Indie Game: The Movie is only 12 years old, but it feels like a relic

I attended a screening of Indie game: the movie, probably still the most famous documentary about video game development, in early 2012. The film was held at the Game Developers Conference – “the definition of home audience,” as I wrote at the time – and received a standing ovation from a huge audience in the big hall of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The Kickstarter-funded film had already screened at the Sundance Film Festival at that point, but this was its debut for real audiences: people who love games, people who make games, people who dream of making games. Naturally, they adopted the film’s confident storytelling, larger-than-life characters, and romanticization of the artist’s struggles.

It’s a strange experience to watch the film again now (it’s available to rent or buy on Prime Video and Apple TV). Twelve years isn’t a very long time in film, or in the real world, and you can hardly call the film dated. The people in the film live in a world that is recognizable as the world we live in now; they use smartphones and follow the discourse on Twitter and YouTube. The film itself, directed by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, is a slick, well-edited documentary in the contemporary style, and is notable for how cleverly and stylishly it uses video game footage – still a rarity today. As a comprehensive account of video game development it has been surpassed, especially by the two astonishingly candid Double Fine documentary series, but you can’t fault it.

In video games, however, twelve years is a lifetime. The world of indie game development – ​​of all game development – ​​has changed beyond recognition since then, and the fate of the film’s main characters has since told a thorny, sad story that doesn’t fit into the filmmakers’ ambitious narrative.

Two developers sit at computers with their backs to the camera, dwarfed by a large Aqua Teen Hunger Force poster

Team Meat’s Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen.
Image: Indie Game: The Movie

The film has two main story lines. In one, Team Meat – indie developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes – prepare their anarchic platformer Super meat boy for release on Xbox Live Arcade in late 2010. In the other, Polytron’s Phil Fish prepares to show off his game Fez at the PAX East gaming expo in early 2011. Fez has been in development hell for years, and an acrimonious split with Fish’s former business partner has seemingly put the game’s future in legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, Jonathan Blow comments from the sidelines on the success of his 2008 breakout Braid, an early harbinger of the indie game explosion, like a wizened oracle. (Braid has just been re-released in a new anniversary edition.)

It’s funny to see the developers wielding Xbox 360 controllers and discussing the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace as the be-all and end-all in indie game distribution; Steam is only briefly discussed, there isn’t much mention of mobile app stores, and PlayStation and Nintendo aren’t even in talks. Refenes emphasizes when Super meat boy doesn’t seem to be getting a promised placement on the Xbox front end, which seems strange compared to the 2024 launch day concerns of most indie developers hoping to get noticed at all among hundreds of new releases per day spread across a half dozen main storefronts.

The amount of noise developers have to cut through, and the sheer number of games released, is perhaps the biggest change in the indie gaming scene between 2012 and now. But there have also been major cultural shifts. Indie game: the movie is, to some extent, honest about the human struggle in game development. McMillen and Refenes speak movingly about the crushing stress and overwork that comes with launching their game, while Fish and Blow speak out about the frustration and alienation that comes with being the center of online discourse .

Tommy Refenes sits at his desk, surrounded by computer screens, playing Super Meat Boy on a TV in the background

Tommy Refenes at work Super meat boy.
Image: Indie Game: The Movie

But this was a few years before that discourse would be weaponized by online harassment campaigns, before unhealthy work practices would be questioned as a fact of life in game development, and before the privilege of these four white, male, rockstar game developers would be seriously monitored. Fish says he will kill himself if he can’t finish it Fez, and it seems to mean it, is a truly shocking moment. But the film ultimately seems to accept the tortured state of these developers’ mental health as a sign of their artistic authenticity, and by extension, that of the entire video game medium. Look, they’re just like Sid Vicious or Vincent van Gogh, Swirsky and Pajot seem to suggest. They don’t have the foresight to question the necessity of making games this way.

At the time I was frustrated by it Indie game: the movie‘s casting. The filmmakers chose to focus on stars in the making whose success was already certain or seemed guaranteed, regardless of the drama that would ensue around it. What about the majority who don’t sell a million copies, win the promotional deal with Microsoft, or pay off their parents’ mortgage? That’s still a serious omission from the film’s portrayals, though it takes on a strangely poignant twist when you consider what happened to these four men next.

Blow and Fish both undermined their reputations with public comments that were at best misleading and at worst insulting. Refenes and McMillen parted ways. Repeated success was elusive. McMillen, the most grounded of the bunch, did follow Super meat boy with one more blow, The Binding of Isaacbut has spent much of the last decade on a frustrated quest to create a game called Mewgenics, first with Refenes and then without him. Always a philosophically remote figure, Blow spent nine years creating a brilliant but inscrutable puzzle game called The witnessand then somehow managed to become a public COVID-19 conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer. Fez proved a masterpiece, but the hot-headed Fish imploded into a mess of brash commentary shortly after release; he announced Fes 2, canceled it almost immediately in an apparent fit of anger, and has yet to make a play. (He seems calmer and happier now, in relative obscurity.)

Phil Fish, wearing hipster glasses and mutton chops, has a drink in a chic hotel bar

Fez creator Phil Fish.
Image: Indie Game: The Movie

It’s as if Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson only managed to come up with one and a half hit films together after breaking out in the 1990s, only to fade into obscurity—an obscurity they might even welcome. It seems like the games industry is almost as bad at supporting the most talented independent creators when they succeed as when they fail.

Or maybe, what Indie game: the movie What these lone-wolf artists miss in their rush to hero worship is that video game making has always been a collective endeavor. Between the releases of Super meat boy And Fez another XBLA hit came, Bastion, from Supergiant Games. This tight-knit collective continued to make more games, sometimes with publishers, sometimes without. They supported each other and grew gently. They made their own masterpiece, Hades, and then managed not to flame out. Now they’re following it up, and the sequel seems just as good. That’s not a sexy story to include in a video game doc, but maybe it’s one we all need to hear.

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