'Everything's happening now:' Indie Game: The Movie at Sundance

In many ways, documentaries are not truly tools for documenting events. Instead, many documentaries choose to delve into the minds of their subjects, presenting not documentation, but something else entirely -- an up-close trip into the human psyche.

During one such moment from Indie Game: The Movie, which I caught at a screening at the Sundance film festival, game designer Phil Fish states that if he couldn't finish his long-awaited game Fez, he would commit suicide. The camera remains on him for an awkward moment, and the line draws a number of uncomfortable chuckles from the audience. He seems to rethink his outrageous statement and then states once more: "I will kill myself."

This attitude for the most part represents the majority of the film. Focusing primarily on the development and production of Fez and Super Meat Boy, Indie Game is really the story of obsessed developers pouring their insecurities and hearts and souls into a game, without leaving much, if anything, for themselves.%Gallery-145969% Edmund McMillen, one of Super Meat Boy's two designers, explained that the basis behind Super Meat Boy was not a boy made of meat, but instead a boy with no skin. Almost retrospectively he postulates that perhaps Super Meat Boy is constantly in pain, and that his desire to find Bandage Girl is out of necessity.

Fez, Fish explains during a particularly stressful situation, is meant to be a peaceful game, designed to be a relaxing and serene experience. We see through the film that perhaps it isn't a completed game Fish is pursuing, but this feeling of peace instead. He gorges on his own emotions, breaking into diatribes and rages without warning, and is calmly showing off a piece of his childhood by the next scene. His wild emotions have pushed him into scrapping and fully redesigning the game four times, chasing his own idea of perfection.

Showing the intense personal connection said featured indie game devs have with their craft is the Indie Game. Working alone in an isolated environment, lunacy is lurking just under the keyboard. Speaking about the psychologically crushing environment of indie game development, Braid developer Jonathan Blow told me, "part of it is just that you're alone and if you stop working today, nothing will get done ... it can reinforce the dread." Furthering this is the gnawing feeling that no one will understand your craft. "It's very unsafe in terms of 'who knows if anyone's going to want to play this thing,'" Blow said.

Blow's part in the film is one of retrospect, regarding Braid as a finished product in contrast to the ongoing development of Fez and Super Meat Boy. As a consequence, he comes across in the film with more composure than the more stressed out developers; something he noticed. "There's some crazy in that movie ... and none of that was me."

His story -- the story behind the development of Braid -- is not entirely analogous to the other developers in the film. Blow kept a regular schedule with regular GDC appearances to remind him of his progress, and carefully mapped out the development process to make sure he wasn't going through the kind of overly rigorous process that his colleagues experienced.

"There's some crazy in that movie ... and none of that was me."- Jon Blow

"I wasn't going through the stuff those other guys shipping those games were going through, so I was inherently less freaking out." Even so, I wondered if Blow thought the end result (Braid) was really worth it. "It feels worth it now, looking back. If you had asked me immediately afterward, I would have said 'maybe not,'" Blow responded.
One of his most infamous claims to fame is omnipresence on forums and comment sections following the release of Braid. His internet persona seemed unable to cope with any criticism of his game, and earned him a sullied reputation. Indie Game touches on this issue in an effort to show just how much games matter to these developers.

Blow assured me that his efforts didn't stem from an inability to handle criticism, but from a kneejerk reaction to perceived misinterpretation of his game. "I felt like there were people out there who felt like it was their job to tell the rest of the world what this game was about and that other people would believe them. And I was like, 'oh shit, they're telling them all this stuff, and it's kind of okay, but they themselves have obviously not been paying that much attention to the game,'" he said.

Creating the game, unfortunately, is just a fraction of the process. The second half of the developer's challenge is making sure that people know about the game and buy it. One of the opening scenes features Super Meat Boy co-creator Tommy Refenes completely distraught on launch day as his game isn't featured anywhere on the Xbox Live Marketplace (as detailed at last year's GDC "Meatmortem"). After sending furious emails, he retreats to a small diner where he proposes other possible career choices. He fumbles with a few before deciding, "I don't want to do anything."

