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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 indiegamethemovie.com.
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