A Reflection on “Indie Game: The Movie”
It appears to have become moderately consensual that the game industry is in a creative strut. Big companies are so obsessed with accessible, risk-free game design for the masses that even some mainstream audiences are starting to gain mild aversion to the formulaic nature of these titles. Whenever such a problem is posed however, the solution is always at hand: the independent developers are here to save the day. It is a seductive argument, since independent creators lack high stakes industrial production budgets, and as such can risk innovation, creativity, and can go as far as ignore large segments of the market. Thus, here is “Indie Game the Movie”, a documentary intent on supporting a movement that is bound to change the video-game landscape forever… or maybe not.
“The Movie” follows four people, “Super Meat Boy’s” Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, “Fez’s” Phil Fish and “Braid’s” own Jonathan Blow. Strange world is this where a movement is characterized by four individuals, all from the same country (more or less) and all from the same generation. It’d be fine if we were discussing say, Pre-Raphaelites or the French New Wave (and God pardon me for this offensive citation of such admirable gents), and not independent games, a category which is transversal to an entire medium, has had representatives from all around the world and ever since its inception, something like 50 years ago. To properly discuss the cultural relevance and creative value of independent game development, one would have to do a historical overview of several different moments and movements which can fit inside this adjective of “independent”. Many authors from Japan, Europe, Central and South America would need to be cited, on mere account of historical and cultural relevance to the medium. Really, even a simple Wikipedia page view reveals the obvious – indies have neither age nor country, they are a heterogeneous group rich in diversity. But let us be kind, and assume such a scope is too vast and extensive to tackle in a feature documentary; even thus, if we would simply stick to post-2008 North-America, we would find a large group of independent game designers who should have a say in this documentary and are only surreptitiously quoted. Where are Jenova Chen, Robin Hunicke and Kellee Santiago from thatGameCompany? Where is Jason Rohrer or Rod Humble? Kyle Gambler and Ron Carmel from 2D Boy or Alex Neuse from Gaijin Games? Where is so-called game design genius Markus “Minecraft” Persson? They are nowhere to be seen, as are major faces involved in promoting and awarding praise to indie games, either relegated to the background with the odd soundbyte, or not even a part of the film. The context for the entire indie game movement is a 10 minute show-reel filled with half-truths, random images of games from aforementioned designers, and some very personal observations from the four authors who the directors actually bothered following and interviewing. What the documentary seems to be validating is a misconceived, manipulative and provincial view of what goes for indie gaming – Nintendo game clones with quirky pixel art, entirely developed by North-American engineers and designers… for Xbox live. That’s the alpha and omega of the documentary.
A pondered selection would be key in getting a film to even come close to have some sort of meaningful debate on the past, present and future of independent videogame production. One would need to accurately characterize independent games context so as to approach its acquired meaning in a medium striving for change, and that would involve citing many authors, teams and games which the film doesn’t even seem to recognize. I won’t even get to the point of addressing the taste issues regarding “Team Meat” games, or the tone in which these newfound heroes are glorified as they are extracted from their real lives and shoved into narrative archetypes for the sheer sake of drawing a clean little Freytag triangle. No, that would be questioning the whole voyeuristic TV documentary style, its ethical and social implications, and would take too much effort. The greatest fault of the documentary is that it simply has no pretense of historical, pedagogical, or academic goals, let alone any mild artistic aspirations. It is purely commercial: it aims at entertaining, making some money, and maybe selling the image (and games) of a number of game designers. That’s “the Movie” to a T.
From the unfantastic four, only Jonathan Blow has something meaningful to observe, and he’s the least interviewed of the four. He’s portrayed as a mystical guru, an egomaniacal genius that sits in the dark as videogame Buddha, programming while standing, and calmly spreading pearls of enlightenment with each pondered phrase. He’s an indie scene God, and Fish and Team Meat are his devout acolytes. Blow speaks with an ease and thoughtfulness that clearly make him the odd man out. For instance, Team Meat becomes overjoyed with commercial and critical success of their title, filmed while intellectually masturbating at the sight of e-mails with sales numbers, flashing review numbers in the 90% and up Metacritic, all quotes of “awesome” and “fun” being trashed about, and even delighting in silly YouTube videos that show the fans doing what they do best. All the while, Tommy and Edmund glow as if they were watching Mona Lisa in the Louvre: they made it, they even outsold “Braid”, their reviews have the word masterpiece in the lead, and suddenly Team Meat is the reference. All hail the new prophets of the new art-form, the film implies. Blow, on the other hand, reacted differently to his acclaim: he says he enjoyed the success but went into depression. The reason? Nobody understood Blow’s authorial point. Nobody interpreted his videogame in a way that made sense to him. Nobody connected with Blow on the level he was aiming at. His expressive discourse was a one way soliloquy and no one was listening. After discussing these matters in comment pages with reviewers and commentators all over the web, he was shunned and became the laughing stock of internet town. Apparently, he then retreated into the superior plane of existence where he now rests while conjuring his forthcoming misunderstood masterpiece. The point is that unlike Team Meat, Jonathan Blow cared more about his artistic view than his commercial success – and that is a mark of someone who the medium would do well to listen to. The film never returns to probe deeper into these issues; Team Meat’s breakfast is more important, evidently.