Similarly, Fish is shown during last year's PAX Prime wondering if he'll be able to even show his game at the expo. Due to a debacle with a former business partner, he knows that he may be sued for even displaying the game, but decides to go anyway. The viewer watches as he loses all decorum in a hotel lobby while loudly announcing his intention to "murder" his ex-partner if he happens to see him at the show. We then see him on the floor fussing with every single display console, as the build of Fez he brought routinely crashes on expo-goers. The tension was, as they say, palpable.

"We were inspired by it," director Lisanne Pajot told me after a screening. "Their story is just like our story," added director James Swirsky, "They're just people making stuff." Pajot confessed that, before the film, games "weren't a big part of my life," but after doing camera work at a few Game Developers Conferences, she and Swirsky agreed that the indie game story needed to be told. Swirsky, on the other hand, claimed that when he was young, "Nintendo, Genesis defined everything I did." But after working as a tester for EA in his early twenties, "It killed the magic for video games for a long time."

"Their story is just like our story. They're just people making stuff."- James Swirsky

As outsiders, Swirsky and Pajot knew they would be able to communicate to a larger audience more easily, but they also had to learn the industry quickly and comprehensively -- which was no small feat. Swirsky said, however, that it wasn't really about video games in the beginning. "These guys have fantastic stories that are inspiring and also heartbreaking."

They were helped in many ways by the helpful nature of the developers. While some documentary filmmakers struggle to get their subjects to open up, the indie devs Pajot and Swirsky spoke with laid their emotions bare. "They're incredibly open people," said Pajot.

Beginning their work on a vast assortment of indie titles and developers, they initially shot miles of footage spanning the vast spectrum of the indie game world. However, they simply ended up spending more time with Super Meat Boy and Fez, along with a lot of face time with Jonathan Blow. "All of those developers are going to be in our special edition which we are already selling pre-orders of ... it's going to be like another film worth of stuff because we had to cut so much," Pajot said. "These great stories that belong in a film, they need to be told somewhere, they just didn't work in this version of this film," Swirsky explained. So for those wondering why their favorite indie studio wasn't featured, it wasn't a matter of slighting anyone, but rather simply running out of runtime.

Which isn't to say there won't be more chances to show that content in the future, though it may not be in the same format exactly. HBO and Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin have optioned the premise of the film for a fictional miniseries taking place in the world of indie games. Though nothing is set in stone on the potential project, Pajot and Swirsky are optimistic. They have been asked to work on the show as consulting producers. Both of them are sure that due to the talent involved, the show won't turn into a macabre version of Grandma's Boy. "They're by far the best people that could ever do something in this field," Swirsky reassured me.

Speaking with the directors, I began to feel as if I was watching an homage to the film itself -- they sounded just like any one of the developers interviewed in Indie Game. When I mentioned this, they chuckled and agreed that much of their motivation behind the film was how much they identified with their subjects. "We were able to watch them move toward these big goals and that was interesting to us because we were working toward a goal," Pajot revealed. Following what the directors often referred to "heartbreaking" struggles only pushed them harder through production.

The film's directors -- like the game developers -- were the only people working on their film initially. Getting a huge financial boost from Kickstarter, they filmed the entire movie with their own equipment, setting up their own lights, sound equipment and cameras. Before and during Super Meat Boy's launch and Fez's PAX showing, the duo split up, furthering their isolation; each covering far too much all on their own. Throughout the film, all of the featured developers seem close to lunacy at a few points, and Swirsky told me that, "You work by yourself so much ... it can get really lonely really quickly." Pajot added, "If that's your daily routine, you just lose perspective."

In the question and answer portion with the audience after the screening, the directors sheepishly confessed that they had been quoting the film to each other to get each other through the festival. Sundance is a stressful, high-octane environment. Add to that the strain of being contacted by an Oscar-winning producer and you have a decidedly tough position. The festival is filled, ironically, with the type of people represented in Indie Game; the little guy, the expressionist, the freethinker, the independent. As Jon Blow said about indie game developers, "the people who end up independent are the people who wouldn't be happy in these other places ... and part of it is the expression." At one point I asked Lisanne what quote they found most poignant in the film. "One thing that would encompass this whole Sundance experience," Lisanne answered, "is 'everything's real; everything's happening now,' and that's what Phil says."

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and, of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.