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“Part of it is about not trying to be professional,” says Jonathan Blow, designer of the wildly successful independent video game Braid. He looks calmly at the camera, with a slight smile, and for a moment, that sounds like fun. After all, this is a documentary about video games, and video games are fun. Right? But instead of fun, Blow starts talking about vulnerability. “If you don’t see a vulnerability in someone,” he says, “You’re probably not connecting with them on a personal level.”

These words may not be what viewers are expecting from a movie about video game design, but the idea looms large throughout this documentary. Independent video games aren’t new, but the way that they’re distributed is. Just like music, information, and entertainment, they can be just a few clicks away if they’re featured in the right place at the right time.

What separates them from the mainstream releases is a bit like what separates indie comics or films from their mainstream bigger brothers. They feel more personal, they aren’t guided by focus groups or licensing considerations. They can be affordably priced. But most amazingly, they can be made by just one person.

This again makes independent sound like fun, but to make something truly special, to make the kind of game that attracts attention, independent game makers have to dedicate themselves to working around the clock, often without a salary. And that’s where the vulnerability begins.

“Even if I only make twenty thousand dollars over the next two years” says Tommy Refenes, one half of the design team for Super Meat Boy, naming a sum of money that wouldn’t keep most video game companies in business for an hour, “That would be enough.” In the meantime, he’s essentially unemployed and living with his parents, working around the clock on a game that may or may not see distribution—a game developer monk. He’s not just trying to release a product as a matter of doing business—he wants to create the kind of game that would make him want to create video games.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, game developer Phil Fish explodes at his critics who claim that his eagerly anticipated and already acclaimed game, Fez, will never be released. The game is about a cute 2-bit character who wears a fez and wanders around a 3-dimensional world, so it may be a surprise that the designer is screaming obscenities at his critics while raising his middle finger. His reward for finishing the game, he tells the documentarists, is that he won’t kill himself.

The weird thing here of course is that many of Fish’s critics are the same people who really, really want to play Fez. Like Refenes, Fish is trying to make a game like no other game. It’s an ambitious project, and as he learns more about design and aesthetics, he finds himself in a loop, recreating the game. “All the art [I] did two years ago isn’t as good as the art [I’m] doing now,” he says, concluding, “I do everything three times.”

The satisfaction of Indie Game: The Movie is watching people who are struggling to make art and entertainment, but it’s also the excitement of seeing something that is typically hidden: When we play video games, we’re often frustrated by the challenges that seem to call for patience or fluency that we don’t yet have. We don’t really think about the people who went through these exact same moments many times over before there even was a game. The people who move ladders just slightly out of the reach of video game characters, and create those moments where we need to jump farther than we have before—they’ve waited for that same moment of success that we are.

Indie Game: The Movie is currently for rental on iTunes.

Indie Game: The Movie [IMDB Link]
Directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky
94 Minutes