I watched Indie Game: The Movie today; and two things stood out to me. One is watching what the people who work on independent games and seeing the stress, doubt, depression and agony they submit themselves to to do what they love. It reminded of reading about painters, writers, and every other artist that has ever existed have done. The other thing that stood out and what I think if said another way more people may understand better, the fear that after the game comes out people will not like it or even worse not understand it.
The way the subjects were portrayed reminded me greatly of the stories of other artists from the past and present. They are not making games because they wanted to be rich nor because they wanted to be famous. Rather they do it because they love games. Now, I will caveat that by saying two of the subjects were quite open in their disdain for big studio games and that is their right to think whatever they damn well please. But in my mind I would not be overtly hostile to the majority of something that I love. I’d say I am not the biggest fan of certain parts and try to state my reasons as best I could. It would not be the hill I die on however. But this is not particularly interesting and rather irrelevant.
It is because they love it, because this is exactly what they want to do that they do it. They are compelled in a way to do it. If I did not enjoy writing and thinking critically I would not be where I am now. The potential of making hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars is a nice incentive but from what I have seen artists of all kinds are drawn there not for the material rewards generally. They are there because they want to be, they do not know what else to do with themselves and their talents. If every court painter was only interested in making money then it would only make sense that Goya would have only painted portraits on commission and not waste time and energy on the Yard With Lunatics or The Colossus. Both of which are very striking and interesting but I cannot see anyone with the money to spend on a painting in the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries asking for that to be painted.
One of the subjects in the film is Phil Fish and the development of FEZ. Phil Fish recently made headlines because he got involved in a flame war with some pest over the development Fez II and renounced the industry as a whole and declared he was done.* The development of Fez took place over five years, which for a game seems reasonable. The difference between Fez and most games it seems is that Fez was announced and then took five years in development. From what I understand most games go through two or three years of development and then get announced or teased and two years later or so it comes out. And over those five years the number of people who work on it are hundreds or thousands of people. Fez was made by basically two people. But the documentary shows in approximately 2011 people were skewering Phil Fish for not having it done by now. I do not understand the idea of antagonizing someone to make them finish something creative faster. I can only write so much at any given point. A strategy I developed in college was I would pound out as much of whatever essay I had to do a few days before the first draft was due. The next day I may try to add some more and so on. If I never managed to get a proper conclusion done I’d add an addendum to the end of the paper that apologized for the abrupt ending of the piece and promise more. My goal typically was to get a hook or the skeleton of a thesis together and rely on my peers to help me flesh it out and get a conclusion.† But if you tried to force me to do all of it at once I would not be able to or it would be a shadow of what it could be. I think the same rules apply here with games. One of the biggest complaints about Dragon Age 2, a game which I’m decidedly in the minority for liking it, is that did not have long enough development time and thus it suffered as whole. And I’m sure some of the people who levied that accusation against the boys and girls from Edmonton and their patrons in San Francisco were also screaming at Phil Fish for not having Fez done already.
Another caveat here is that Phil Fish was not entirely innocent. He did engage with the bleating sheep and talking farm animals when he could have ignored them. But then again how many times could you tolerate being prodded before you reacted?
The other thing that stood out to me is the fear that these people have about how their work will be received. It is not so much that it will be negatively received but that people will not understand it. The main example of this in the movie is Jonathan Blow with Braid. After the release of the game he was famous for responding to almost every review of his game anywhere. They bookended that segment of the film with clips from YouTube of Soulja Boy, of Soulja Boy fame, playing Braid. A big feature in Braid is the ability to reverse time and using it to solve puzzles, as certain things are affected by the reversal of time and others are not. Now Mr. DeAndre Way’s opinion of the game was it is pointless but the ability to fall up was endlessly entertaining to him and the people around him. It seemed that kind of view of his game is what upset Jonathan Blow the most. People missed the point. The game was not about solving the puzzles themselves or the ability to fall up. It was the story that mattered and what the game was trying to say. But that is something that I see often in games. People either cannot or do not want to understand some the narratives trying to be told. They are like magpies in that they just want the shiny objects, the best graphics, the same twitchy multiplayer experience that is populated with living embodiments of stunted emotional growth and juvenile pettiness. Panem et circenses.
Now it is a bit unreasonable to assume that everyone will see a work of art and understand it in the exact same way as the creator intended. That is a strength of a work is if it does have multiple interpretations and causes people to discuss it. But I think what happens in games is not that kind of critical thinking. An analogy that I can come up with is if people saw the Yard with Lunatics and said it was mostly black, had a group of men in it and two of them were fighting. It is reductive and in many ways inhibits further discussion. I am not saying every, single game is or should be a masterpiece and should generate discussion or critical thought on the human condition. But games can be and are a great art form. They allow for the best of the visual arts, storytelling and music to be combined in an interactive medium. Yes, they should be fun and some exist purely to entertain and kill time. But there is room for both entertainment and art to exist within the medium.
*- Yes, that link goes to an NHL term but I think it is a good example of the kind of people he was dealing with. They exist only to complain about something they supposedly like. Appealing to fear and anger to gain attention
†-In reality this site could benefit greatly if I recruited people to help me edit my pieces. All of my posts are very raw and flow of consciousness in nature. And it suffers some from that.