The idea began on PCs via shareware sites in the early 90s. These can be anything from flash games (the most prominent) to engine building titles. For instance, there were pre-built engines where you basically modified characters, stories, and/or landscapes in things such as RPGMaker or modified looks and fighting movies in Fighter Maker (both of which I've actually dabbled with back in the day).
But as mainstream games became more widespread, indie games suffered a bit due to a difference in both quality and availability. But then came the revolution that was online console gaming (XBox Live, Playstation Network, etc.). Due to this new turn in gaming history, indie games made a resurgence as the developers used these systems and methods to get their games out there. The expansion of social websites also helped grab casual gamers, as well.
However, earning a profit is a very difficult thing, as most profit for console titles will go to the distributors and web-based games usually don't catch enough speed to make much of anything. Most mainstream players still stick to mainstream titles, and indie game makers try to use this method as more of a jumping point than a commercial success.
So some people still succeed quite a bit, while others struggle to even get off the ground. Now for the documentary that shows all sides.
This was a very different kind of film than I was expecting. I suppose I expected something a little closer to King of Kong, though there are some tiny similarities here and there. But to fully talk about this film, I have to talk about it in parts. This film interweaves three games/stories that span three levels of completion and success, so that's how I'll be looking at it.
Braid (The Success Story)
Jonathan Blow came up with the game Braid after a friend looked at Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and pondered why there wasn't a game that could use time altering infinitely and could just rewind like a VCR. To date, Braid is one of the biggest independent game success stories both in sales and positive reviews. The documentary picks up already after the game has become a hit.
And this is the weakest of the stories, mostly because there's no story. For this film, Jonathan acts as more of a thematic focal point to the documentary--indie games are games that aren't meant to be the incredibly polished, big-budget, mainstream games. They're meant to have pieces of the creator's heart and soul. They will be very personal, taking pieces of their very essence and making something that, if it fails, it can crush/destroy the creators.
They show this story off and on for the first half of the movie but then drop it completely (bringing it back only at the very end, right before the credits, to restate the above theme to push it on home). But where this story really fails--besides the fact that it doesn't add much outside of that--is that it doesn't even match the theme itself. Jonathan comes off as kind of a pretentious douche. He's very "woe is me" about his success, complaining that all the people who praise it and love it do so for reasons that aren't connected to the real art and purpose of the game, so they miss the point. And the more success it has, the more annoyed and depressed he gets because these people just don't "get it." To me, this almost misses the point of this film, as he's bringing on this agony and depression himself since the game was almost an instant hit. Not to mention his reasoning for making the game is the least personal, and the path he takes to its release and success is (at least as shown in the film) almost conflict free, especially in comparison to the other two stories.
Super Meat Boy (The Rising Star)
Here we follow two guys: Edmund and Tommy. These guys live in different states, though they work on the game together. Tommy still lives at home with his parents in his childhood room, and Edmund is recently married, and they're on their own. Together they're making this game that promises to be a massive success--possibly even more so than Braid--but they're really pushing time limits and deadlines to get it out and to Microsoft so they can release it in time for a major sale on XBox Live.
This story was the most conflicting for me. On the one hand, Edmund seems to be a very cool, relatable guy who is very human and sincere. On the other hand, you have Tommy. Tommy has an insanely supportive family, although they are in debt. And he seems very grateful to them in wanting to pay off their debt if he makes money off the game. But everything else... he comes off like an ungrateful asshole. He's very similar to Jonathan Blow in that he doesn't want to hear good news or anything like that since he's making this game for himself and doesn't give a damn if people like it or not (but he says this in a very rude, obnoxious way). And he takes it even further. He publicly denounces some major gaming companies and declares all these popular, award-winning games are all crap and anything he does is infinitely better. He's an enigmatic character, because he's very smug, obnoxious, self-centered, foul-mouthed, and incredibly depressed individual... who really cares about his family.
