two subjects: Phil Fish, who became a mini industry celeb with an award-winning prototype of his game Fez, but, four years later, has yet to deliver a playable, much less finished, version; and Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen, who’ve staked their careers and financial stability on their inventive platformer Super Meat Boy. That the latter was released to worldwide acclaim and profitability in late 2010 somewhat undercuts the mounting drama of Tommy and Edmund’s push to complete the game for release day. Yet knowing this, Pajor and Swirsky wisely don’t predicate their material on simple will-they-succeed suspense. Instead, the filmmakers shrewdly cast the stories of both games’ DIY designers as examples of the necessity, as well as considerable perils, of trying to make a name for one’s self in a mainstream market with works designed to be both consumer-friendly and personal artistic statements.
As Braid mastermind Jonathan Blow opines, whereas big-studio titles smooth their edges in order to appeal to the widest audience, the best indie games “have flaws, they have vulnerabilities,” and Blow’s own frustration with Braid’s universal praise is that much of it seems to have missed the deeper ideas he was trying to articulate through its time-reversing love story. Through both Edmund’s candid explanation of Super Meat Boy’s underlying themes and mechanics, and Phil’s confession that Fez’s gameplay goal of bringing order to the world is a reflection of his own feelings of chaotic powerlessness (brought about by a litany of personal and business crises), Indie Game makes a compelling case for games as not only clever hand-eye coordination exercises, but also as manifestations of their creators’ emotional and philosophical viewpoints. Such notions aren’t promoted by Pajor and Swirsky as part of a larger treatise on Games As Art, but as everyday facts for these small-time game designers, whose lives—creatively and economically—are predicated on projects into which they’ve invested all their money and time, to the detriment, as Tommy depressively admits, of any sort of social life. Even when the directors’ graceful cinematography relies too heavily on overly studied and staged imagery, their material captures the raw turmoil of artists struggling, against considerable odds, to find validation and acceptance through intimate expression.