It’s clear that Indie Game: The Movie is not a movie that was made for me. It was made not for developers, but instead for people who really have no idea what an “indie developer” is. In other words, most people. That’s fine – I have no problem with one of the purposes of this film being a public declaration of the existence of the indie developer.
It may be a bit of a problem, though, that that’s just about the only clear purpose of this film.
To those viewers that the movie was made for, I’m speaking to you, now. There are some things that you need to know. Mainly, the following two things:
1. Not all “videogames” are actually puzzle platformers, and
2. Not all indie game developers are spoiled, depressed and pretentious
You may be sad to learn that this bold new wave of indie developers are still basically just tweaking the same game that you remember playing back in the 1990s or even earlier. All of the games shown in the movie are just clones of older games, with a new theme, and some gameplay gimmick. Also, if you go and look around on the internet, you may find that it’s really true! Wow, there really are nothing but puzzle platformers everywhere! The number of puzzle platformers getting made every year is staggering.
However, there are some digital game developers out there who are doing new, interesting things. Chris Hecker’s Spy Party, Rodain Joubert’s Desktop Dungeons, Tarn Adams’ Dwarf Fortress, just to name a few. It would have been great to see a little of that in the film. Now, I do think that the growth of digital gaming is extremely stunted (for a few reasons that I’ve gone on about many times over), but other than a fleeting shot of Minecraft, the viewer would have absolutely no idea that digital gaming has advanced at all.
Actually, for years I’ve wanted to write an article addressing the “puzzle platformer” plague, but I never did, partially because I thought “okay, well, it’s so bad now, it’s probably going to get better.” But it hasn’t gotten better. Right now eight out of ten of the top posts on reddit’s IndieGaming subreddit are about (directly or indirectly), puzzle platformers. People are excited about a new Abe’s Odyssey? Really?
Now, I might be a bit biased here, because I don’t like puzzles. But seriously, even people who do like puzzles have got to be getting tired of this by now.
Most Developers Are Normal People
Of course, it’s a movie, and so I do take the presentation of these “characters” with a grain of salt. In fact, I’ll preface everything by saying that it could be that the people in this film were presented in a completely unfair way that made the appear to be nothing at all like who they really are. I am only addressing the characters that I was presented with.
Going into it, I was concerned, because I already knew about Jonathan Blow and his patented brand of non-communication. I was expecting him to start every sentence with “so,” end every sentence with “, right?”, and squint his way through various “art-game” keywords such as “personal”, and “interesting”. I expected him to complain that while people liked his game, they didn’t like it for the right reasons, and that was those people’s fault, not his.
My expectations about him were all met. However, what I didn’t expect was to find Blow to be one of the more likeable characters in the movie.
Before I go on, I have to point out that I’m not talking about Edmund McMillen. He seemed like a pretty down to earth guy, and at no point did I want to strangle him. Could he be a little more pleased with incredible success? Maybe. I think the director really wanted to paint this picture of him that he’s this, like, “twisted, dark individual”, but other than him maybe being a little depressed I think he seemed like a normal guy who just wanted to make some nice little games for the people.
I am, however, talking about Phil Fish. In all seriousness, I did not know that the caricature of that incredibly pretentious, spoiled brat “hipster” archetype actually existed, until I saw this film. To me it’s a bit like meeting a “valley girl” who’s blowing bubblegum bubbles and talking on her cellphone 24/7, or a 19th century gold prospector, or something.
I’m a totally non-violent person and I mean this purely in a figurative sense, but, this kid seriously needs a good elbow drop. Throughout the film, he’s clearly in an extremely awesome situation. He was just able to work on his game for four years straight. I could be wrong, but I did not get the impression that he was holding down a full-time job during that time, or anything. From his clothing and his house and computer and the fact that he was able to travel to PAX (I’ve never been able to afford to go to any game conventions, except for last year’s PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail, and I could only do that because it’s a $20 train ride away and I was able to get a press pass), I’d say that he seems to be doing rather well despite spending so much time on his game.
