Once upon a time, most video games were created by individuals. Even the first console games were more likely to be written by one or two people than big groups. It’s true that not just anyone could get their game onto a cartridge that would show up on store shelves, but it was much more possible for people developing for home computers. And now that the major game consoles are connected to the Internet and can play downloaded content, anyone with the right skills and enough determination can get their games into the hands of the masses.
Jonathan Blow knows a little something about that, because he created Braid, which was the first of the truly successful “indie” games. At the time of its release, it was the top-rated game on the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA), and one of the most highly-rated Xbox games period. Even if its revenue didn’t match that of even a flop from a major game studio, it also didn’t have to be split up amongst many developers, executives, and investors, and was therefore quite a profitable endeavor for him. Since then, others have tried to recreate that success, and although most are unabashed commercial failures, others have achieved great things in their own right.
Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes hoped to be one of the success stories with their Super Meat Boy, a platform game featuring a main character with no skin who must avoid all kinds of peril while trying to save his bandage-covered girlfriend from an evil fetus in a jar. Phil Fish had similar aspirations for his game Fez, in which a 2D character must learn to navigate through a 3D world. And Jonathan Blow hopes lightning will strike twice with his next game, The Witness.
The documentary primarily follows Edmund and Tommy as they work to finish Super Meat Boy in time for a promotional launch that could give them prominent placement in the XBLA where they’ve got the best chance of attracting buyers, and also Phil as he works to get Fez ready for the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) gaming showcase and tries to make peace with a former business partner who could create legal trouble for him if he tries to release the game. For both games, the developers are anxious to see what may come of the sleep, sanity, and social lives they’ve invested over the last few years of their lives. There’s potentially a lot of money on the line if things go well, while failure could strike a blow to their reputations and psyches from which recovery may be impossible. And it probably doesn’t help much that it’s all being filmed so that their ultimate success or failure (not to mention the ups and downs along the way) will be put on display for potentially millions of people to see.
What you’re not going to see in the film is a lot of encouragement for someone looking to break into the business. Making it easier for indie game developers to make their content accessible doesn’t make it easier for them to create good games, and Indie Game does a pretty good job of showing just how much work really goes into creating even a relatively simple game. We’re long past the days of Pac Man and Donkey Kong, so unless you’ve got a truly innovative concept that’s easy to learn and doesn’t require a lot of flashy graphics and expansive levels (think Tetris), you’re not going throw together something great after only a few days of working on it in your spare time. And I think that’s a good thing, because it thins the herd while highlighting the talent. If only the indie music scene had the same kind of hurdles, the world might be a better-sounding place.