Monday, December 31, 2012

This is the World that We Live In (Indie Game: The Movie Paper)

The following is a paper I wrote for a documentary class about the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, a movie that I think every self-respecting video game fan should watch.  It's an inspirational piece about the development of indie gems Fez, Super Meat Boy, and Braid.
God, do I love minimalist posters.

            To the average viewer of James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s Indie Game: the Movie, the film appears to be just your typical underdog story, with the filmmakers following four “indie game” developers – Jonathan Blow of Braid fame, Super Meat Boy developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Referens, and Phil Fish, the creator of the recent indie gem Fez – as they slave and strive for success.  But such a simple summary of the film would discredit what the entire documentary truly represents, not just in the filmmaker’s decisions to show the true brilliance of the developers on whom they focus, but also how the developers’ efforts have an artistic meaning.  The film also strives to dispel some of the misconstrued ideas about video game culture and the people who make and play games. For example, video games have often just been seen as a fun hobby to many of the uninitiated masses, something to pass the time and/or alleviate stress, but nothing to fully dedicate one’s life to.  But, through their subjects, but also through their brilliant camera and editing work, Swirsky and Pajot show that this “just a hobby” theory is not true at all.  Video games are not just a hobby; they are a way of life.  Like any other artist, the games are an expression of the creator’s ideals and life experiences.  Therefore, these creators do not just work on and off on these games like anyone else would treat a hobby; rather, like a true dedicated artist, these men work endlessly to create enjoyable, meaningful, and lasting experiences for their player.  This constant dialogue between creator and player, between artist and audience, as well as a true elucidation of what video game culture becomes the grand truth of the story.
Pajot (Left) and Swirsky (Right)
            Let us just focus on the work of the developers and what their projects truly mean to them.  And, to answer that, we must ask the question, “What is an indie game?” On a basic level, an independent (or “indie”) game is a game that is not financially supported by any big name publisher.  As opposed to the better-known titles such as Call of Duty or Mass Effect, an indie game is either financed by the developers themselves, or by a variety of financers that do not represent a company.  For example, Jonathan Blow’s Braid was financed completely by Blow himself.  However, while that may be what be what an indie game is, what an indie game means is quite different, and the answers to such a question might vary.  A developer might make an indie game in order to make friends, to communicate a specific message with the player, or to express themselves and all of their hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities. 
Edmund, and one of his various forms of facial hair.
Edmund McMillen, the creative designer of the game Super Meat Boy and one of the subjects of the film, represents this idea of expression quite well as he describes one of his previous projects known as Aether.  The game follows a young child as he explores space with a strange, octopus-like creature.  As the boy explores the various planets and stars, he meets many of the various planets denizens, most of whom have problems or fears that the boy must solve.  But, as the boy solves more and more the creatures’ problems, the smaller the Earth becomes until he tries returning at the end of the game, and the earth shatters under his weight.  This concept might seem bizarre to the outsider, but to Edmund, the game had deep artistic and psychological meaning.  According to Edmund, the game itself is a commentary on the dangers of isolation and obsession, for the boy is so focused on solving the creatures’ problems (which are the same problems Edmund experienced as a child, including painful stomach aches and extreme loneliness) that he forgets, and eventually destroys, his connection to Earth and the real world.  In many ways, this reflected Edmund’s experiences as a child, when he lived with his grandmother due to a poor relationship with his stepfather, and often felt isolated within himself and his graphic artwork.  To truly convey how much this game means to Edmund, the filmmakers often compare the gameplay of Aether to some of Edmund’s childhood drawings, with one particular drawing of young Edmund imagining himself in space eerily resembling the game as a whole, as if the young Edmund knew he was going to make a game about this exact topic in the future.  

Boy, that's the most adorable psychological trauma I have ever seen.

