Whether or not you care to classify video games as art, Indie Game: The Movie, an extremely polished and absorbing documentary profiling a handful of ambitious independent game developers, makes a strong case that, at the very least, the types of gaming experiences offered by these one- or two-man shops reflect the personalities of their creators in the same way art does, acting as extensions of their fears and desires. Filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky seem genuinely invested in their subjects’ personal journeys through game creation, and it reflects in the film’s contemplative and relatively muted tone. Though Indie Game utilizes slick and stylish animation to illustrate some of the more abstract thinking that goes into complex game design, it does so tastefully without ever being overbearing, and the directors always keep their focus on the people, not their products. The film’s greatest quality is the way it enables these notoriously reclusive and incessantly busy minds to open up about their passions, revealing a desire simply to connect with others through their creation.
Indie Game follows two development teams clocking unnatural hours to complete their respective games before they run out of money and sanity. Designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes of Team Meat hope to finish their platformer, Super Meat Boy, in time for its release on Xbox Live Arcade in just a matter of months, and developers Phil Fish and Renaud Bédard of Polytron simply want to complete Fez, a game infamously drifting in perpetual development after a promising 2008 tech demo earned it much hype. The film also extensively interviews Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, a downloadable independent game already enjoying the kind of success Team Meat and Polytron hope their games will eventually find.
Blow’s interviews tend to be more philosophical as he imparts the wisdom he’s gathered from his experience developing and releasing Braid, but one of his most unexpected insights comes when he reveals that, despite the rave reviews for his game, he became depressed after its release. He was devastated that people only noticed surface-level characteristics of his game, praising its mechanics and style but missing the soul that he worked so passionately to give it. Indie Game underlines this common desire among those in an industry characterized by technical specs to connect with others in a more profound way.
In a wonderfully thoughtful segment, Edmund of Team Meat traces the origins of one of his earlier games, Aether, to therapeutic childhood drawings he created for his grandmother in which he was able to express and confront many of his fears, particularly of rejection and abandonment. As he describes how his anxieties translated into elements and worlds in a video game, the film does its due diligence of juxtaposing Edmund’s drawings with the final artwork for Aether, however the point of his story is never lost as the filmmakers allow us to see a vulnerable Edmund tear up when speaking of his ceaselessly supportive grandmother and the type of personal release she (and Aether) helped him achieve.
The most intriguing of Indie Game’s subjects is Fez creator Phil Fish, who’s feeling compounding pressure as, with each passing year, his unfinished passion project begins to inch closer and closer to the Vaporware Hall of Fame. Suffering more setbacks than Coppola’s production of Apocalypse Now, Phil finds himself overworked and underfunded but unable to abandon the creation he’s now built his entire identity around (he candidly tells the camera that he no longer sees himself as Phil Fish, only as “the guy who makes Fez”), going so far as to claim he’ll kill himself if he can’t complete the game. After a somewhat successful demo of the still-in-production Fez at a gaming conference, the audience must exhale on Phil’s behalf because he simply refuses to, never one to revel in the little victories. As Indie Game closes, we’re left wondering if Phil will ever break through and find peace and relief in the completion of Fez, or if he’s doomed to toil away at his unfinishable masterpiece year after year like Caden Cotard. Neither outcome would be surprising.
Though The Babymakers is billed as a “sperm bank heist film,” it starts out as a passable and occasionally funny, if randomly crass and highly derivative, romantic comedy about a happy young couple, Tommy (Paul Schneider) and Audrey (Olivia Munn), and their newfound struggles getting impregnated. As with most Broken Lizard movies (though technically this isn’t a Broken Lizard film despite the participation of several of the comedy troupe’s members), the jokes in The Babymakers are uneven, but they occur so quickly and frequently that the weaker ones become easy to overlook.
Unfortunately, as Jay Chandrasekhar’s film moves along, it begins to linger on its jokes more and more so that by the time the film introduces the aforementioned plan to steal sperm that Tommy donated to a bank five years prior, The Babymakers is spending painfully long minutes on one poorly written and ill-conceived gag after another, starting with the appearance of Chandrasekhar himself as Ron Jon, a former member of the Indian mafia enlisted to aid in the heist. The character’s humor is derived almost exclusively from his thick Indian accent, naturally leading to lengthy monologues packed with shouted curse words and lines like, “Let’s roll!” to really get the knee-slapping going. The occasional spark of cleverness comes and goes (Ron Jon’s ridiculously elaborate plan for the heist being the film’s all-too-brief high note), and Chandrasekhar’s cluelessness to his film’s strengths and fatal weaknesses becomes clear when the audience is thrice treated to the comedic gold of a character struggling to gain his footing on a sperm-slicked floor.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.