indie game: the movie

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.

45 thoughts on “indie game: the movie”

  1. A movie about Team Meat? Cool! I love them as a studio, loved the game (even though it took me ages to beat), and love indie studios in general. I can’t wait to see what it was like for them making this game.

  2. “not to spoil anything, but what that game is about is definitely not love.”
    When did you get promoted to being the minister of interpretational affairs? ;)

  3. Mmmm. What bothered me was the way that the film seemed to portray game-making as a really difficult ordeal that inevitably requires a large amount of pain and sacrifice.

  4. “Thick minutes of its gross founder tycho”

    That’s just pointlessly rude. Less sniping, more ideologue.

    I otherwise agree.

  5. Daphny — when did Blow say what it was about? I always thought he was kind of pointlessly vague about it. (Not that I think it’s about love — anyone played it through, or read the text before the first world, knows that the closest thing to love it’s about is creepy stalkerism.)

  6. now here i thought Supermeatboi was made by an entelechy of swarm AIs in the cortex stacks.

    will wonders never cease…meat can make games

  7. daphny: oh well. Was hoping to read it.

    Anyway, I endorse Emily Short’s criticism of Blow’s writing. Rereading that post, I should probably read Bissell’s chapter.

  8. Uuuuugh, really? Learn to properly capitalize. Stop whining about STRAIGHT WHITE MALES UGH HOW CLICHE. Their race and orientation has nothing to do with the story, you’re just looking for another avenue in which to shoehorn your own agenda. Very trendy to personally attack Tycho too, nice touch.

    This is embarassing. We get it, you’re a deviant and you’re raging against the normative machine. If you weren’t so militant about your positions you might actually be able to dialogue reasonably with a few open-minded individuals, instead of circlejerk with those of selfsame opinion.

  9. wait, you’re saying i have an AGENDA?? a really obvious agenda that i have always been totally forthcoming about and which motivates all my thoughts & deeds?


  10. “Their race and orientation has nothing to do with the story”

    I’d love to see that statement backed up. Are you saying, perhaps, that your race and orientation has nothing to do with how you perceive things in this society?

  11. I also find Anna’s agressive attitude obnoxious. But she is also very willing to be critical about shortcomings in gaming culture. Observing that gaming is severely lacking in diversity and/or social commentary/criticisn is critically important.

    But seriously “the gross founder”? Be better than that Anna.

  12. Yeah, I mean, are you guys actually saying Tycho isn’t gross? Or is it just supposed to be rude to point it out?

  13. I have to agree with JL and Jacob.

    Anna, you don’t do much to further your cause when you – without provocation – attack someone who has done wonders for the gaming community and their perception in the minds of non-gamers. This is especially so, when you attack his physical appearance; something that I’m sure both of you have had to deal with in your lives.

    That’s some grade school, lowball shit.

  14. JL, Jacob, and those who are taking Anne to task for her review…

    why don’t you take this invaluable opportunity to write your own review? after all, not everyone here shares the same likes, dislikes, sense of the sacred, sense of the profane…

  15. “someone who has done wonders for the gaming community and their perception in the minds of non-gamers”

    Well, I don’t know about Tycho’s service to the gaming community, but I can speak to his effect on their perception in the minds of non-gamers: He makes me think that gamers are puerile, dick-obsessed, anti-social boy-men whose deepest cultural references range from Lovecraft to Star Wars, whose idea of good prose is the turgid burblings that Tycho drips forth thrice weekly about the latest megahyped product, and whose reaction when confronted with the experiences of anyone who isn’t exactly like them is a blank stare of incomprehension. (Yes, I’m talking about the “Why not to be assholes to rape victims” controversy.) I mean, that’s not really my perception of gamers as a whole, because I have a fair amount of exposure to smarter gamers, but that’s what my perception would be if it were based on Tycho.

  16. To be quite honest I’m surprised that Tycho has any name recognition among non-gamers in the first place.

    Or does the webcomic itself get an audience that has many non-gamers in it? I’d have to say that surprises me a lot.

    ANYWAY. INDIE GAMES. Yeah, I can see why the message that the movie sends about the timeframe of indie development might discourage some basement hobbyist coders, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to me like movies like That Thing You Do (fiction about a group of 4 white college-age guys find a magical combination for a winning hit in the 60s, go through a whirlwind tour of music stardom, fall apart immediately) discouraged the formation of garage bands.

    Besides, “I struggled for years with practically no pay on this, I hope it’s successful” = instant pathos. Certainly there’s a documentary or report to be made about the KOTM set, but it’s definitely hard to turn down that kind of drama.

  17. Well I’m sort of a marginal non-gamer. I mean, I read sites like this, and other sites about games, even though I haven’t owned a console since the 2600. I always liked watching other people play but was too uncoordinated to get much mileage out of my own quarters, you know?

    Anyway some guy on another blog I read used to link them sometimes. The Greater Internet Fucktard Theory is a worthwhile contribution to humanity even if I have no idea what Unreal Tournament 2004 is, I’ll give them that.

  18. “Anna, you don’t do much to further your cause when you – without provocation – attack someone who has done wonders for the gaming community and their perception in the minds of non-gamers.”

    Give me even one example.

