This week, I’m going to review another recent film just as I did last week. It’s an underrated documentary well known in only a few circles, which is a real shame because if you look past the specific subject matter of the film’s focus, Indie Game: The Movie is not so much about video games as it is about the sacrifices one makes for their art and the commitment needed to fulfill one’s vision. The film revolves around the development and impact of three independently made and released video games: Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid, which has become one of the most acclaimed indie video games of all time. It’s my belief that true art emerges of certain criteria which are often painful and misunderstood by many. For this review, I’d like to examine several of these concepts as they relate to this film: sacrifice, isolation, and obsession.
Indie Game: The Movie focuses primarily on four men and their lives developing the aforementioned video games. These men are Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who are the creators of Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish, the developer of Fez, and Jonathan Blow, the man who created Braid and the much-hyped, but as yet unreleased, The Witness.
Each of these men, in their own way, embody sacrifice. Edmund McMillen’s wife discusses how she only ever sees her husband’s back. Tommy Refenes, sitting alone at a dinner, tells the camera about how he can’t date because he could only afford one meal and how he never goes out. Phil Fish describes his business partnership dissolving, as well as his romantic relationship. Jonathan Blow is the exception, for he doesn’t blatantly discuss having to sacrifice for his games, seemingly being fine with the fact that he lives a solitary life. That said, I’d put money that he’s had to sacrifice plenty, including romantic relationships. For, as Tommy says, “You kinda have to give up something to get something great.”
One of the products of the social sacrifices these men, and many other artists, make is the fact that their day-to-day lives are solo. While business and development partners, Edmund and Tommy work on opposite sides of the continent, Edmund in Santa Cruz and Refenes in North Carolina. Phil Fish and his assistant coder sit in a practically unfurnished office, tapping away at their computers, trying to finish production of Fez. Adding to the point of their isolation, the filmmakers use many wide shots of vast cityscapes that then cut to the developers sitting by themselves. There are other crowd shots where the developers are looking at their phone or staring off into the distance, separate to the blur of humanity around them. The developers are not unlike writers or painters, or any other artists who take devotion to their craft to the Nth degree. They work alone, the computer and them, creating something that will hopefully be played by millions of avid gamers the world over. Their isolation is in direct conversation with the invisible thousands and millions they will touch. The promise of that, that faith in that future interaction, is what drives all art.
And one cannot maintain that level of sacrifice or isolation without obsession. Like the melodramatic stories one tries to ignore every day, each of these men have had difficulties in their lives. It’s no surprise listening to Edmund talk about how awful his step father was that he now uses video games to express himself. All of us artists do that. We can create here in bedrooms, touch you all out there, and never have to actually meet you. That is the true blessing of art—distance.
Obsession, for these men and countless other people, means devotion. The line is not blurred; it doesn’t exist. They literally are giving their lives to these games. This is apparent no greater than in the scene where the filmmakers ask Phil Fish what he would do if he didn’t get a chance to finish Fez. He says that he would kill himself. In fact, he says that finishing the game is the only thing that was keeping him alive. He had to stay alive to finish creating a video game. That is devotion.
The stories of these games is still unfolding, and everyone portrayed within the film is still alive, still figuring out how to devote their lives to their art without losing their lives. It’s a struggle all of us have to deal with. We all hope that a million people will buy our art, or at least some of them will understand it. I’m glad the filmmakers decided to pursue this subject matter, for we viewers often become numb to the kooky sculptors and musicians that fleck our lives, but to see grown men give their lives to video game development—well, that’s worth all the money it took on Kickstarter to get this movie made.