Indie Game: The Movie

We find out the story behind Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary film that follows Fez-creator Phil Fish, Super Meat Boy's Team Meat, and Braid developer Jonathan Blow.

Independent game developer, designer, and gamemaker Phil Fish is crying silently on his couch in Montreal, Canada. Next to him, colleague and friend Ken Schachter is watching the credits on Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky's Indie Game: The Movie roll on the small television screen at the back of the room.

Fish pauses for a moment, takes off his glasses to wipe the tears from his eyes, and says:

"I'm f***ing blown away."

Phil Fish, co-creator of Fez.

Indie Game: The Movie

Two years ago, Pajot and Swirsky, two Canadian filmmakers who once upon a time worked solely on corporate and commercial projects, prowled the halls of the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) in San Francisco in search of a good idea. A few months prior, the pair had been commissioned to shoot and edit a five-minute profile piece on Alec Holowka, cocreator with Derek Yu of the critically acclaimed 2007 Independent Games Festival winner Aquaria, a 2D side-scroller about an underwater-dwelling heroine called Naija.

The project made a deep impression on Pajot and Swirsky. Holowka had unknowingly introduced them to an untapped source of storytelling material, full of the kind of passion, heartbreak, and perseverance that make for compelling viewing. As they wandered the halls of the Independent Games Summit at the 2010 GDC, talking to indie developers, designers, and gamemmakers from all over the world, Pajot and Swirsky found what they were looking for: a story waiting to be told.

"There we were, doing corporate and commercial stuff, and suddenly, we stumble on this story of indie game development and give up all that other stuff up and decide not to get paid for a while and go ahead and make a film," Pajot says, speaking on the phone from the studio she shares with Swirsky in Winnipeg, Canada, just minutes after putting the final touches on Indie Game: The Movie.

Super Meat Boy.

The documentary is the result of a year-long project documenting the creative processes of four independent game developers: Phil Fish (Fez), Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy) and Jonathan Blow (Braid). Although more than familiar with gaming and its subcultures, Pajot and Swirsky knew little about who was making waves in the independent development community at the start of 2010. After months of research, they put together a list of roughly 20 up-and-coming names, and not yet sure of the final direction the film would take, they decided to meet with the first names on their list--Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes--to shoot an initial test piece.

"That's when it clicked," Swirsky says. "In the middle of it, Lisanne and I just turned to each other and had the same thought: These stories need to be told."

Pajot and Swirsky used the test piece they shot with Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, aka Team Meat, to drum up support for the project on creative funding platform Kickstarter and eventually raised enough money to begin preproduction on the film. (As a pledge of good faith, Pajot and Swirsky continued to post videos throughout the project's development, which came to some 88 minutes of content.)

"What was so funny about it at the time was that we were so confident and so passionate and excited about it that we didn't really think about how long it would take us to make this movie or the risks involved," Pajot says. "We just wanted to do it. And then we had to actually make it, and we realized it was hard and it would take a long time."

The two filmmakers slowly made their way down the list of 20 developers, shooting interviews with everyone from Ron Carmel (2D Boy) to industry wunderkind Jason Rohrer. But it wasn't until meeting Phil Fish and witnessing the moments of genuine madness that go into making an independent game that Pajot and Swirsky decided to switch gears. The new focus of the film became Fish, Team Meat, and Jonathan Blow, with the former slaving to perfect individual projects ahead of release and the latter struggling with the success of Braid. (A special edition of the film, to be released after Indie Game: The Movie, will include all Pajot and Swirsky's interviews.)

"The stories of Team Meat and Fez got so dramatic and so compelling that to do them justice, we had to make room for them, which meant cutting everything that we'd worked on up until that point," Swirsky says.

"In the end, we spent so much time with these guys and captured their story, and they opened up to us in a way that we never thought possible. They were so incredibly open and honest that we felt a certain sense of preciousness about their story and how we needed to portray it. We got very attached and protective of it. In the end, we just wanted to know that we did right by these people whose stories we fell in love with."

Fez.

An Underdog Story

In many ways, the indie games scene is the perfect underdog story: colorful, larger-than-life characters that dream big and follow their own destiny. In trying to capture the eccentricity, outbursts, and irregular sleeping patterns of creators like Fish, Team Meat and Blow, Pajot and Swirsky knew they had to create an aesthetic that would not only allow for drama, but also lend itself well to an audience unfamiliar with indie game development or the wider gaming industry. The pair arrived at two key works: the Gary Hustwit documentary Objectified (and, to a lesser extent, sister works Helvetica and Urbanized); and Seth Gordon's 2007 critically acclaimed documentary King of Kong.

Pajot describes Indie Game: The Movie as a "drama with some design talk," navigating between the different creators and their lives to create an overarching narrative that asks questions about the creative process and the role of the individual artist. It also delves into that other, more contentious and oft-tread territory: the artistic nature of video games themselves.

"I hope people walk away from this film realizing that there's a connection between a video game and the person who made it and that games can be and say something much more than just pure entertainment," Swirsky says.

