so, full disclosure: this movie is in large part about a game called super meat boy, which i contributed art and one of my own characters to. i’m friends with the dudes who made it, and who star in the movie. and i got to see the movie for free as part of the 2012 game developer’s conference.
indie game: the movie tells a story about game development: it jumps between edmund mcmillen and tommy refenes’ struggle to launch super meat boy despite the continued efforts of microsoft, as publisher, to fuck them over, and phil fish’s attempts to promote his game fez, under the looming threat of a former business partner who has as much legal claim to his work, and the legal ability to prevent him from continuing, promoting and publishing that work. jonathan blow’s talking head floats by from time to time to make some sweeping statement about game design – the filmmakers, weirdly, have positioned him in a kind of “wise old master” role that makes me feel a little weird. (a friend of mine put it this way: he was the “yoda” of the movie.)
there’s a scene where edmund, his year-long labor to finish his game finally complete, relates, though tears, the story of a ten-year-old boy who stayed up all night to finish a piece of super meat boy fan art. edmund, at ten years old, did the same for super mario bros. edmund’s realization that he has become the kind of person to which he looked, as a child, and saw worlds open is a real and heartfelt moment. edmund’s, tommy’s and phil fish’s journeys as creators are a good story, but they’re only one narrative of game creation: one in which straight white guys who grew up playing super mario sacrifice every part of their lives to the creation of personal but nonetheless traditional videogames (all of the games in the movie owe much of their play and visual vocabularies to mario) for sale in a commercial marketplace.
this story will inspire some ten-year-olds to do just that: to devote themselves entirely to making their dream game. but it may not inspire, say, a young adult woman to realize that she can dabble in game creation without having to sacrifice her entire life to it, that there’s room for hobbyists and part-timers, that game-making isn’t just for men or for people who were raised playing nintendo. the narrative of indie game: the movie is just one narrative of independent game creation.
the filmmakers seemed confused, in fact, about who exactly their audience is. the movie opens with a bunch of games journalists trying to frame super meat boy’s success in gamer terms. someone who maaay have been anthony carboni (i don’t remember) rattled through a HIT LIST of names that are meaningless to a non-fanboy audience: “yeah! super meat boy! it was the biggest thing since braid, which totally blew world of goo out of the water, which we couldn’t wait for after physics dongs!” i paraphrase. (it also made me pretty uncomfortable to hear someone describe braid as a “love story.” not to spoil anything, but what that game is about is definitely not love.)
edmund’s and tommy’s and phil’s stories are compelling on their own! they don’t need to be framed in terms of UNITS SOLD or BIGGEST HIT SINCE X. there’s a moment late in the movie where phil is showing his game at PAX – the penny arcade expo, one of the biggest celebrations of videogame consumerism: “a place where the mutual lie of ‘video game developers are big shots’ can be reinforced on both sides,” my friend courtney put it. the film gives us a few thick minutes of its gross founder tycho spewing words about phil’s game. obviously, the only reason tycho is in the movie is because gamers might view him as an authority on what a good-looking game is. most people who are not gamers will probably find him disgusting and repellent and will probably be able to tell for themselves that fez is a good-looking game from indie game: the movie’s footage of it.
obviously, i think people outside of the toxic, exclusive culture of games ought to be informed that videogames don’t have to look like swollen, impersonal blockbusters made by straight white males. parts of indie game: the movie challenge that image and parts do not. but i was glad that both my book and indie game: the movie could find a place at the same game conference.