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Sundance Review: 'Indie Game: The Movie' Is A Big-Hearted Celebration Of Artistic Spirit

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by Mark Zhuravsky
January 22, 2012 11:13 AM
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The most profoundly moving moment of “Indie Game: The Movie” arrives an hour and twenty minutes into this terrific documentary. As designer Edmund McMillen watches YouTube videos of people spurting out expletives while playing his game Super Meat Boy, the kind-faced man breaks into a glowing smile. He’s made that connection, reached out to people and has been reaffirmed by their love for his brainchild. It’s the glimpse of a blinding sun at the end of a long, cold road, and 'Indie Game,' directed by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, is filled with moments that lay bare the emotional stakes of game design and development, an art that remains vastly underrated by the mainstream. Possibly the most mature look at video games yet, and a fine documentary in its own right, “Indie Game: The Movie” serves not only to erase the image of the programmer as a pimple-anointed malcontent recluse, but levels the playing field, serving as a powerful document for why games deserve consideration as a legitimate artform.

Funded in large part by Kickstarter donations, Swirsky and Pajot elect to follow three games (all developed for Xbox Live Arcade) and four individuals: McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy, out now), Phil Fish (FEZ, slated for an early 2012 release), and Jonathan Blow (Braid and the upcoming PC-bound The Witness). McMillen and Refenes prove to be the most easily relatable, while the mercurial but sympathetic Fish gets to fuss and vent, and philosphical older statesman Blow seems to revel in mysterious statements. The bulk of the picture is devoted to Super Meat Boy's development, which Swirsky and Pajot very wisely spin into a biographical look back at the lives of the game's creators. An apparent link is soon established between a creative seed planted in childhood and the current devotion to an art that neuters most social interactions and effectively leaves the artist under house arrest. It's an attention to detail both in the specificity of the editing and the sense that this is a carefully assembled labor of love from top to bottom.

Fish's odyssey with FEZ serves almost as an antithesis, or perhaps a warning for budding developers -- the project has been years and years in development, which seems to stem in part from the creator's perfectionism and in part from a series of troubles that have beset his personal life. Fish is outspoken and occasionally potty-mouthed -- he is also determined and incredibly passionate about his work, perhaps to a life-threatening point. While McMillen relies on his understanding spouse for support and Refenes confides in his family, Fish seems to desire a personal soapbox, a confession booth that can be broadcast to the world at large. FEZ is clearly his world, and the developer is not shy about admitting that people do not differentiate between him and the game sometimes. Could this be the auteur theory at play in video games (plenty more examples out there for rabid fans and patient observers)?

Blow, who gets the shortest allotted screentime, is a good part older and more experienced than the rest of the boys, and has an air of mystery that the man seems to wear as a badge of honor. Braid is probably the best known game of the bunch, an award winner that received press attention outside the sizeable gaming community. Working on his new release The Witness (which is not discussed), Blow steps in to address his dissatisfaction with how gamers perceived the deeply personal Braid. He laments that a surface focus on game mechanics has obscured his true meanings -- but what are they? Blow's answers are vague, which may be suitable to preserve the quizzical nature of the game, but feel out of place here.

Luckily, by sticking with Meat Boy and FEZ, our directors keep giving us what we want, exploring both the evolution of game mechanics, the toll that commitment takes on the developers and the contrast between the indie game world and the larger budget studio offerings. The film delivers, taking us on a journey with regular people pushed to do something different, but equally extraordinary. There is a vibrant, beating heart that powers "Indie Game: The Movie" and will hopefully serve to inspire the many of us who confine ourselves to small places and lock humanity out while struggling and striving to create something beautiful. [A-]

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