"It was funny to discover all the parallels between us making this film and the guys making their games. I think you can watch this film and you can take out every reference to 'video game' and swap it for 'book' or 'film' or 'music' and the message would stay the same. It's really just passionate people who are expressing themselves through hard work, creativity, and sacrifice. It's a universal story."

But it's not the kind of passion that suits everyone. What Pajot and Swirsky discovered while watching Fish and Team Meat at work is that these developers will never have nine-to-five jobs (in as much as any game developer's job is nine to five). Working for someone else, much less going into an office or studio every day of the week, is just not how they work. Despite their respect for AAA games and AAA game development, they're simply not interested in working that way. In many ways, their passion springs from solitude, protecting them (or at least, in their minds) from the risks that come with remaining indie and working for years on end on a single project without knowing whether it's going to pay off.

Team Meat in their work environment.

In other words, being indie is not a choice.

"They feel compelled to make these games and make them this way," Swirsky says. "And they have to make them this way because no one else is going to make this game. No one is going to make a retro platformer about a cube of meat who is rescuing his girlfriend from a doctor who is a fetus in a jar…no one is going to make that game. That's why they need to."

In this sense, Indie Game: The Movie is a cautionary tale. Pajot and Swirsky were particular about capturing the moments of doubt and frustration that plagued all the developers in the film; if not to balance the moments of triumph, then to present as realistic an interpretation as possible about what it means to be indie.

"Any game that's made, be it indie or AAA, is a miracle," Swirsky says. "The simple fact that games actually ship--and work--is a miracle. You could go through Super Meat Boy or Braid or Fez and just look at all these little points in these games where if it had gone the other way, if one little detail had slipped the creator's mind, the game would not have existed. Games are all little miracles."

Sundance and Beyond

Just days before this interview, Indie Game: The Movie was accepted to be part of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival official selection, premiering on January 19 to a room full of critics and film buffs in Park City, Utah.

The majority of Pajot and Swirsky's nervous excitement at the news stemmed from the fact that only about 15 people had actually seen the film in its entirety, meaning Sundance will be "a big, scary test," as Pajot puts it, for mainstream audience reaction.

Jonathan Blow's Braid.

Depending on its reception at Sundance, Pajot and Swirsky will then begin to work on a national distribution plan for the film, including film festivals, game conferences, and a possible theatre release, before officially releasing the film on DVD and digital at the end of this year.

After completing an early draft of the film late last year, Pajot and Swirsky decided to do a test run on the very people whose lives the film follows, resulting in a few nerve-racking days travelling across the country.

"It must have been surreal for these guys to watch themselves go through some the most stressful things they've ever gone through in their lives, shot with two cameras, set to music, augmented with graphics…kind of like the most surreal home video they've ever watched," Swirsky says. "We didn't know what to expect. We had no idea how they'd react."

The reaction was more than Pajot and Swirsky could have ever hoped for: It was Phil Fish, crying in his lounge room.

Later that night, Fish tweeted: "Five to 10 years from now, indie kids are going to be asked: 'What made you go into indie games?' and they'll say: 'Indie Game: The Movie.'"

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Discussion

29 comments
SoCal71
SoCal71

I saw this film last night Via steam and minor critiques aside this was a really good film. I was really happy for the meat boy guys and bought their game solely based on this movie. Which i hope drives even more sales to them, as well as polytron. Clearly phil fish comes across as an a hole, and he deserves a lot of the negstive comments he gets, but I 100% support his passion for Fez. The game is worth it and I hope more people take the time to download it after seeing this movie. We need more Phil fish's developing games, and out of the public eye. The gaming world is better for it.

awwitz
awwitz

Just saw it. It was an amazing film! It was an anti-thesis of what we've all been thinking about independent developers for so long. Incredible filmmaking skills from the makers, and an amazing array of drama and reality that captures the hearts of viewers everywhere, may they be gamers or not.

eyerok
eyerok

@Double_Wide - the problem actually is that Sony isn't as forthcoming as Microsoft when it comes to Indie games, like grim0187 said. In Super Meat Boys case, Microsoft offered them a much better deal in exchange for exclusivity, and Sony's licensing fee would on the other hand make indie devs pay form their own pockets initially, which is a bit crazy considering they don't have a budget approved by a board of directors or whatever and they actually pay dev costs form their own pockets. They did nothing wrong, its sony's fault for not being flexible enough. In fact I find some of Sony's recent moves to be questionable; like for instance their recent decision of adding unlockable content in every first party game, which would force gamers to buy unused games just so they can use the passcode to access some of the content, Like UC3's multiplayer for instance.

TylerVanderyt
TylerVanderyt

@Double_Wide You are such a tool. Not a sharp one either.

grim0187
grim0187

@Double_Wide Well, sorry to say buddy, but the world doesnt revolve around what YOU want. Plenty of people enjoy the Xbox. Xbox Live is a better system then PSN. Microsoft has pushed indie games harder then Sony. The devs felt their pressence would be heard better on XBLA and they were right. Sorry if it bursts your fanboy bubble. Developers dont cater to just YOU. So, yeah, if you want to play some indie games, YOU have to meet the developers demands and buy an Xbox.

