Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease. What would be the one thing you would want to do that would make you accept your fate? One thing, one project, one goal that would make you feel more at ease with dying because you would have accomplished it? A goal that has simply been the sense of your life? Four years ago, for a video game designer and programmer Tommy Refenes, his raison d’être was to finish the Super Meat Boy game he had been developing with Edmund McMillen for 2 years.
Tommy and Edmund are two of four main characters featured in Sundance award-winning documentary film Indie Game: The Movie, directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky. We meet them as they’re spending days and nights applying final touches and fixing bugs in a game that will be their first major release on the Xbox. Meanwhile, Montréal-based designer Phil Fish is painstakingly working on his own, much anticipated, puzzle game called FEZ, which has undergone three serious changes in its 4-year development. For him and Renaud Bédard, the game programmer, the personal pressure to finish FEZ is bigger than the outside one: “We really need to get this thing done!” (As it turns out, FEZ will need another couple of years before it gets released in 2012.) And, finally, there’s Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, one of the highest-rating games, who is talking about the process of the game’s development and release, whilst collecting ideas for a new one.
I must confess that before I watched the film, my experience of computer games was limited to Tetris, Pac-Man and Tiny Toon Adventures. Despite the enormous joy I had, playing my friend’s Gameboy, I considered video games a dangerously addictive entertainment, created by people who live in a suspended childhood and resist the obligation to grow up. (If you’re a game maker or player, please don’t shoot. I shall wear sackcloth and ashes in punishment.) Watching Indie Game: The Movie revolutionised my thinking and rectified false preconceptions. Just like comics, games suffer from the “low art” stigma, while in fact they surpass many others art forms in the sophistication of concept and complexity of skills they require to make. The depth of ideas and metaphors that go into a game cannot but expose the shallowness and self-indulgence of many works people consider fine art (while the appropriate word would be what Waldemar Januszczak used in his recent review of the “video nasties” at the recent Turner Prize exhibition.)
In reality, there really isn’t much of a difference between a painting and a video game—they’re both an artistic expression. And just like a writer writes because it is the most effective form of their self-expression, for Tommy a video game is the most effective he can express himself. “Even though it’s a game people are supposed to buy, it’s not a game I made for people. I made it for myself.”
Super Meat Boy, as Tommy and Edmund describe it, is their childhood put in a game form. Based on a Flash game, Super Meat Boy has a very distinct art style and a rather unusual narrative. The main character is a boy with no skin who is trying to rescue his bandaged-up girlfriend from an evil doctor represented by a fetus in a jar with a top hat and a tuxedo. Devoid of skin, Super Meat Boy moves within a sharp and dangerous world made up of various saws that can slash him to bits. At any point, anything can kill him, yet he has to move on and deal with it, just like Edmund had to deal with isolation and ostracism at school. The bandage girl character is also quite significant: “I wanted to play up the idea that he needs her, that she’s what completes him, like not just emotionally but physically as well. (…) She’s kind of like the outer shell over meat boy that protects him, that’s why he needs her, he needs her back.”
Edmund isn’t ashamed to admit how much of him is in that little red figure. Or that Aether, one of his earlier games, is a direct metaphor of his phobia-filled, lonely childhood. The game tells a story of a kid who travels into space on the back of a monster with the intention of exploring other planets and making friends, because he can’t connect to anyone on Earth. Having found that those other planets are inhabited with unhappy and nervous creatures, he offers to help solve their problems. Unfortunately, not only does he not manage to make the creatures happy, but each time he solves a problem, the Earth shrinks, and when he finally returns to it, the planet breaks upon his touch, and the boy is lost in space again… I will be the first to admit that I cried listening to Edmund describe Aether. A beautifully made piece which serves not only as a puzzle to solve but a platform to reflect upon—isn’t that what good art should be?
“Things that are personal have flaws, have vulnerabilities. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody, you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level. So it’s the same with a game design,” says Jonathan Blow. His approach to designing Braid was to take his “deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them into a game.” And so Jonathan created a game that tells a love story, in which the main character is working through his memories, and effectively changing them, in search of something he had lost. The game, with its unusual time changing and rewind mechanics, is, like Aether, not just a typical puzzle, but a quirky metaphorical journey into one’s own psyche. Blow believes that “any puzzle game can give you puzzles that you have to think about and that are tricky to solve but what any particular game can give you is details, interesting insights into a particular situation, and I think that when a game realises that and seizes that it can do some really special things.”
Like Super Meat Boy, Aether and Braid, Phil Fish’s FEZ also works on several levels. It’s a two-dimensional puzzle platform game-within-a-game, set in a three-dimensional world, which gets revealed through a fez that is given to its main character, Gomez. The main goal of the game is to restore the order to the universe when it gets destabilized. But isn’t that a metaphor of life—dealing with continuous turbulences and complications to find some peace before things get unsettled again?