Personally, I don’t think “Braid” ever stood a chance. It is a sophisticated, nuanced work that does not lent itself to oversimplification. Its theme, of course, concerns Time, and how Time shapes a fundamental archetype of human life – men’s relationship with women. Mother, friend, girlfriend, wife, daughter… Princess. If “Super Mario Bros.” was a plumber’s dream of saving a beautiful princess made surrealist, joyful adventure, “Braid” is an oniric poem on the variations of that same basic theme. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s work, it is a tale of infinite arrangements, kaleidoscopically interconnected through a weave of unconscious thought and memory, a search for a figure both illusive and ever present, a feminine voice that draws you in with its allure till you’re close enough to feel it, and yet remains out of touch. This hyper-fiction does not fit the excel columns of Graphics, Narrative, Value, Design, Fun, Longevity, ‘bang for buck’ and whatever else Gamespot and IGN can add up to a neat number or statistic. Superficially, “Braid” shines in these hollow nouns, for its visuals, soundtrack, story and gameplay are immediately accessible, and its technical proficiency (in terms of budget segment) is unquestionable. Its basic references are recognizable by an autophagic medium that knows Mario and Donkey Kong and little else. In this sense, it is indistinguishable from “Super Meat Boy” – but everything else that lies dug deep in its essence, remaining hidden from uncouth sight, is precisely what elevates “Braid” to a distinguished category inside the confines of the North-American indie scene. Superficially, and only superficially, “Braid” garners success in the dark avenues of videogames, because it can lend itself to a positive evaluation from a commercial understanding of what a videogame is – a product. It is sellable, and as thus, reviews and sales were positive, irrespective of any writ whatsoever that can take into account the (aest)ethic, symbolic, cultural and interpretative aspects which Blow yearned to explore. It just doesn’t equate, relate or resonate. To Blow, mechanics and story were a means of expression; to the industry at large, they were means for having fun.
Scholars are also to blame, for despite being free of short term commercial goals and similar considerations, failed in realizing what Blow intended with his game. They present their academic discourse with passion and insight, but naively base their analytical prose on references and axioms that are as ill-suited to the proper analysis of an artwork as Gametrailers valuation categories. Their point of view is highly influenced by a short-lived Media Communication field that wishes to come of age by ignoring and even re-writing millennia of Humanities knowledge with half-concocted theses and theories. When probed deep enough, popular academics reveal an unconscious subscription to many ideological perversities: the mercantilization and mass industrialization of the arts, a hedonic and consumerist view of life, and a total disdain for intellectual criticism and education, understood as forms of presumptuous elitism and therefore, antithetical to the universal values of free, democratic, opinionated access to the arts by the people. What scholars tend to reveal is, basically, a lack of adequate education for the study of the cultural phenomenon of the digital arts. Those few who bear the right tools for a proper discourse either fall into two traps. The first is that with time, the persuasiveness and ubiquitous nature of the dominating videogame discourse gets to them and their reference point is corrupted beyond repair. Long standing axioms on what constitutes art and good art get rewritten by pressure of the all-powerful zeitgeist. Those who do not fall in such a trap end up cast-way, rejected from the videogame society, insulted by everyone, misunderstood by all, relegated to the interstices of the internet, as obscure beacons whom only the most lucky, illuminated audiences know where to find. The finest example of this is Bruno de Figueiredo, an intellectual (in every sense of the word) whom I consider to be, without a shadow of the doubt, the leading world authority in videogame aesthetics, criticism and history, now writing in some obscure blog which is not divulged by fear of visit by unwanted eyes. Other exiles are sure to roam in the vast ocean of the internet, hidden from search engines, writing that which needs to be written by videogames. Vanguardist authors suffer similar fates. Either they leave the industry, or survive in ghettoes. Take the notgames movement, the most recent of these processes of social exclusion; when “Tale of Tales” was attempting their breakout work with “The Path”, no critical praise ever gave them a chance to succeed in the limelight. They were called pretentious and pseudo-intellectuals. Their opus was carefully deconstructed in terms of value: you could say it is good, but only with a trailing series of if’s, like ‘if you’re into art-games’, ‘if you are not looking for fun’ or ‘if you value pursuit of the mind’. “The Path” was great… if and only if you didn’t expect it to be like videogames. Their oeuvre was deemed as not even deserving to belong in the same medium… on hindsight, thank God for that.
