I went to a screening of Indie Game: The Movie during the first week of May. It was broadcast from a satellite feed that showed the pre-movie introduction and following question and answer period from the official “premiere” theatre in downtown Toronto. The whole thing, despite my fairly empty West-end Toronto theatre and the The Avengers opening related hullaballoo taking precedence throughout the rest of the cinema, felt a bit like an important event. Everyone — both on the pre-show recording of audience members shuffling into the Bloor Cinema and the handful of people in my theatre — seemed like they were ready for something special to happen.
By the time the film had wrapped, this seemed pretty well justified.
For those of us who follow industry news and play games nothing that was shown in Indie Game was necessarily groundbreaking. The segments focusing on Phil Fish’s indefinite Fez development process, Jonathan Blow’s musings on Braid’s incredible success and the offbeat charisma of Edmund McMillen’s Super Meat Boy interviews all come off, to game players, like a bit of behind the scenes footage from well-loved folk stories. We — and, quite likely, you — know the background of these stories and how they end (success!) from the moment they start being told.
What was most exciting about the film was its ability to capture something that people who don’t play many videogames may not have known: namely, that games are a medium capable of providing legitimate artists with a venue for self-expression. This is probably most striking in a segment where McMillen discusses his upbringing, describing his loneliness as a boy and how he later attempted to capture these memories by developing Aether, a game about a young protagonist exploring outer space and confronting manifestations of his anxieties. In this part of the film it becomes clear that videogames are a medium capable of much more than aping Hollywood blockbusters; that they are, in fact, a viable form of artistic expression. When McMillen starts to get a little bit weepy discussing Aether, the audience sees that that game was as much a process of life-giving, experience-sharing, birth-giving work as any writer slaving away over a heartfelt novel or musician crafting the sonic details of a passionate song.
Indie Game manages to capture the creative potential of videogames and the experimental, more deeply emotional work being explored by independent developers, translating it for viewers who may otherwise have assumed that every game must revolve around unsophisticated cartoon characters or ultraviolence. Sure, most people who loved videogames going into the film may already know this is the case, but the sentiment is equally important for both the initiated and the uninitiated alike. Indie Game shows newcomers that maybe games are actually important and existing players — like me and, most likely, you — that we can (and should) ask for more of our medium than what we currently get from it.
Is it the best thing that a film about videogames could hope to be? No, probably not, but it is an excellent start — an introduction to what will be for many a whole new world of artistic expression. Indie Game: The Movie is the beginning of something big; something necessary for the advancement of an entire medium.
When the end credits had finished rolling the two or three dozen people in my theatre began clapping, as if their enthusiasm could be registered by the filmmakers who were, of course, not within earshot. Whether the audience was made up of game enthusiasts, Hot Docs devotees or just random moviegoers didn’t seem to matter. Everyone was united in something that transcended seeing a really good documentary. Everyone was applauding for the first real landmark in a medium that has been severely misunderstood — even actively diminished by lazy political pundits in some cases — and, maybe, recognizing the start of something really interesting: the documentation and, in essence, validation, of a new form of expression.
Yeah, it sounds hyperbolic, but Indie Game: The Movie is a real achievement and the kick in the ass that game players, game developers and modern culture in general needs in order to get the most out of a truly exciting medium.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.