I went down to ACMI to watch ‘Indie Game: The Movie’ last night and thoughts are bouncing around in my head to the point of becoming distracting. So in the interests of getting-the-fuck-on with the development of the indie games I’m currently making, I’d really like to get this out so I can appropriately redirect my grey matter to what it’s supposed to be doing.
Which, awesomely, is what this film is all about. The fact it’s videogames is merely a bonus. Indie Game: The Movie is a documentary about making stuff and the blood, sweat, tears, lawsuits, sacrifices, losses, and highs found while doing that. There was a conscious effort to focus on the people involved and their journeys as creators, which I was really relieved about. I wasn’t interested in how many iterations of the engine there was or how thanks to some clever epiphany the coder had they managed to cut down the amount of processes they had to do by 40%. The technical specifics weren’t really what I was there for. I was there to see people breaking their arses making things, and to get an insight into why they do.
I wasn’t disappointed. I even learned stuff. Helpful stuff.
This was about the maker’s journey, and considering everyone’s journey is different, how you can best equip yourself to get through it. Before going in I thought the film would be about a bunch of makers all going through their struggles to release their games, some sort of Act 3 crunch time or road block, and then the elation felt on (the very aptly-named) release day. I wasn’t expecting a lesson on working out what you want from making games in the first place and how this impacts your happiness when it’s all over. Their motivators seemed to be the real defining factors between each person.
The Team Meat guys behind Super Meat Boy — Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes — proved a stark contrast to Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish when it came to their motivations for making games and it’s got me thinking about mine.
Jonathan Blow has always seemed a little odd to me and this film helped me understand why a little better. Previously I knew of his gift for suddenly appearing in any thread that mentioned (his game) Braid, and I knew that if someone took issue with the game he would be there either demanding they properly explain themselves or he would be trying to explain to them what they weren’t “getting”. This made it easy to label him as an arrogant guy with a massive ego who was looking down on all the schmucks who just weren’t smart enough to “get” his genius, but it wasn’t until I heard McMillen say his reason for making games involved “trying to find new ways to communicate with people” that I realised maybe Blow wasn’t annoyed at people not understanding how smart he was, but perhaps he was hurting that he was trying to communicate with people and they just weren’t hearing what he was saying. That must suck as a creator. It was an active decision to put his deepest flaws and vulnerabilities thematically into Braid. Calling out over the ravine and not hearing any of his echo sent him into a deep depression after the game was released. Despite financial success and rave reviews and people enjoying his game, he didn’t get what he wanted out of it, and that was to show his exposed nerves to the world and to have the world validate them. That’s a lot to ask of a videogame.
Phil Fish seemed motivated by making the game world go “Ooooo”. He took the iconic 2D pixel-art and thrust it into moments of 3 dimensions. He wanted people to think it was amazing. He seemed fixated on attributing immense value to Facebook likes and tweets. He was caught up in a messy legal battle with his previous business partner over the intellectual property of Fez, and was visibly angry and bitter on camera exclaiming “He’s going to be a millionaire, and because of ME!”. He seemed consumed by the want for financial success and the fame that would come with it. He even said the only thing the game really has is the rotation into 3D. He was so close to it he “couldn’t even see the mistakes anymore”. His motivating factors were external and he had no control over them. Fittingly, he started to lose control of himself a little, too. He said he wasn’t Phil Fish anymore, he was “Guy making Fez”. The wary balancing act between giving something his all and it becoming his all was going in a very dangerous direction. He said if he didn’t manage to release his game he would seriously consider ending his life.
My eyes widened and I began to worry for the mental health of everyone making anything ever.
Tommy Refenes had a heart of gold and just wanted to work hard to pay off his parent’s mortgage. A noble cause for sure, but one that applied immense amounts of pressure. You know in bad action movies when the antagonist hurts the protagonist’s family member or best friend and the protagonist turns to the antagonist and says “NOW IT’S PERSONAL!”. Well… Tommy kind of did that to himself. The stakes were switched from “Try your best and if it fails it fails” to “Your parents will be financially punished if you don’t get this right… jerk”. Heavy. His heart was always in the right place, but due to these high stakes he threw himself so completely into making Super Meat Boy the rest of his life stopped. When he finished making the game, he felt lost. That was his identity for over 2 years. Thankfully, the game was a huge success and the release he was looking for was soon made a reality when his parents were officially debt-free. He was okay at the end of it all, but it was always a very real possibility that he wouldn’t be. Mentally, his journey really looked like actual trauma.
Thankfully, like a shining beacon, Edmund McMillen (who I’m fairly sure would lose bladder control at being referred to as a “shining beacon”) portrayed the motivations that made my heart sing. He makes games Little Edmund would want to play, but not in a catharsis-driven game-development-as-therapy way, as a method of reaching out to kids who feel as misunderstood as he did. Towards the end of the film as he’s looking back on Super Meat Boy’s success, he’s humble. It’s great the game made him money (it meant he could get his wife the hairless cat she always dreamed of) but to him it made much more of an impact on him personally to think that a child somewhere is staying up late playing his game, talking about it at school the next day, drawing the characters on their lunch boxes and having that personal connection to his art. He teared up thinking that he has impacted their lives in the way he wanted a grown up to do that when he was a kid. I feel like he was the only one with a motivation that seemed realistic, grounded, and balanced. He wanted kids (and big kids) to enjoy his game for whatever they got out of it. Anything else was a bonus. Succeed or fail, he’s going to be okay.
I feel like he had the greatest lesson to teach in regards to making stuff. He wasn’t asking the game to address his emotional needs or to help heal his wounds. He wasn’t asking the world to validate him. He wasn’t asking metacritic whether he was a good person, or living and dying on reviews. He got a kick out of seeing people play his game on youtube.
I walked away from Indie Game: The Movie thinking about my motivations for making games and whether they were conducive to being happy at the end of that really hard slog. It’s made me ask myself “What do you hope to get out of this, and is that okay”, which I think is a helpful barometer no matter what you’re doing. It’s a way to keep yourself on the path during your journey as a creator. There’s no right way to do it, obviously. Brilliant games are made at high and low human costs. Being happy at the end of it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the game’s quality itself or its success, but everything to do with you as a motivated and passionate creator. Making a conscious effort to look after yourself and do things for the right reasons can only be a good thing when it comes to the bigger picture of the relationship you have with your craft, and the relationship your craft has with you. We all want to get out of this alive, right? Making stuff is something I want to do. But I don’t want the stuff to make me.