Even the game focused on in the film, Super Meat Boy, has a large significance to Edmund.  The filmmakers focus on Edmund’s face, and also use clips from the game where the eponymous character dies over and over in the game’s death traps.  Solemnly, Edmund admits that the character is not supposed to be a light-hearted character.  With no skin and constant resurrections from grisly deaths, Meat Boy feels only pain and dread of his next demise.  But, there is more to it than that.  The objective of the game is to rescue Meat Boy’s girlfriend, who is made of bandages.  As Edmund explains how Band Aid Girl completes Meat Boy and takes away his pain, the filmmakers drop heavy hints of this having a double meaning to Edmund, as we see a woman’s hands sewing plush toys of the two characters.  It is only after this explanation that we see Edmund’s wife, who is his moral support, and the relief to the pain and suffering that comes with his artistic mind and pursuits and the constant work that comes with game development.  In many ways, the game presents itself as a love letter to Edmund’s wife and all that she does for him.  When Super Meat Boy is eventually a massive success and critically praised, this is not only a victory for Edmund on a financial basis.  As Edmund tearfully admits, the idea that a child would stay home from school to play his game and be inspired by his life’s work – just as old games were an inspiration to him as a child – is the ultimate victory.  He was able to put himself out in the world, and was not only accepted, but also praised and even adored. For a person who suffered all his life with isolation and escapism, this acceptance means everything to Edmund.
This has a deep meaning.  I promise.
But Edmund is not the only one with something to express.  To Phil Fish, his pride and joy, Fez, is also a reflection of his childhood (which we can see through pictures of a young Phil building Legos, which draws parallels to the blocky, low-resolution design of Fez) and the childlike wonder he experienced with games like Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, and The Legend of Zelda.  Thus, his tragic frustration when everything seems to go wrong in the development process – including losing his fellow developer and then fighting a legal battle over whether Phil can continue making the game, his parents’ divorce, his father’s cancer scare, his loss of a girlfriend, and even the crashing of the Fez demo at a video game convention – not only becomes an affront and problem for the game, but also Phil as a person.  This connection clearly illustrated in a brilliant sequence when the filmmakers cut between gameplay footage of the Fez main character jumping from a cliff into a small pool of water and then, just as the character hits the water, we cut to Phil below the surface of a hotel pool, as if it was one continuous jump.  In one quick moment, we know that Phil and the game are one in the same.  With this in mind, Phil’s rather shocking declaration that he would kill himself if Fez was not released does not seem like much of an exaggeration, since this game is his life.
Suicide has never been more family friendly.
We also have Edmund’s partner and programmer Tommy Referens who, throughout the movie, is constantly stressed and seems quite embarrassed to be in front of the camera.  Though McMillen claims Referens is not as stressed as he is presented in the film, the filmmakers often use Referens to show the dark side of development, along with Fish.  While Edmund seems happy go lucky, Referens works himself to death (somewhat literally as well as figuratively, as the filmmakers constantly focus on Tommy’s poor eating habits and insulin injections).  Thus, possibility of the game’s failure significantly weighs on Tommy since this game has been his work for years.  His sour behavior throughout the movie is not unfounded, and his declarations to just “curl up and die” or just “not do anything for the rest of [his] life” if Super Meat Boy does not do well clearly illustrate how much the work means to him.
Finally, the same artist-work connection applies to Blow as well.  Though we spend not as much time with Jonathan in comparison to the other developers, he not only represents the aftermath of what comes with an Indie game’s success, but also what happens when the culture surrounding the game does not understand the meaning an artist presents.  Blow has often come under fire for commenting on Internet threads criticizing his game (the filmmakers representing this by not only showing Blow at his computer and the threads with his comments, but also the negative reactions people have had to it (including several videos and blog posts presenting Blow as a know it all or as overly sensitive to criticism)).  But, the filmmakers choose to sympathize with Blow’s pain and his frustration with the massive gaming audience, particularly when they play a video of rapper Soulja Boy playing the game and being more shallowly caught up with the time manipulation technique rather than the complex meaning behind it.  Echoes of Soulja Boy’s review continue throughout Blow’s monologues, with a caustic “this is the stupidest shit ever” reverberated over Blow’s saddened face.  In this moment, the filmmakers truly emphasize how horrible it is when an artist’s message is not accepted, or even considered, by the audience.  For Blow, a rejection of the game is a rejection of the self, and given Blow’s misunderstood persona in the popular culture, it does seem he shares the same fate as his works.
