03/06/2014

indie game: the lunch box

Just watched Indie Game: The Movie, part drama-documentary and part time capsule of a very particular moment in recent video game history. A glimpse into the tortured minds of those who brought us Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy. I say tortured but insert your own anguished metaphor of choice right here it'll fit just nicely.

Anguish does seem the theme here. Tortured artists tirelessly toiling for expression or vindication in the face of overwhelming indifference from the cruel, cruel world that just doesn't get them. Except it does. By the time of this documentaries release in 2012 two of the three games mentioned above were already doing rather well for themselves and since then the third, Fez, has joined them. Together they are a triumphant trinity of personal expression against the odds.

Yet apart from scant reference to their sheer bloody success you'd think it was all risk and no reward making these games. Okay I'm pretty sure going out on a limb and making a fully fledged game with a handful of people or less is no mean feat to be sure but using these case studies to illustrate the point is stretching it a tad. Outside of the documentary narrative with its feel good ending, independent game development isn't the lone outcast in the wilderness hanging on for dear life anymore.

Not sure it ever was really, certainly not in the time period Indie Game covers. The late noughties saw the arrival of small scale development married to self-publishing and enabled by tools that made it possible for these efforts to get off the ground and get noticed fast. Converging trends from many a direction fed into the rise of independent game development in the last few years, its a bigger story than what is alluded to in the development of these three games alone.

Instead we get nigh on two hours of the personalities behind these games. Two hours spent evangelising independent games as the only games that matter, the only games that say something. Imperfect personal statements made all the more relevant by their imperfections. Deep. Also inaccurate. As if lousy execution or ideas are incapable of sabotaging these games every bit as much as they can damage the games that cost millions to make.

To be sure there are some compelling personal stories here but as the show goes on it starts to run out of ways in which to tell the viewer just how bad shit gets in the trenches of independent game development. At one point one of the Super Meat Boy developers states how he wants to cry about the fact he wants to cry about his current predicament. Yeah this show is at serious risk of derailing itself towards the end. Then there's Jonathan Blow.

Now many things have been said online about the creator of Braid, much of it in blogs not dissimilar to the one you're reading now. Not to put too fine a point on the notion of perspective or good fortune but Jonathan Blow went into depression for months after the release of Braid. Not because the game was a disaster or for poor sales. No it was loved and sold well. No he sank into depression because people didn't connect with him through his game. They were unwilling or unable to tune into him on his very particular frequency. They just didn't get him.

Well that is a problem. Not one to trigger mental decline I'd argue but the sheer horror of success is perhaps not so much of a problem as he would like to believe. That basically sums up Indie Game: The Movie for me. A film about people in the relatively privileged position of doing what they want to do for a living in the way they want to do it and yet being utterly miserable in the process of doing so.

Overall its an interesting cross-section of indie gaming as it existed a few short years ago but perhaps not so much as it exists now. As these self styled indie developers partner up with major companies in the development of consoles and platforms for future gaming I start to wonder whether the concept is still as distinct as it used to be or is it just getting absorbed so the big companies can get some of that much needed credibility. Anyway I thought Indie Game: The Movie was a decent snapshot of a niche in a niche in transition despite a few misgivings. I anxiously await AAA Game: The Mime Show.