The medium we have is the one we want. When players buy “Call of Duty” or “Super Meat Boy”, they embrace the same ideals. They may think “Super Meat Boy” is different, and in a sense, it may very well be, being developed by two instead of two hundred, but budgets and developing teams are details when it comes to creative pursuits. The audience is the same, and the values pursued by creators who engage with that audience, whether they are two or two hundred, are thus the same. Take a look at “Team Meat’s” bedroom walls and at the games they claim to want to buy. Is it chance that their games are carbon copies of “Super Mario Bros” (”Super Meat Boy”) and “The Legend of Zelda” (“The Binding of Isaac”)? That their game design value is as discardable and hollow and conservative as that of the latest “Fallout”? That their aesthetic is as crude, insulting and prepubescent as that of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” or their narrative as immature and hedonistic as that of a “Transformers” cartoon? No: authors honor their cultural environment, and Team Meat only knows retro games and shallow mainstream entertainment. Their cultural heritage is not different from the latest AAA game, because they play AAA games from past and present. Team Meat games are hedonist pursuits, devoid of cultural taste and lacking any form of moderately adult expression… and the same can be said of any “Call of Duty”. They may not like the industry’s alienation of workers, and thus, symbolically reject big-budget titles, but from an aesthetic point of view they see eye to eye. They cannot offer anything that is not already polluted and disiminated in the cesspool of popular videogames and media, for a simple reason: they don’t know anything beyond that world. They can only reiterate, recombine and regurgitate, ad-infinitum, that which they know, which is all we already know and are fed-up with. They have nothing new to tell and so they cannot challenge their audiences to grow as human beings. Now, don’t get me wrong, Team Meat is not the issue here. Their commercial and critical success is, at best, a symptom of a larger disease. A film that elevates them to mythological status, as sacrificial knights in shining armor that are trying to save the game industry, is only adding to the insult. How Jonathan Blow even acquiesced to be placed in the same film as them is puzzling.
Not that Phil Fish is any better. His angsty ambition may seem the appropriate act for a visionary, but what I saw was an arrogant perfectionist looking for approval everywhere he found. His game is as derivative and thematically inept as any by “Team Meat” and perhaps even more so – or am I the only one who sees “Fez” as an inflation of “Paper Mario” mechanics? Visually, “Fez” is delightful and pretty, with superbly detailed pixel art and a cool gimmicky 2D/3D engine. But, as Fish himself states, his notion of aesthetics is that design is knowing when green looks good with blue (I’m paraphrasing). He forfeits any mention of expressive desires, meaningful communication, thematic exploration, movement citations, etc. Even Edmund gets that part, whilst rudely trying to communicate his troubled childhood! At some point, Fish claims his game is a cubist painting made interactive. I’m guessing he has never looked at a Picasso, or he’d realize the foolishness of his affirmation; if anything, his game is anti-cubist. Phil only did “Fez” to look good to an audience who praises fan-art, pixel-art and retro-styled games, but has never looked at a painting in their life. Of course, like Team Meat, he catered to an adolescent audience and succeeded. But what does “Fez” seek to achieve in terms of author intent? Fish admits to everything, really: he wanted to recapture how players felt in the age before the internet, when secrets in a videogame were… secret, mysterious and illusive. The theme, again, is that of an adult (or a seemingly adult) that wishes to recapture his infancy. He makes games for kids and adults who behave as kids. His grand ideal of design is doing that which “Zelda” did in the 1980s… that’s almost 30 years ago in case you didn’t notice. Like Team Meat, Fish imagines himself doing art for the sake of homage to Nintendo-Power… now that’s one quote for the Taschen covers. Phil doesn’t even wish to recapture that sense of awe with added spectacle, beauty or a new-found reflection. There is no reinterpretation of the oft referenced theme, there is no subversive discourse, no subtle reverential play. While Blow reimagined an entire genre, by conveying his own emotions and thoughts, Fish, like Team Meat, is happy to just copy and paste, adding nothing. No, such musings are far and beyond Phil Fish. He’s the author who clones Japanese videogames so he can say they just suck.
“Indie Game the Movie” is a manipulative documentary intent on vindicating an aura of triumph for a group of people who have little in common, who do not represent the best that videogames have to offer, and who are proof of everything that is wrong with videogame creation. The directors are dumbfounded, arrogant, naive youngsters who got mixed in a movement they knew little about, and they didn’t even care about it enough to improve on their and their viewers lack of knowledge. Their film, of course, teaches you nothing. You’ll only learn of a contemporary world where authors value ‘art’ through numbers – sales, review classifications, metacritic scores, facebook likes, youtube views–, and you’ll come to witness the same emptiness, rudeness and lack of growth present in mainstream media in a different garment. Thankfully, independent videogame development exists beyond this farce, and there are authors who can help us dream of a brighter day for this medium. You‘ll just have to look elsewhere to find out something about them.