My game is very complex.  You probably wouldn't understand it.
Indeed, the culture and the surrounding video games and these men is another focus of the film, though it is much subtler.  For if we only truly focused on the developers and their side of the story, we would not truly understand why one game succeeds or why one fails.  As mentioned, the filmmakers use constant use of internet forums, YouTube comments, and even interview some members of video game culture outside of development, including Gus Mastrapa of Wired Magazine, Chris Dahlen of the video game website Kill Screen, and Brandon Boyner of the Independent Game Festival, among others.  These men, and the numerous nameless Internet commenters represent the developers’ audience and the more realistic side of the story of game development.  These are the people the developers are presenting their work and themselves too, and the filmmakers show both the good and the bad.  We have the YouTube commenters, infamous for their blunt, harsh language as they curse out Phil Fish for his constant delays on the game.  As Phil vocalizes some of the more common complaints he hears, like “When is [Fez] coming out?” or “Is Phil dead?” we also see the more caustic comments, as one commenter simply states, “Fuck you, Phil Fish.  Fuck you.”  Other commenters on the popular website Reddit upload pictures of Phil with sarcastic text on them, such as “I’m Phil Fish, and I hate my life.”  Indeed, the filmmakers often try to convey how daunting the mass audience sometimes appears to the subjects of the film.  At one game convention, before the doors open and Phil has to present his demo for Fez for the first time in four years, the convention goers are presented in silhouette and in profile (commonly used through the film), giving them an eerily feeling of being a faceless, judgmental mob.  However, when things finally go well for Phil and those at the convention enjoy Fez, we finally see the faces of men, women, boys, and girls as their faces light up with child-like wonder, just as Phil intended.  In these moments, the filmmakers truly try to portray what video game culture is actually like.  While it can seem daunting and overwhelmingly negative on the grand faceless scale of the Internet (whose role in the culture is also emphasized in the aforementioned use of chat rooms and forums), it is the little moments of interaction, and the moments when a creator’s message or game truly hits with the audience that video game culture becomes a wonderful place.  As Phil laughs and chats with the players, we plainly see the dialogue between artist and audience that is so important in any interactive and creative medium, and we see the communication and feeling of camaraderie that is not often associated with the mainstream opinions of video games and the people who play them
This tends to happen after an intense bout of Mortal Kombat on the SNES.
The image often associated with Indie Game: the Movie is a Super Nintendo controller wrapped around a telephone wire like old sneakers, showing how video games are like a neighborhood with its own culture and traditions.  From this culture, there will come artists who wish to use this medium to express themselves.  The film’s subjects all are products of the video game culture who wish to share their life experiences with the world, and, as the filmmakers constantly strive to show, only video games (and indie games in particular) can be used to truly achieve this goal.  When we look at clips of Edmund’s old projects (with them ranging from bizarre, like a game about a creature who solves problems by vomiting, to the just plain absurd (a penis fighting an enormous vagina)), he explains to us that he has always been interested in pushing the limits of what can be done in video games and in culture in general, and AAA games (games produced and financed under a publisher) are too caught up in how a game will sell.  It is only through independent games can people like the film’s subjects can produce such wild ideas and go against the conventions and the norm.  It is only through this medium and lack of restriction that the audience can go past the exterior, and we can truly learn what these men are about.  In the final moments, in the “where are they now” sequence of the film, the viewer watches as Jonathan, Tommy, and Edmund begins production on new projects.  And those declarations are the firm example of why video games are an art like any other medium, such as literature or film.  No matter how painful the experience is when one makes a game, the developers eagerly jump into their project.  For it is not only a passion or a hobby, it is their life.

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