That Weird Guy? He's Writing... the Next Great American Video Game

Day 161

I added “Indie Game: The Movie” to my list of things to review for the blog on a friend’s recommendation, and because museum professionals are coming to believe more and more that there’s a lot we can learn from game design. I wondered whether hearing more about these video game developers’ stories and their creative process as well as game design theory would provide any insights for when I’m planning an interactive exhibit component. Overall, I didn’t get as much out of it on the advice side as I had hoped, but I do think that if you watch Indie Game for what I presume are its intended purposes, a good story and a little look into the game industry, it’s a satisfying film.

Indie Game has an enjoyable narrative arc, as a sort of classic underdog story. It follows the journeys of two pairs of game developers, not starting from the middle of their process in designing a game, but from a point in the middle of the respective projects, when each team is stuck in the doldrums with no end in sight. They are independent developers, working with a game publishing company as freelancers, with no paycheck to sustain them until the royalties come in -- or don’t. Interspersed with these two teams’ stories are bits from an interview with the creator of Braid, which made videogame history in 2008 by becoming the first indie game to really make it big. While he reflects on what makes the work scary, and what makes it rewarding, we see the developers of Fez and Super Meat Boy pulling all-nighters at their computers.

Image shows a videogame controller hanging from its cord, possibly against a background of sky, as if hanging from an electrical wire.
A still from the film, which was stylized into the film's logo

At times, it’s hard to tell whether this is the kind of documentary where they amp up the drama on purpose, creating or re-creating scenes of high tension. I particularly wondered this at one point when a developer’s new game was not displayed in the Microsoft store on the day Microsoft released it, and the viewers saw an over-the-shoulder shot of the grimacing developer writing an email with the subject, “Where is the game?!?!?!” It’s impossible to tell whether without a camera looming, he might have mustered the energy it takes to write a calm email in a crisis. In true underdog story fashion, all of the heroes become wildly successful at the end -- one game selling extremely well at its release, and the other game getting accolades at PAX (a gaming convention). I was cheering for them, but I also found myself thinking “they had to have interviewed many people and chosen the successful ones to feature.” A brief internet search confirmed my theory. I know this is common for documentaries, and it allows them to create a good story, but I do have a bone to pick. The portrayal of game developers is as stereotypical as it could be -- if you don’t know what I’m thinking of, imagine stereotypes about computer programmers and those about video gamer nerds mashed together. An unwashed guy feeling his face saying, “Did I grow a beard? When did I grow a beard?” A guy out of touch enough to imply that he can live on $10k a year, which later makes sense because the spacious home he’s pictured working in is his parents’. Clearly, these stereotypes apply to some people, but given the push within geekdom in the last several years for gaming culture to recognize gamers and game developers of color and women in the field, the lack of diversity until the crowd scenes at the very end was awkward, knowing that they probably had more diverse footage. The creators made a follow-up titled “Indie Game: Life After” but I suspect it’s more of the same -- good in most ways, but not that one.

The film did give me some things to think about in terms of designing experiences. I had already heard the rule of thumb that a good game teaches you how to play it, but one of the developers elaborated on what that means in his games. Each mechanic -- each little element that does something different -- is introduced one at a time, so that you learn the parts as you go, and never get too much information at once. He said another thing that I had never thought about -- each mechanic should come up again, in slightly different configurations, about five times. Of course, his example was spinning saw blades that hurt the animated character if you don’t dodge them. Sometimes they are mounted on a wall instead of the floor, or fanning across the screen on a rotating arm. Still, I think the idea could apply to a number of types of user experience, in fields outside of games. Rather than having people do a whole bunch of new things, you can have them try a smaller number of things, and variations on those things.

The most compelling part of “Indie Game” was the peek into the creative process. Several of the developers talked about the extreme stress of having your life’s work hinge on the success or failure of one creation, and I don’t know what that’s like, but it sure is interesting. These game designers are portrayed with all of the semi-dark romance that society portrays a starving artist or a tortured novelist. Another common theme the heroes of the documentary spoke about was the uncertainty about whether people will like your creation, and whether they will even understand what it’s trying to do. You can make something that’s perfect on paper and still not know whether it will resonate with your audience. That, I found deeply relatable, and those moments of relatability were what I liked most about the film.


  1. I was interested in game design for its implications regarding learning design, not just for games themselves. Still, the idea of games in museums is intriguing. I just came across these posts on BlooLoop which go into much more detail on "gamifying" the museum experience.


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