Given the ambitious concept and structure of FEZ, it isn’t surprising that Fish felt closely attached to it. “It’s not just a game. It’s me, it’s my ego,” he admitted. Asked by Lisanne what would happen to him if he couldn’t finish the game, Phil responds without a moment of hesitation: “I would kill myself. That’s my incentive to finish it. That I get to not kill myself.”
Melodramatic? Perhaps to some people—yes. Not to me. The honesty with which Phil talks about his passion is no less impressive than the passion itself. Admitting that we care about something, that we have put our heart into a project and want it to succeed, is something few people can do. We put a lot of energy into building a façade of distance, creating an impression that we don’t care and so we won’t get hurt. Phil, Tommy, Edmund and Jonathan are brave to show how much they care about their game—making it perfect, delivering on time, and having people understand and appreciate it.
The power of Pajot’s and Swirsky’s film lies in the fact that it’s not just about video game designers. This superbly directed and beautifully shot documentary is a poignant study of a creative mind, the solitude of the creator, and the pain and pleasure behind a passion so big that it can take over one’s life. It shows that depression isn’t only the result of stagnation, lack of understanding or a failure. Success, though often the goal, is not easy to handle when it actually happens. “The hardest part of success if finding people who will be happy for you,” says Tommy, who is lucky to have his family’s support. But then there’s the inevitable confrontation with how the world receives one’s work. Ironically, it is almost irrelevant whether the reception is positive or negative. A hundred ravishing reviews can easily get overshadowed by one piece of harsh criticism. And, even if fans are unanimous in their praise, the act of receiving the feedback is hard in itself. When Super Meat Boy finally gets released, and words of applause from excited fans start flowing in, Tommy isn’t jumping with joy. “Positive or negative reviews, it doesn’t matter, it’s just weird that they’re there,” he says. And then he adds: “Regardless of how the game did, I would like to always remember that I am proud of it.”
The ten-out-of-ten reviews can also hurt—in the case of Jonathan’s Braid, which was an immediate commercial and critical success, it was the lack of appreciation of the more in-depth aspects of the game. What upset him most was that people “didn’t even see what I thought was most special about it. Not that many people understood. (…) I visualised that I would have some kind of connection with people through this game, and they think it’s great but the connection isn’t there.” As soon as reviews of Braid started appearing on the internet, Jonathan went on a mission to explain all aspects of the game he felt were misunderstood or neglected by the viewers. His instant comments and replies to people on blogs and forums were soon interpreted as arrogance: Blow was labelled “an opinionated ass” and “pretentious loudmouth.” And, once again, completely misunderstood.
Another aspect of creativity that is so poignantly and skillfully presented in the film, is the sacrifice.
Unlike big companies, where there might be a hundred people working on one game, in the indie world it is often 2-3 developers. These people sit days and nights in front of their computers, working on a game, bombarded by continuous “When is the game coming out?!!!” questions from impatient fans. This kind of lifestyle is not easy, and even the most introvert people need to go out and talk to others once in a while to remain sane.
Edmund was lucky to have a very supporting girlfriend (now wife), who remained patient throughout all those months, when all she saw of him was his back. But Tommy was alone. “I sacrificed having a life,” he said. “It’s kind of weird: I don’t go out, I don’t really socialise, I can’t really spend any money because I don’t have any money.” But he knew it was his choice: “You kind of have to give up something to have something great.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of working on such projects is that the sacrifice doesn’t bring any guarantee of success. Super Meat Boy has sold over 1,000,000 copies and Tommy and Edmund have continued working as a creative duo, but Phil Fish, whose game release kept being postponed, has had all sorts of difficult circumstances to deal with, from a legal conflict with his ex-partner to disputes with Microsoft after the product got launched, and industry harassment. As a result, he is now selling his company. You can spend a few years of your life working on a project that won’t resonate with people. Or arrives too late, after someone else had already come up with a similar idea. Would that mean that it’s not worth it? That it’s better to lower ambitions, be “reasonable,” and decide that it’s silly to waste your twenties and thirties working alone in a stuffy room?
The film doesn’t give an answer this question. Or perhaps it does, but the answer will be different for everyone. Personally, I admire that kind of passion—the one that makes you skip meals and parties, expose yourself to criticism, test your endurance and self-esteem. I sometimes envy people who are happy with simple goals, who feel emotionally rewarded for things that don’t require them to turn their lives upside down and make those big sacrifices. But just like those four guys from Indie Game: The Movie, I’ve always dreamt big and most likely won’t settle until I’ve realise the most ridiculously ambitious projects. Because these projects are the expression of me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that.