But then you have Edmund. Edmund is very gracious and personal--in fact, he is really what this film is all about. Everything he makes he really puts his heart and soul and entire life into. Everything he's ever felt or loved or been hurt or scared by... he puts these things into his games because it's his passion. Art imitates life and whatnot, and his games are very close and personal to him, so if the game fails, you really believe that he could crumble. And while every person in this documentary is very depressed, he's the only one I actually felt for (though the next guy had some legit reasons, too... he wasn't nearly as personable to me... but I'll get to him shortly). The difference between Edmund and Tommy is exemplified perfectly in a scene where Tommy is flipping out about the game not showing up on the front page, while Edmund is chilling with his wife and trying not to think about it because--what's the point in getting worked up about first day sale numbers? Another scene where Edmund is laughing and enjoying seeing all these positive reviews and videos of people playing the game and loving seeing people enjoying his creation... then Tommy moaning about how none of that matters.
Besides the people, the story itself is not as interesting as the next one, but it's still decent. This one is definitely more focused on the juxtaposition of these two people and how they react to what's going on (and fortunately, the director decided to spend much more time with Edmund than Tommy). So in a way, this was both my favorite and least favorite story of the film, since I really wanted Edmund to succeed, but I wanted Tommy to fail and get punched in the face--though I couldn't have both since they were partners on the same game.
Fez (The Little Game That Could)
Fez was first announced back in 2008 to amazing reception. There was an award-winning demo released... and then nothing game of the game. At the start of its creation was Quebec-native (I'm assuming) Phil Fish and a business partner who helped develop the idea and whatnot. But I believe soon after the demo, the partner dropped off the project, leaving Phil to work on everything alone while making him deal with lawsuit issues, as it basically acted as a divorce and Phil needed to get all the rights from his partner who was refusing to finish signing all the paperwork. Meanwhile, his dad gets cancer, his parents get a divorce, and a hundred other really terrible things happen to this guy that slow production. And he's getting terrible, personal attacks from fans of the demo hating him since he hasn't finished the game yet (to which he lists off a handful of games that had thousands of workers that took 5 years, and he's just one guy). But now the PAX Expo is coming up and he wants to have another demo out at this point... if he can avoid a lawsuit and get his ex-partner to sign the forms so he can legally promote it on his own.
This is definitely the best story (and the most like King of Kong in that it tells a solid underdog narrative). You really want this guy to succeed, despite him having the luck of Job. (Things continue to go wrong throughout.) And despite everything, he comes out of it smiling, whether that's a forced smile or not.
Where this story is a little unbalanced is Phil himself. He's a very frustrated man, and understandably so. But he can be a little extreme and off-putting at times. We spend a good chunk of time, possibly too long, with Phil cussing out his ex-partner is frustrated rage that turns to murder threats. And at one point the interviewer asks what will happen if the game doesn't succeed, to which Phil responds "I will kill myself." And he's not kidding. He is completely serious in that he will take his own life if the results of this long venture are negative. And while I understand why they showed that in tying up with the film's theme, it really makes you uneasy. And between the suicide and murder threats, I really didn't know how to feel about this guy. But I did still really want him to succeed.
To me, the film was slightly unbalanced. There was also a little bit of redundancy and some stuff that just went on a wee bit too long. In other words, the film could have used a bit tighter editing. Though I did really like the section of the film that went into the history of stuff where it detailed how they made the games and the levels and all that. I was waiting for a while for them to get into that, but it happens right around the halfway point (right before the Braid story pretty much disappears for the rest of the film). But if this were a written paper or book, I'd say it needed one more revision. I still liked it, but it could have used a little more tightening up. And it didn't help that there are really 4 people in this movie (5 if you count Edmund's wife, but I don't) and 2 of them are unlikeable, while a third is questionable (albeit being an underdog and therefore root-for-able). But in the end, it's still a fascinating film, and if you're a fan of this kind of thing, I'd definitely check it out.
I Am McLovin!