Burden of Digital Dreams
Suicide is an alarmingly frequent topic throughout Indie Game: The Movie. Both Phil Fish of Polytron (developer of Fez), and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat (developer of Super Meat Boy) declare their intention to commit, should they be unable to finish their work or never make indie games again. It’s an unsettling sentiment, voiced with resolute honesty and one indicative of how the independent development process has affected their lives.
Indie Game: The Movie succeeds in highlighting this kind of personal insight from its subjects. Throughout the course of multiple interviews with four independent developers – Fish and Refnes are joined by the slightly less suicidal Edmund McMillen of Team Meat and Jonathon Blow (Developer of Braid) – we learn about their childhood influences, their approach to game design and the sacrifices each has made to go independent.
The progress of Fez and Super Meat Boy take centre stage, with Fish’s famously tumultuous development cycle tracked through some particularly difficult times, both for Fish personally and for the design of Fez. During the course of development his dad was diagnosed with leukaemia, his parents divorced, his girlfriend left him, Polytron’s co-founder Jason DeGroot (who remains unnamed in the film) left the company, Fez lost its funding and had to be re-designed 3 times in order to meet Fish’s demanding vision.
All of this turmoil has taken its toll on Fish, which is most evident in a scene at the Penny Arcade Expo when he is showcasing Fez. Legal wrangling’s with DeGroot that could prevent him from showing the game lead to one profanely violent outburst of desperation, and a glitch that cripples Fez during the show drives Fish into a panic stricken scramble around each display console to correct the issue throughout the day. Throughout Indie Game: The Movie Fish is a man teetering on the edge of sanity, drained and bruised by the trials of independent development, and yet so stubbornly determined not to give up.
Likewise, Refnes and McMillen’s stories are touching personal tales, with their dedication to the creation of Super Meat Boy having taken an equally detrimental toll. The former has an understanding wife whom is becoming more and more distant due to the time taken up by Meat Boy and the latter has been all but consumed by the development cycle, left with a complete lack of any social life or money, and suffering from depression, relying upon his parents to support him.
It brings to the fore the question of why anyone would bother? Why put so much on the line simply to create a videogame. The answer is the focus of the film and made crystal clear throughout – these people create games to convey their own personality. As Fish says “Fez is my ego”, “I am Fez”. And McMillan’s description of the relationship between Meat Boy and Bandage Girl – him a raw skinless figure, vulnerable to his environment and her the healing bandages, wrapping up his vulnerabilities and shielding him from harm – is a clear parallel to his relationship with his wife.
Fez and Super Meat Boy are also products of childhood events that influenced each developer. Fish lights up with a beaming smile whilst talking about the NES he received at the age of 4 with Zelda, Mario and Tetris in tow (Possibly the most influential triumvirate of titles a young future developer could dream of). And McMillen talks of his social anxiety as a child; he was something of an outcast who liked to draw monsters and since then he has used videogames as a method of communicating his inner self to others in a way he otherwise cannot. More than anything Fez and Super Meat Boy are representations of their creator’s personalities.
Blow’s presence is more that of the success story. Having already created the critically acclaimed Braid, he is there to extol the virtues of what Fish, Refnes and McMillen strive for, and he sums it up rather eloquently: “Things that are personal have flaws, they have vulnerabilities. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody, you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level.”
Indie Game: The Movie focusses upon three titles that reflect their creator’s vulnerabilities and flaws. It explores the life changing sacrifices each has made in order to realise them. Their compulsion to express themselves through the medium of videogames is one facilitated by personal sacrifice and one that takes a great toll, but also one that each is compelled to pursue, regardless of the consequences.
In that sense Indie Game: The Movie reminded me of two documentaries about filmmaking: Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams – an insight into the production of film director Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – a journey with Francis Ford Coppola throughout the famously troubled production of Apocalypse Now. Not, of course, for the images of 200 indigenous Peruvians towing a steamliner up a muddy bank, nor because Fish goes insane, covers his face in clay and slowly emerges from the swampy waters of a Cambodian jungle (although he probably wasn’t too far away from that following PAX). But for the personal insights into Herzog and Coppola’s similarly compulsive determination to express themselves through their chosen medium, and the consequential affects resulting from placing so much of themselves into such difficult projects.
Of course, videogame development is a whole different kettle of shrimp to filmmaking, but it’s the insights into the minds of those who create, those who absolutely have to express through a creative medium that draws the comparison. Hearts of Darkness even shows Coppola broaching the subject of suicide as a result his troublesome project, mirroring the feelings of Fish and Refnes.
Indie Game: The Movie may idolise its interviewees a little too much, and it doesn’t provide enough of an insight into the tarnished side of the coin – those who have tried and failed. But the one thing it does right is an exploration of the personal side of independent development. The sacrifices and the heartache, but also the joy of being able to freely express oneself away from the often homogeneous, made-by-committee mass of big budget titles. It’s about making something truly personal and having people relate to and care for them, and for that, it is a fascinating watch.