David vs. Goliath.
Mario vs. Donkey Kong.
Indie vs. Corporate.
At the heart of all great classic video games is the story of the little guy going up against impossible odds: a villain that can only be overcome through perseverance and will. So it is with Indie Game: The Movie, the new documentary by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, that we see the efforts of independent video game creators try and make a living doing what they love without having to sell their souls to the largest entertainment industry in the world.
As the market for video games has expanded, millions of game consoles with digital storefronts have found there way into the center of consumers homes. The opportunity has arisen for small, one and two man, studios to make their mark in an industry dominated by developers whose teams are measured in the hundreds.
Swirsky and Pajot weave the stories of the creators of the games Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez together flawlessly to create a portrait of the indie game scene in a moment of transition. Braid’s Jonathan Blow is held as an example of the indie success that the other creators aspire to: a personal game that managed to sell over a million copies.
The story of Team Meat (Edmund McMillen & Tommy Refenes) is used to illustrate the pitfalls and pressures of dealing with a massive publisher — the only way to gain access to the potentially lucrative console market. This is contrasted with the struggles of Fez, which has taken so long to get out of development in large part due to the perfectionist tendencies of its creator, Phil Fish. Yet the filmmakers put us firmly on the side of that perfectionism, of the quirky, individual voices of these creators.
The film earned an editing award at Sundance, and with good cause. Not only do Swirsky and Pajot apply some beautiful techniques to illustrate the evolution of games like Braid, from rough concept to finished project, they have a an iron clad sense of pacing and drama. The third act of this film is as tense as any horror movie I’ve seen in the past two years as Team Meat and Fish face down their personal End Bosses.
The filmmaking couple has raised the bar for personality-based docs in a number of ways. Shooting on the Canon 5D Mark II, the film is supremely gorgeous. This extends to the copious amounts of game footage that the duo uses to illustrate concepts and story points in the film, which despite being blown up to the full size of a film screen seem like they were meant for that scale. It’s a subtle thing, but a sure sign of how much care and attention has been put into the details.
A lot has been made of the comparison between the indie game scene as it stands today and the indie film scene of the 1990’s. Indie Game: The Movie puts a bit of the lie to that; these creators may have a lot in common with the spirt of the rogues and rebels who made the Sundance Film Festival what it is today, but they have even more in common with musicians and painters. Like them, working in adverse conditions on intensley personal projects in small groups, in conversation with a passionate group of fans and other makers, the indie scene knows all too well that insane success is the least likely of outcomes.
In this case, every minute of this gem of a doc entertains.