People just don’t always know what’s best for them. In general that statement is true, but when it comes to fandom and subculture, it really gets emphasized. We just don’t always know what’s best for us. In stories like Lost and Mass Effect, it’s always the hardcore fans — the ones who care most — who wish their favorite TV show or video game ended in a more “normal” way. They’re the ones who expect more from the things they invest in, but still insist that content creators take less risks and keep their beloved mediums safe. There is no easy way to put this, but quite simple we’ve encouraged the creative industries we love to become fat, lazy, and greedy.
[pullquote align="right"]“We’ve encouraged the creative industries we love to become fat, lazy, and greedy.”[/pullquote]In an artistic medium as young as videogames, it’s no surprise to find that these very sentiments still dominate the emotional spectrum of its players. Those that identify themselves as “hardcore” gamers have been suspicious of the term “indie games” for quite some time now — and perhaps understandably so. For a subculture who has so strongly identified with the medium, the label “indie” feels like a trendy way of co-opting videogames into something easy to digest. Something “hip”. Watered down for the masses. Casual.
Back in April, Joshua Kopstein published an article on the tech news site The Verge entitled “Don’t Start A Band: Why Everyone Should Be Making Video Games”. The article focused on the burgeoning wave of independent game development that was sweeping the industry — the same kind of democratization that has overtaken industries like music and film over the years. The article and the book it’s based on make the argument that in order for videogames to receive societal validity as an artistic medium, we need more and more normal people to start making games. In order for videogames to keep getting better, we desperately need them to be about something more than bigger guns and higher resolution graphics.
But the article argues that we don’t just need more games — we need a certain type of games. Specifically, we need more personal games. We need more games that establish a direct emotional connection between the player and the designer — the kind of connection that gives you a peek into the soul of the person who created it. For the past few years, these “indie games” — whether its Minecraft, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, or Braid — have the been very games that have been pushing the medium forward in artistic ways. These games have a reputation of being able to speak to human beings at their very core because they’re development comes from a place of deep personal sincerity and conviction.
As game studios’ budgets and staff have grown over the years, the process of game development has become something of a mystery to the average gamer. With each new rendition of Call of Duty, I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that even the most popular and critically-acclaimed games are faceless and generic. In that context, the story that Indie Game: The Movie tells is a bold and fascinating look into an alternate way of making games — one that finds inspiration deep in the heart of human creativity.
The documentary spotlights three indie game development teams/developers: Jonathan Blow, Team Meat, and Polytron. They’re all interesting, but really, the film focuses on two specific stories: the climactic events that lead up to the release of Super Meat Boy and the prolonged development of Fez. Through interviews and in-depth looks at what life is like dedicated to the creation of a singular piece of work, the audience gets a very different picture of what gave development looks like — and it isn’t always pretty.
There is a particularly special moment in the film that caught my attention and has remained in the back of my mind ever since. Team Meat, made up of artist Edmund Mcmillen and programmer Tommy Refenes, have just released their monumental achievement Super Meat Boy. Years of development, pressure, and stress went into the release of this side-scrolling platformer — and it’s all finally come to an end. On day of its release, we watch as Edmund and his wife excitedly watch the glowing reviews and sales numbers come rolling in. Edmund has sacrificed the livelihood of his family on the project.
The film cuts to Tommy, who is doing everything he can to avoid the internet and see the reactions. He finds himself not knowing what to do with himself. Super Meat Boy had been his life for years now. Even once he finds out of the massive success of the game, he never fully knows how to respond. Eventually we see our final shots of Tommy, sitting alone in a booth at a Waffle House in what appears to be the middle of the night. Its a sobering thought — that perhaps when you invest yourself so fully in creating something, there’s a part of you that you can never get back.
I first saw Indie Game: The Movie when the film’s two creators went on tour with it earlier this year. As the credits rolled and the filmmakers took the stage, I saw some of that same personal investment in the eyes of these artists who never thought there little film about indie games would even get finished — let alone succeed in the way that it has. Indie Game: The Movie tells a story that needs to be heard.
Because bigger budgets and bigger staffs won’t ever validate videogames. Neither will the fastest processor on the market or the next piece of technological gadgetry. It’s seeing the people behind games — their blood, sweat, and tears — that will help people see how important videogames have become in our culture. Because ultimately, Indie Game: The Movie is a story about humans and the things they create–and you don’t need to know a thing about videogames to relate to that.