Friday, February 1, 2013

For the Gamers

Once again, I was noncommittal when it came to going to the movies this week. Amour is the obvious choice for the next major flick I have to see (it's the last 'Best Picture' nominee on my list), but it's not playing anywhere convenient for me just yet, and so it's easy to put off. I could see Parker, but adding Jennifer Lopez to a typical Jason Statham action flick feels like subtraction for some reason. And while I'm sure Naomi Watts is wonderful in The Impossible, the idea of seeing a film based on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster doesn't exactly get me hot and bothered. Content to take the day off and prepare for this weekend's release of Warm Bodies, I was fooling around on Youtube when I discovered a video from the movie review site Belated Media, its countdown of the Top 10 movies for 2012. While I have my disagreements with their ranking of the best of the year (I enjoyed them, but were The Hobbit and The Raid really among the BEST the year had to offer? Was Beasts of the Southern Wild THAT good? And no love for animated fare?), I largely agreed with the selections, which included modern classics Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Avengers and Moonrise Kingdom. Also, even when I disagreed with their suggestions, the host was able to adequately explain the reasons behind the choices, to the point where I could understand why someone would LOVE a movie I tossed aside as good or even merely okay. But there was one title on the list whose inclusion stood out, if for no other reason than I'd seen it nowhere on similar lists thus far.

He's surprised he made the list too.
In the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot follow the careers of four independent video game developers who have made an impact in the past and present, and could in the future. Representing the past, Jonathan Blow released the time-bending puzzler Braid in 2008 to critical acclaim and massive sales, and reflects on his work today. In 2010 (the present when it was filmed), designers Edmund McMillan and Tommy Refenes are crunching their way through the programming of platformer Super Meat Boy, to the extent that it is damaging to McMillan's marriage and Refenes' health. But if they don't get it finished soon, it may never see the light of day. And while Phil Fish first debuted an early version of Fez - a 2D/3D platform adventurer - in 2008, two years of retooling and numerous personal and professional setbacks have put into question whether or not it will ever be released.

Obligatory artistically-done shot.
Independent game studios aren't like the big boys at Electronic Arts, Microsoft or Bethesda. They have no little or no corporate backing, and instead of the 200+ crowds employed by the larger companies to create blockbuster hits like Halo and Mass Effect, indies often are created by a small handful of programmers, often in the single digits. Of course, while they don't have the financial security of those larger entities, independents have the distinct advantage of creating their own unique concepts and ideas. Where Electronic Arts and the like are notorious for pumping out clones of the same ideas because they are "safe" options (video games ARE a business, after all), the smaller companies like McMillan and Refenes' 'Team Meat' can take bigger risks without fear of offending corporate overlords. Indie Game explores this fully, showing the trials and tribulations that developers must overcome if they ever hope to get their dream games to the public, and emphasizing the fact that they are throwing piles and piles of their own money and hard work into getting it done and in the hopes of success. I fell in love with Team Meat (well, okay, McMillan; Refenes I can take or leave) and their very human struggle with having something akin to normal lives in which the whole of their waking hours are spent in front of a computer coding. The men and women who undertake this are the modern day equivalents of Vincent Van Gogh and similar "starving artists", and their ability to create something from nothing is inspiring to say the least.

Team Meat when they can tear themselves away from the monitors.
Sadly, the rest of the documentary is a little lopsided as far as storytelling goes. The majority of the time is given to Team Meat, which is fine, but both Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish get the short straws as far as coverage is concerned. With Fish, at least he gets a chance to redeem himself, appearing at first to be a jerk who doesn't care about his fans and slowly revealing the cracks in his facade. In a short time, we see him as we see a man ravaged not only by the delays he is constantly judged by in the public community, but also the personal problems stemming from family unrest and the messy severing of a former business relationship. This is a man who lashes out not because he's an asshat, but because he's holding all these frustrations in while trying to do the best job he can on Fez (the game was finally released early in 2012). But while we get to root for Fish a little bit, Blow remains an enigma. I get that the movie couldn't actually cover much of his development of the excellent Braid, as it was finished long before filming. But what little he is allowed to tell doesn't do much to diminish the reputation he developed after openly criticizing people for not enjoying his game in the same way he had intended (which Indie Game covers). Blow comes off as little more than pretentious; even if he were completely sincere, not enough is presented to make him any more important than the one game he created.

Super Meat Boy approves
For first-time directors Swirsky and Pajot, Indie Game: The Movie is a success in that you don't need to be a gaming fan to appreciate the hard work these artists (and they ARE artists) put into their chosen tradecraft. For the most part, the filmmakers do a great job of making you care about the men and women who select not to create endless Halo clones, but to design and create from scratch something unique, thought-provoking, and fun. Is it one of the best movies of 2012? Uhm, sorry, no. I'd certainly say take a look to judge for yourself (it's currently available on Netfllix) because this is definitely one of the more unique films released last year, and everyone involved certainly has nice futures somewhere over the horizon.

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