The term ‘video game movie’ is one that generally brings with it a certain amount of despair and due concern among fans of both cinema and video games alike. The track record of video game-to-movie adaptations is patchy to say the least, and as a sub-genre akin to ‘comic book movies’, it’s got a lot of ground to make up before anyone might even begin taking film adaptations of beloved video game franchises seriously. On the one hand, where comic book movies have a low point in something like Catwoman, video game movies have, well pretty much anything on Uwe Boll’s filmography. But more worrying is that on the other hand, where comic books have provided us with the likes of The Dark Knight and The Avengers, video games have given us …Prince of Persia?
Thankfully then, Indie Game: The Movie is less a ‘video game movie’ and more a ‘movie about video games’, which thanks entirely to perhaps my favourite ever documentary feature, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is an angle that I know can work well. However whereas The King of Kong was very much a unique study of those at the extreme end of playing video games, Indie Game: The Movie presents a one-of-a-kind insight into the struggles and tribulations of actually making video games.
The film focuses on three disjoint but parallel stories of the developers of three much-hyped ‘indie games’: Braid, Super Meat Boy and the recently released, Fez. Rather than a product produced by the likes of EA or Nintendo, companies who can afford to employ thousands to work busily away on every game they make, the very nature of an indie game is that it is created entirely by only a handful of very passionate people. In the case of the three groups documented here, even just one or two.
As the oldest game featured, much of the focus on the developer of Braid, Jonathan Blow, comes within the first half of the piece. With his product finished, ready and immediately a great success, the film uses this as a good showcase of someone who’s ‘been there, done that’ and been successful in the process, thus setting up the challenge ahead for the two other pairings, and the film handles this transition in its shift of focus to the efforts of the other developers well.
If there’s one area where the film particularly excels, it’s in how at times painfully personal the interviews with the developers become. While one or two are better at putting on a grin and bearing through the missed deadlines, challenges and often difficult personal sacrifices that come their way to achieve their artistic vision, the strain is clearly worn on the sleeves of a couple of those involved. The relationships they build up with their own creations are often fascinating and really keep the film working at its most basic, human level. The explanations on hand of how after working tirelessly developing their unique worlds for years on end that their games seem to practically embody everything about themselves are genuinely touching, often harking back to their experiences of quite troubled childhoods – something that can often seem like no more than a cheap emotional trick for lazier filmmakers, but that comes across as a well-handled necessity in one instance in particular to really understand the mindset of the man behind the game.
The documentary itself is the creation of first-time filmmaking duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, who do a grand job of getting the most out of their subjects and really projecting their strife onto the screen. However, perhaps unsurprisingly as a small budgeted, crowdfunded production itself (Indie Game the Indie Movie?), with a pair of successful Kickstarter campaigns to its name, the filmmaking does at times feel a little restrained. The entire film is presented almost exclusively as a series of ‘talking heads’, of face-to-face discussions with the developers which often bring great results as they’re left to pour their hearts out on screen, but the lack of much variety in shots can leave proceedings feeling a little stale at times. The rare instances where the filmmaking pair really experiment with the camera, a stunning scene with Fez developer Phil Fish at a hotel in particular, really make the film come alive when the constant conversations could perhaps begin to drag, but I wish there were more scenes like this where rather than just those in front of the camera, those behind the camera could really exercise their creative muscle as well.
There are a number of great and at times emotional journeys on offer here, with the odd touching moment along with surprisingly heated conflicts (the times where Fish talks about his ex-business partner always bringing with them the most tension and aggression seen anywhere in the film), and it’s at times quite difficult to watch how personally the game makers take any response to their final products – even those that are positive bring with them a surprising amount of turmoil for some involved. Jonathan Blow in particular is presented very much as a creative who can’t handle others ‘not getting’ his vision, even while pouring praise upon it, and it’s not often that we’re presented with quite so up close and personal an account of the struggling, creative minds behind media that’s enjoyed by so many.
Indie Game: The Movie could have benefitted from livening up in places with more entertaining breaks to help split-up the constant interviews, but although the film could have been presented in a more interesting manner, the personal tales of these creative men who get sucked into their work and the deep, personal nature of how their stories are told are for the most part intriguingly insightful enough to carry the movie and make it worth the watch.
(As an interesting side note, along with the film’s website and iTunes, the film is also released as a digital download today on the video game distribution platform Steam, making it the first movie to be released on the platform, which promises to bring with it an interesting mix of exclusive interactive extras and unlockable ‘achievements’ which might be worth a look).