Review: Indie Game: The Movie

Edmund McMillen was always the kid who liked to sit alone and draw instead of playing with others. He drew monsters so disturbing his third-grade teacher told his parents the pictures were "a cry for help." But he channeled his imagination rather than trying to stifle it, and began making Flash games as he grew older -- simple browser-based adventures featuring gigantic, battling genitalia or aliens with existential crises.

> INTERVIEW: Edmund McMillen, on creativity & the controversy behind Cunt <

Now, speaking in front of camera, McMillen is fussing over his newest creation, Super Meat Boy, a skinless video game protagonist who splatters like raw steak across gorges and buzz saws in order to save his girlfriend, Bandage Girl. Super Meat Boy has been slated for release on the Xbox Live Arcade, with the potential to disturb thousands of third-grade teachers around the world. Yet he is broke, depressed, and under pressure to finish the game in one month. If the game fails, he will have spent the past two years confined in his Aqua Teen-postered room for nothing.

Little did he know Super Meat Boy would sell more than 1 million units and become one of the greatest indie game success stories of all time. But, that moment of artistic vulnerability, right before the teary redemption on launch day, is precisely where Indie Game: The Movie draws its inspiration.

McMillen represents a new breed of struggling independent artist. He is the subject of Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky's new indie documentary, along with the creators of Fez, a platformer essentially inspired by Cubism, and Braid, a time-warping love story. The first-time filmmaking duo screened this touching, observant film at the Brattle Theater last week, and then spoke to the audience about chronicling, in part, the rise of the indie game auteur.

Indie game developers have coexisted with their big-money counterparts for a few years now, but never before has someone -- much less a team of film documentarians -- so closely examined what it takes to be an independent designer or programmer. Games like Braid, and the recently released Journey, are calmer, more reflective alternatives to big-budget online competitive games. It's refreshing to see these hard-working artists given the recognition they deserve.

"I'm not going to work at EA," McMillen says. "That sounds like hell to me. We made [our game] as a reflection as ourselves. If you want to play Modern Warfare or Halo, then great. Personally, I think Modern Warfare and Halo are shit." (quote slightly paraphrased)

Independent video game makers found their entryway into the market with the rise of digital distribution; just as indie filmmakers use the IFC and Netflix to reach audiences, indie game makers have put their titles onto Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation Network, WiiWare, and Steam as those platforms have become available. The rise of smartphones allowed the indie scene to expand into the iOS and Android gaming markets. One or two-man operations like the ones depicted in the film suddenly had the chance to compete with big-budget games funded by Apple and Microsoft. Even Finnish game developer Rovio was an indie operation before Angry Birds became a marketing powerhouse.

It's obvious why McMillen does what he does: No censorship, no corporate interest, no toiling under someone else's artistic vision. What's not obvious, though, is the intensity and energy required to make a video game with only the help of another person. McMillen says he's suffered at least three emotional breakdowns over the course of making Super Meat Boy. Paralyzed by stress and fear, his only solution was to sit alone in the bathtub with cold water running.

Another great profile in the film is of Phil Fish, the creator of Fez, who is something of a celebrity in the video game circle for delaying his game for years. Fish announced his Mario-meets-Picasso platformer in 2007, and it hit XBLA two weeks ago to high acclaim. He's serious, self-obsessed, and brimming with nerdy idiosyncrasies. After talking about his parents' divorce, his father's battle with cancer and his own recent break-up, Fish concludes that finishing Fez is the most important thing in his life: "This is my identity. If this fails, I'm going to kill myself." -- some audience members chuckle at his deadpan delivery. Then, after a pause, they realize he's kind of serious -- "That's my incentive for finishing my goal."

The other brilliant aspect of Indie Game: The Movie is Pajot and Swirsky's treatment of the inevitable, dreaded debate of "Are video games art?" Rather than supplying the answer ("Yes"), they imply it by following the emotional journey that these indie developers endure through the game making process. Aren't these artists' struggles the same as that of a musician, filmmaker or author unwilling to compromise their personal visions? Like any documentary about an artist, "It's a movie about making stuff," says Swirsky, and all the emotion, choice and creativity that comes with that process.

Gaming is still very much about big names. But who knows? As more independent studios -- many of them here in Boston -- make their way into the mainstream market, video games may have their indie revolution yet. That is, if it's not already happening right now.

Having come a long way from its beginnings as a $15,000 Kickstarter project to its hot run at Sundance, Indie Game: The Movie now ushers in the Independent Film Festival of Boston with style. Boston Post Mortem, a collective of local indie game makers, collaborated with Pajot and Swirsky in putting on the two sold-out screenings at the Brattle. While watching a movie about their story, these developers -- the most discerning viewers of all -- responded with laughs and cheers. In going through the headaches, social alienation, artistic roadblocks and programming snafus involved in the making of an indie game, the local developers said after the show that they had felt camaraderie with the film's subjects. Watching the film, it seems, they all saw a little bit of McMillen in themselves.

Indie Game: The Movie will have limited screenings in Los Angeles and New York on May 18. A DVD, along with a bonus edition, will be released "shortly after." For more information, visit

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