SXSW Review: Indie Game: The Movie

The making of Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy make for a tense, emotional documentary.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


This is my favorite film of SXSW and would have been my favorite film at Sundance if I’d seen it there this year. It’s not just that it’s a thoroughly engaging subject. The filmmaking is tense and emotional with beautiful cinematography, just everything you want a movie to be.

The documentary follows three video game designers. Jonathan Blow created the successful Braid. Phil Fish is endlessly developing the hotly anticipated Fez. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes work to launch Super Meat Boy on Xbox Live Arcade. Three different stages of success in the non-corporate video game world.

First of all, these are all games I want to play. Even the indie games they show briefly in a montage hearken back to the type of gaming that captivated me as a child. Like film documentaries make me write down titles of movies I want to rent, Indie Game had me writing down titles of games to download when I get home.

The game footage looks beautiful on the big screen and non gamers can totally understand the context of these small, personal games versus the Grand Theft Autos and Mass Effects. Even the technical aspects are accessible like the similarities to old school Super Mario side-scrollers and the notion of time and rewinding from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The technical aspects go in depth for diehards too, like Fish manipulating Photoshop cubes and Tetris shapes for Fez.

The filmmakers layer in the personal stories powerfully. It’s never “and here’s the moment in the documentary when we reveal the personal tragedy.” You just slowly start to realize that these quirky recluse artists are dealing with some real stuff. At first you just think Fish is overreacting to the demand for his brilliant looking game, but you slowly find out he has real pressures. You really sympathize with Refenes’s parents and understand why Fish is under so much pressure. McMillen deals with his relationships in a really healthy way despite the demands of his business.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky build the tension of Fez’s glitches and Meat Boy’s administrative snafus. Simple filmmaking techniques like cutting between angles keep the interviews energetic, and intercutting shots of Refenes insulin shots is a nice injection of stark reality, pun totally intended.

As a former gamer, this movie reminds me of the possibilities should artists pursue them. I also just love the story of an artist making something and what it costs personally and professionally. These artists give me hope for the economy. There will always be innovators and I will buy these games for 10 bucks or whatever they cost.