Published May 23, 2012In the side-scrolling days, when you finished a game you started right back at the beginning. So it's poetic that an art form that began with kids coding in their basements would prove similarly cyclical with modern indie games like Fez and Super Meat Boy handcrafted by basement-coders raised on, and inspired by, those early classics.
The indie gaming scene has exploded in the now-gen era ― and Winnipeg filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky captured the pixilated pyrotechnics in their award-winning Sundance doc Indie Game: The Movie, which hits DVD and iTunes in mid-June.
"I grew up as a Nintendo Sega Genesis kid," says Swirsky, adding that his love eventually faded until a job at Electronic Arts stamped it out. "If anything can kill that magic of games, it's being a games tester. I didn't touch games for eight or nine years."
But he came back at the right time. Swirsky and co-director Pajot went to the Independent Games Summit in San Francisco in 2008, right when titles like Braid and World of Goo were sparking the indie game insurgency. "That magic of games was reintroduced," Swirsky recalls. "You pick up these games and they look polished and fantastic, but you can tell there's an author on the other end of it."
Though indie games like Alien Hominid, from Castle Crashers-maker the Behemoth, existed prior, they couldn't compete against the Grand Theft Autos. But then online console stores like Xbox Live, WiiWare and PSN arrived. "Digital distribution changed everything for games," notes Pajot, "and, y'know, everything else, really."
The film focuses in part on Super Meat Boy creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who made a punishingly difficult old-school platformer starring a skinless hero that became an unexpected success in 2010. "They create [independently] because they make weird games," says Pajot. "They make things that people wouldn't want to bet on. It had buzz, but from a corporate perspective nobody thought it would reach that many people. But they had a vision and now they're in place where they get to create whatever they want based on the response to their first game."
The other major games chronicled is Fez, a complex 2D platformer rooted in 3D puzzles that began with an award-winning prototype and Xbox deal in 2008, but only saw release this past April, a lengthy development process that had creator Phil Fish only-sorta joking about suicide.
"Two years ago was a very difficult time for him," explains Pajot. "He had lost his second round of funding; he had a lot of family troubles and things happening in his life," ranging from his parents divorce and father's battle with cancer to his girlfriend leaving him and impatient fan backlash. "He wasn't clear that he'd be able to finish it and you see that on the film. Imagine working on one thing for five years, and have everything riding on that one thing. He talks about how he was literally going crazy at the time," she says. "He's much better now."
It feels very much like the indie revolution that swept the film world in the 1990s, except that for the moment, these indie games are largely retro-inspired side-scrollers. "It's a strategic choice on their part," says Pajot. "They're not trying to make a 3D world game because they know there's no way they can do that as a team of two."
Unlike, say, Pulp Fiction, they can't yet match the production values of the industry's mainstream games. But is a day coming where that could happen?
"Yeah, I think so," says Swirsky. "Indie games nowadays are incredibly polished but you can tell there are certain limits as far as what they can do with their budget. But the tools for making games are getting so much more powerful. A good analogy would be film with DSLR cameras. We shot this film on $3,000 cameras you can get at Best Buy and it's completely revolutionized how good an independent film can look. I can see the same thing happening with game-making. The ambition will always be there. It's just time and toolsets and budgets that are limiting people right now."
The latter, however, is becoming less of an issue thanks to crowdsourced avenues like Kickstarter, which is also how the documentary was funded. Tim Schafer is more of a Joss Whedon professional then the indie newbies featured in the film, but after his Electronic Arts heavy-metal game Brutal Legend proved too weird for the mainstream, his studio Double Fine scaled back to indie download games like Stacking. When he decided to make another adventure game, rather than cozy up to a corporate publisher, he went to Kickstarter and raised over $3 million from his dedicated fan base.
"$500,000 was what he was asking for," says Swirsky, who used the site to raise $23,000 for their film. "When the thousands of people who invested in the game play it, it will be a much richer experience. It's not just something you consume, it something you helped grow and nurture."
The other big indie game to watch for is The Witness by film subject Jonathan Blow, whose artsy time-puzzle game Braid proved back in 2008 that there was actual money to be made in indie gaming. "Jon is working on something incredible now that to a wider audience could be viewed, in terms of production values, as more of a mainstream game," says Pajot. "He has quite a big team on it, he has a very specific vision and he's throwing almost all of the money he made on Braid into this work. It will be really interesting to see how people react to it when it comes out. That time is coming."
Of course, eventually Hollywood handed its blockbusters over to indie directors like Chris Nolan. But the pair doesn't expect that to happen in gaming anytime soon.
"Hollywood was born with the idea of the auteur director, that's not a new idea for them," says Swirsky. "It's a risk taking an indie guy and giving him hundreds of millions of dollars, but videogames haven't had that same history of having one guy at the top. I just couldn't see them doing it. But I would be so excited if they did. I would love to see what Phil would do with teams of people and millions of dollars. I don't know what the game would be, but I know it would melt our brains."