  19. Yeah, it’s pretty great that I can write off giving my money directly to microsoft and sony as a charitable donation.

  20. Actually, I just found it funny that for a woman who is regularly mocked and dismissed for being fat and also a TYRANNY would jump on that kind of rhetoric bandwagon for anyone else.

    “gross TYRANNY anna anthropy wrote a book about indie games like she’s some kind of authority, but I think most people would obviously see she’s just a fat disgusting fetishist and understand that indie games are great anyway.”

    See it’s bad because I’m not an uber-progressive with a strong sense of moral rectitude about my behavior.

  21. also i edited your word choice a little because fuck you if you think you can come to my e-house and start slinging around language like that, even if you think you’re making a super important point.

  22. Ironic alternate point: your e-house, governed in tyranny by you.

    You still didn’t explain why Tycho is gross. You just said he was and implied that his words were sputum and nothing he said was of value.

    Maybe you’re telling me that the opinions of your other commenters should tell me why he is gross. Those are your commenters, not you. They’re not in your review, nor are their opinions yours.

  23. jake give it a rest. its no secret that tycho is just one of many disgusting pustules on the face of White Nerd Gamer Culture. i’m sure he weeps many tears on his pillow from the vorpal barb of “gross”

    also fyi im not sure its tyranny to express an opinion on one’s own website and insist that you dont use offensive slurs. hth

  24. Yeah, I’m confused too. Is it because this guy took a very public stance against being nice to rape victims or is it because you think he looks funny and is a transgender person? I DON’T KNOW AND CAN ONLY FIND OUT BY SPEWING HORRIBLE BIGOTED INVECTIVE!!!

  25. Jake, if you come to someone’s blog and use a slur directed at a group that they belong to and you don’t (comparison: a white person using a certain word beginning with “n” at a black person’s blog), having an extra letter added to that slur is not so much “tyranny” as “the absolute nicest thing that you can possibly expect to happen to you under those circumstances.” No matter what point you think you were trying to make at the time.

  26. It’s pretty silly that you don’t think I’m trans. Because I don’t support anna 100% probably means I’m a failure as a transperson because they’re monolithic, right?

  27. It’s not that I don’t think you’re trans because you disagree with Anna, I don’t think you’re trans because I think that if you were trans you would have mentioned that in this thread, when people were making exactly the same point. I guess I’d say, “Well, people have the right to disclose or not disclose as much as they want about themselves internet, if someone doesn’t want to say they’re trans in order to score points in an argument that’s fine,” except that’s what you just did, isn’t it?

    So, I basically know nothing about you. It’s possible that you’re trans and were just now driven to express it by your outrage at my argument! If so, sorry. It’s also possible that you aren’t, and decided to exploit the fact that No One Knows On The Internet to score a cheap debating point when you had no other way to defend your argument. I really wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

    Oh, and also in comment 72 on that thread you refer to trans people as “them.”

    Anyway, back to the question of why Tycho is gross, isn’t it in the main text of the post? Tycho’s main contribution AFAICT has been to codify and canonize everything Anna hates about gamer culture. Do you expect her to like him?

  28. Wait, is there an actual hit indie game called “physics dongs” and if not then why not?

  29. Anna – Your message of diversity and tolerance is undermined by your hatred. Losing your temper is the fastest way to lose the ability to reason with people who don’t (yet) agree with you. If you want to be a persuasive writer, please remember to be civil and keep in mind the difference between “passionate” and “spiteful”.

  30. nah i dont think anything is undermined by her making fun of dumbasses on her website


  31. Tycho is gross, but so is Anna. If I’d describe her to anybody the first adjective I’d use is “gross.” Big, fat, floating, sweaty. I really think so. Is it alright that I write it out? Nah, not really. It makes me an asshole.

  32. I had many of the same issues with the film, which seemed really confused from the get-go. How many more times are we going to be informed that GAMES ARE SERIOUS BUSINESS by our own? And hearing ‘Braid’ called a love story made my skin crawl.

    I was warned in advance that I’d cry. I didn’t. Commercial game development is just as dramatic, in different ways. The film tried way too hard to manipulate us emotionally throughout, so I had trouble even finding the prompt to cry.

    I couldn’t help wondering where Failure was in all of this. There was nary a mention that ninetysomething percent of indie games [that are striving for this really narrow version of success] fall on their arses.

    The main characters weren’t fleshed out to include their actual backgrounds or qualifications (glorious shots of a beach town are nice, but did he go to college?), which left the impression that any weepy twentysomething man-child who liked a game at some point can and should make one. (The only female character was shown sewing.)

  33. One thing perhaps consider this a challenge to create another movie (or set of short youtube sessions) that feature female developers and other alternative views to traditional game development.

  34. Jake, ““Their race and orientation has nothing to do with the story”

    I’d love to see that statement backed up. Are you saying, perhaps, that your race and orientation has nothing to do with how you perceive things in this society?”

    Such a statement can’t be backed up just as it can’t be backed up that race and/or orientation does have anything to do with the story (or a social perspective) either. Race and orientation can’t be used predictively so referencing them as explanations of behaviour is a red flag for me but that’s probably because I think that standpoint theory is too essentialist.

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