But even though he is basically on top of the world, we get to endure his temper tantrums in some fancy-ass expensive five star hotel lobby while he waits for his ex-partner, who for some mysterious reason, left the team. The whole thing was just extremely cringe-inducing to watch, and the worst thing was that the film, with its “hip indie art movie” soundtrack, seemed to be presenting this person’s behavior as, like, cool? I’ll get more into that later.
Blake (our lead artist and my housemate) and I watched the film together, and we had a blast imagining what Phil Fish’s ex-partner was like. We assumed that he was the pro-wrestler, the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and that in a classic “bully” style, he just wanted to repeatedly give Phil Fish elbow drops. Hearing Blake’s excellent Macho Man impression saying stuff like “HEY LITTLE BUDDY, LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE’S OVERDUE FOR AN ELBOW DROP!” and imagining that that was this kid’s arch nemesis was by far the most awesome thing about this movie (actually, in general, super self-serious spoiled hipster jerks are countered amazingly well by classic bully archetypes. Possibly because the bully is so the opposite of the hipster, but also possibly because we just want to see hipsters getting pantsed and pushed into pools).
The one saving grace is that Phil Fish is just a kid – if I’m not mistaken, he’s 20 years old, and this kind of douche-baggery is actually pretty common at that age. I hope, for his sake, that his name is a pseudonym. When he’s 30 or 40, he’s going to be extremely embarrassed by his behavior in this film. In fact, it made me extremely relieved that there isn’t any famous public record of my behavior when I was 20. I don’t think I was as bad as him, but… maybe that thought is a luxury of not having my 20-year-old self immortalized, I don’t know.
Overall, the character I felt most sympathetic to in the entire film was, of all people, Soulja Boy. You see, there was this quick Youtube clip of him playing Braid, and saying stuff like “you’re this little guy and you just walk around, jump around, and shit”. This prompted Blake to later review the film on Facebook as follows:
Just watched Indie Game: The movie with Keith Burgun. It’s a harrowing tale wherein the underdog protagonist, Solja Boy, has nothing but his homespun wisdom and optimism to protect him from the unrelenting assault of a heinous gang of spoiled, contemptuous, hateful, pretentious worms who call themselves “The Indie Developers.”
Really. Similarly to the “bully” archetype, hearing someone like Soulja Boy speak in a movie like Indie Game: The Movie provides an incredible amount of relief.
The Film Itself
Due to the Dancing Bear Effect, it will be perceived by our videogame-romanticizing culture as a good film, even though it isn’t one. It’s good, for a documentary about videogames. Nevermind that we actually don’t have a lot of these to compare it to – the videogamers are just happy that reviewers at the New York Times and people at Sundance Film Festival are talking about their favorite hobby!
Why do I think it was bad? Well, firstly, as I mentioned, it didn’t have much of a point. I’m guessing that the point was something like “indie developers exist, and they have personalities, and some of them have been really successful, isn’t that cool?” It didn’t have any kind of theme, or message. It was just this somewhat haphazard portraiture.
For this reason, the film could probably have been 10 minutes long, 94 minutes long (which it was), or 300 minutes long. The pacing and story structure were kind of weak, so I think it would have been a lot better as a 15-25 minute piece. It would have been very easy to achieve the same things they did in much less time.
Much of the film is made up of these random shots of outdoor scenery. Like, they may as well have cut to utterly stock footage clips of a man gutting a fish, little girls singing in a play, or a horse running around a barn. The film itself had a good bit of that same pretentious audience-disrespect that was exhibited by some of its subject.
The soundtrack was basically set to “sad indie movie trailer” the entire time, and it was really jarring during some scenes. However, I think that the soundtrack is a crucial element in the film’s attempt to create an illusion that it had something to say. If a person was allowed to see a version of this film with no soundtrack, I think they would find it really confusing.
Overall, this film is not one I would recommend to anybody. I’m much happier with people thinking that indie developers don’t exist, than I am allowing them to think that we advocate this kind of disrespect for the audience. According to IMDB, the filmmakers are new to filmmaking, and it shows.
Let’s put it this way: if this movie was the exact same movie, but about something else, such as fishing or karate instructors, would anyone give a shit?