Indie Game: The Movie begins with nostalgia. The movie doesn’t literally begin with that, of course, but certainly the reasons for the film’s existence begin with it. Indie Game is a documentary that tells two separate, but connected stories. The first follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, together Team Meat, and the late development and release of their smash hit Super Meat Boy. The second story follows Phil Fish and the development hell of his game FEZ.
Both of these games are heavily, heavily nostalgic for a bygone era of games. FEZ is built from an aesthetic and design ethic that stretches back to the NES era, and late in the documentary Fish states that the game is “about” the strange rumors about gameplay that proliferated before the internet. It is about a time that has passed before and can never be regained again. Super Meat Boy is an homage to the early 90s in video games, with quick reflexes and old school iterative level design being the basic building blocks of the game. At one point we are shown Refenes’ childhood room. The wall is covered in twitch reflex SNES game posters. Super Meat Boy resonates with the past.
Several minutes into the film a line of argument begins and becomes the thread that pulls through everything else: the key marker of an indie game is that it is “personal.” We are told that the heart of game design is that games reflect something inside their creators–they are a communicative act that says something about the interior space of the creator that cannot be put into words. Refenes renders this explicit when he compares the act of writing a novel to that of creating a game; the medium is merely what they can do. It is the only way for these creators to communicate.
That’s where Jonathan Blow comes in. He created Braid, which the documentary presents as the gold standard for indie games. Every single creator wants their game to draw the same audience and praise that Braid did. It has interpreters, fans, acolytes, and people who merely liked it because you could travel back in time. Blow shows up in the documentary to frame the film: if games are personal, then the creator becomes synonymous with the game. So not only is Braid the idol game, but Blow is also the king creator. With Blow as a backdrop character–showing what happens when your game and you become successful (as well as providing a measurement of what “good” sales are)–we are thrown into the struggle of developing and releasing a game.
I’m going to make a turn here away from review and into what I think is the important critical takeaway from this film. If you care about a review: Team Meat come out looking like great guys with a bestselling game, Phil Fish looks like an asshole, and Jonathan Blow works away in solitude on The Witness. That’s the film.
The two figures that I found most compelling in the documentary were Edmund McMillen and Phil Fish. That isn’t to say that Tommy Refenes isn’t a great guy, but it is obvious that the film didn’t spend as much time with him because his life as a programmer pent up with the game constantly took a real toll on his life and his ability to carry the film. Also, he was neither a monomaniac nor a person who had serious issues with their own fears of inadequacy. Fish and McMillen were, well, exactly that respectively.
Full disclosure: I don’t like Phil Fish. The way he presents himself at conferences, trade shows, and on Twitter made me purposefully sit out when FEZ was finally released. I really attempted to disconnect that dislike for Fish while watching the film, and it did me good. He is humanized over and over again, really forcing me to disconnect from my preconceptions about him. However, there is a motivation in Fish that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. When speaking about a business partner who broke from him, Fish says that the by allowing him to finish and release FEZ that the former partner could “make millions for doing nothing.” When Fish meets Jerry Holkins at PAX, Holkins repeatedly praises the design and aesthetic of FEZ. Immediately after, Fish is reeling from the encounter and says: “This is a powerful figure in the game industry. He fucking runs this entire gigantic show. I was just really happy to meet the dude and he liked my game and me so much.”
“Make millions.” “My game (and me) so much.” As he says, “[FEZ] is my identity.” In the same breath, he says it is his ego. It is everything he expects from himself–it is a shell constructed from what he desires. He wants to garner critical praise. Fish wants fame and money. He wants to be Jonathan Blow. There is something deeply interesting about Fish in the film; if games are personal and a product of the self, what does it mean to create something that is only meant to generate an effect? Refenes says he makes games because that is the only way he knows how to communicate; Fish makes games because of what it can do for him. It feels like the game equivalent to what a scream is to communication–an immediate demand that implores the player/viewer to recognize you as brilliant this very moment. It is shallow. I don’t think it is a coincidence that FEZ was acclaimed and popular for around a week before all communication about it died off–it isn’t, in the documentary’s philosophy, a true communication of a self.
On the other side of the coin, there is Edmund McMillen. If FEZ is Phil Fish’s ego, then Super Meat Boy is McMillen’s unconscious. The main character, Meat Boy, is “in pain all the time.” He doesn’t have skin; he is exposed to the elements. He is searching for who completes him–she is a woman of bandages. Beyond the heterosexist plot, there is a lot going on in even that small bit of setup–Team Meat are making a game that deals with fundamental issues of loss and incompleteness. McMillen, in describing past projects, is consumed with these issues. His game Aether was created around a cosmology he experienced as a child of a universe with infinite problems that break down the self. We are shown self-portraits where McMillen draws himself in cutaway with monsters inside of him that are trying to scratch their way out. He relates a story about a time when he was drawing these pictures in a class and a teacher told his mother that “that’s not art, that’s a cry for help.”
And it was a cry for help, inasmuch as the way the documentary wants us to understand personal art as personal communication to a group. Super Meat Boy is a similar cry for help–it wants to bring people together around the same fears of loss and the thrill of regaining something that has been taken from the self. It is important that any review of Super Meat Boy mentions that the player feels incredibly rewarded after beating a difficult level; what some people in games studies call flow is obviously occurring, but there is an underlying level. In these moments of victory and beauty, the player is communicating with the designer on a deep level–the expectations of the designer are meeting up with the capacities that the player has to meet those expectations.
I am clearly placing Fish and McMillen in separate camps. They embody opposite philosophies.
Phil Fish is solely concerned with himself–the amount of grooming and recreating that occurred during FEZ‘s development cycle is obviously tied to the fact that the game “is” Fish; if the game is not perfect and immediately loved, how could anyone love Fish? At the end of the film, I don’t like Phil Fish, but I certainly pity him.
But I love McMillen. One of his final scenes in the documentary perfectly sums up both his design philosophy and the way that I think everyone in the game community, especially indie game creators, should be thinking. He says:
I feel like I actually, for the first time in my whole career, I successfully did something that a majority of people liked. It wasn’t an alienating experience. i am notorious for making games that tend to alienate or that not everyone completely understands and to make something that seems to have complete universal praise, I can’t help but think that I have finally made something good. I know that there is a kid out there who stayed up all night long for the game to come out and didn’t go to school the next day because he was so into playing it. And that far exceeds my experiences when I was younger. And to think that I could make something that could have an impact on this kid, even creatively, into thinking that “I know two guys made this, maybe I could make something too.” Its just cool. Its really cool. It feels really cool.
This is community thinking. This is thinking that the end result of a game isn’t what it does for you but rather what it does for other people. McMillen thinks of his game not as an end, but as a beginning of a conversation that will keep going on and on through generations of gamers.
I liked Indie Game: The Movie. You can buy it from the website or through Steam. It is worth the price of admission.
(A side note that didn’t fit into the article proper: Are there no women in the indie world? There weren’t any women to interview who had opinions about the indie world? No one. We got a guy from Kill Screen at the top and another couple journalists–none of those could have been women? This movie presents a gaming world where women only exist as objects to be attained in games or as wives and mothers. Those are literally the only women shown in the documentary. Come on, people.)