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

@eyerok I agree with Microsoft having a better set of options for 3rd party developers when it comes lincesing their games (they can choose to pay significantly less and Microsoft takes 30% of all profit they make...licensing is free for students I think). I disagree that Sony wasn't interested. I think the developers just wanted to cut cost and not pay Sony's lincening fees which probably could have paid for themselves from all the profit they gained from the game's success.

eyerok
eyerok

@Double_Wide - its not that the devs are against sony, its just that M$ made better moves in terms of downloadable games. Super meat boy could have been released on Ps3 but sony simply wasn't interested. Braid is already on the ps3, but I dont know why Fez isn't on ps3, though it probably has to do with the fact that M$ is extremely focused on its XBLA content and has made aggressive moves to ensure it doesnt lose out on exclusive downloable games, since they've already lost the battle for better exclusive retail titles. That's how I see it.

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

@grim0187 I sound like a spoiled kid?! Yet you're telling me its more pratical as the consumer to spend more money on a platform that I don't care for (XBOX 360) just to play a couple of indy games because the developers are obviously biased? And I perfer to play my games on consoles and portables...I'm not a PC gamer, never have been and never will be. I shouldn't have to meet the developers demands...its supposed to be the other way around. Having a preferance for the PS3 doesn't make me a fanboy. Obviously these developers have something against Sony (thinks back to Terms of Service controversy) and refuse to develop games for the platform.

nate1222
nate1222

Given all the misconceptions surrounding the game industry and the stereotypes regarding gamers, films like this NEED to be made. And given that the industry is in deep trouble due to mega-publishers and console makers churning out over-priced regurgitations, films reflecting retro/indie developers NEED to be seen. Fortunately, thanks to consoles dying off (the 8th gen will be console gaming's final gen) and cheap downloadables becoming the norm, indie devs have an improved position.

grim0187
grim0187

@Double_Wide I just hope you realize how much of a spoiled kid you sound like. Your responding to this on a PC. Why dont you USE that PC and get some indie games? Or better yet, go buy a 360! Their pretty cheap now. That is, if you can work around your fanboy brain that its okay to own more then one console....

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

@StanleyL Ok, you make a good point about the movie but it still keeps PS3 owners out of loop because we wouldn't know if they're story is worth listening too or not. For all we know, they're games could be total crap. @TylerVanderyt Oh boo hoo! Like I said, I could see if I could some how equate a quality game to the struggle it took to make it but I can't...all because I don't own the platforms they exclusively attach themselves to. There are other indy developers who are multiplatform and a low budget is no excuse. I'm not interested because they didn't make their product accessable to me...period!

mobinoo
mobinoo

release is at the end of 2012?ooops :( can't wait

ProMethUse
ProMethUse

shows that you just need a few capable guys in your dev. team to make a great game :D

TylerVanderyt
TylerVanderyt

@Double_Wide Dude. Get over yourself. The whole point of the movie is to show how much of a struggle it is to make it in the Indie world and the problems developers face when it's just a few guys in their apartment developing every aspect of the game. And here you are, with the audacity to say you won't be able to hold interest in the movie because they 'neglect' PS3 owners. Jesus man. Really?

StanleyL
StanleyL

@Double_Wide The filmmakers Pajot and Swirsky are responsible for this film, not the game developers. To say they didn't make an effort to release their games on PS3 because they were too busy being involved in this project is disingenuous.

syler4815162342
syler4815162342

Thanks GameSpot i really enjoyed reading this, love to watch that movie very inspiring indeed.

LoG-Sacrament
LoG-Sacrament

i'll watch it if i get the chance, but it sounds like it will be tough to find (not unusual with documentaries anyway) if even a limited release is in doubt.

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

@bernardofd Its not just that..its the use of the programming language used to design the games, C++ and C # which are native to Microsoft platforms (as well as Objective-C for iPhones). So its easier for them to just release it on the 360, PCs, and smart phones. Regardless, there are plenty of indy games released in the Playstation Store (as minis or downloadable games), so that's really no excuse. The same effort and money they found to fund this movie, they could have put into expanding their horizons.

bernardofd
bernardofd

@Double_Wide The PC is the open platform. That's why 99% of the independent games comes out on PC. Most of these developers doesn't have the money nor the workforce necessary to go through XBLA's and PSN's loops and hoops to publish a small game. On contrary, Steam gives plenty of support for indie devs (just google Project Zomboid). And we still have Wolffire's Humble Bundles, which gives Mac and Linux gamers a chance to play those games...

lantonis
lantonis

damn i missed that super nintendo controller

mori70
mori70

wish i could be one of them!

Double_Wide
Double_Wide

This sounds great and all but it would be hard for me to get into the movie since these guys have completely neglected all of us exclusive PS3 owners when releasing their games.

BrunoBRS
BrunoBRS

that looks like a really interesting documentary, i'll be sure to watch it, maybe even show the family.