GameLoading: Rise of the Indies

GameLoading: Rise of the Indies is an independently produced, Kickstarter funded documentary about the independent video games scene. Or is it a community? An industry? It’s actually kind of ALL those things, which is one reason why this movie caught our attention.

Gamerati’s Ed Healy sat down with the indefatigable Stan! to watch GameLoading, and when it was done they had a little chat. Let’s listen in, shall we?

Ed Healy: At the beginning, there is very little agreement about what they mean by the term “indie.” Some people talk about the lack of money and investors. Some talk about making a name for themselves. Others talk about artistic expression. It’s not until the end that they seem to define it as “a couple people” plus “development not funded by a publisher.”

Stan!: Do they even say that with any certainty? In the end, it seemed to me that they defined “indie” as being driven by passion rather than economics. Whether it’s one person, a pair, or a small team, the hook seemed to be that they were following a passion, looking to answer a question, or exploring a concept for its own sake.

EH: Part of me wishes that they’d made that more explicit from the start — but the vagueness may have been the point.

S!: I actually get the feeling that the film makers didn’t have a real point, other than showing what was going on in the indie games scene. It didn’t feel like this movie had a real editorial point of view, or a statement it was trying to make. That doesn’t make the parts or the subject any less interesting, but it does make it difficult to evaluate the film as a film.

EH: I liked some of the sidebars, like the one where Chelsea Howe was talking about how “play” is good, that it helps with learning, etc. I’m not sure that’s really germane to the topic at hand beyond the fact that the indie games community enjoys playing and creating games (for people to play). It’s true they do, but so do people at ArenaNet.

S!: Yeah. All the interviews with the established creators had interesting and clear messages about the nature of games, the process of game creation, and other bigger issues. But they didn’t always feel connected to what the movie was showing us happening in the younger creators’ lives.

EH: My main criticism would also be the meandering editorial focus. The filmmakers seemed conflicted on just what this film is about. I think it would have been a stronger film if they’d had that focus.

S!: But that’s really only a problem in retrospect. While the film is going it’s completely engaging.

EH: I love documentaries. I love learning about the lives of people I’ll probably never meet — where they’re from, what their creative process is like, what their dreams and fears are. In that sense, this was an enjoyable film. In a way, they allowed the subjects to present themselves as they viewed themselves, and that has value in my eyes.

S!: True. And the fact that so many of these game creators were connected — living together, or sharing studio space, or having frequent online communications — certainly meant that most of their individual stories affected one another. That got lost a little bit as they brought in the few other unrelated design teams, like Tale of Tales and Christine Love. They definitely brought interesting perspectives, and showed things the movie otherwise would have missed, but they also felt a little “stapled on.” It got even more strained during the Train Jam sequence. [Which shows a whole bunch of teams in a friendly game design competition on a cross-country train trip to GDC.]

EH: Yeah, but I love the creative energy that game jams represent.

S!: Uh-huh. They do capture the “indie” feeling that the movie spends so much time trying to define. And it introduces us to a lot of really out there game concepts.

EH: That Dragon Cancer was interesting to me because it showed how you can use a storytelling format to create a game-like experience that allows someone to explore what the creator thinks and feels. We don’t normally associate that with “games,” but it highlights some of the more esoteric experimentation with the format that goes on in this community. The same could be said of Depression Quest but, as a father, I identified more strongly with That Dragon Cancer. Someone else may identify more with DQ.

S!: I can totally see that. I was intrigued by Analogue: A Hate Story — using the Japanese visual novel format as a storytelling game. I mean, you see folks trying that sort of thing in the tabletop game scene, too. But tabletop games excel in asking the players questions, while video games excel in giving them specific experiences.

EH: The Stanley Parable was the game they came back to most often throughout the whole film.

S!: Yeah. At times it seemed like this almost might have started as a documentary about Davey Wreden and The Stanley Parable, but then grew bigger as more and more interesting people came into the story.

EH: I like the way that the humor is woven into that game, and thanks to this film I’m really tempted to check it out. That said, I appreciated the deeper look into how Wreden worked on the product, worried over the launch, etc.

S!: It certainly did drive home the similarities that all kinds of creative work and small-press publishing share.

EH: I’ve been that guy and I know very well what he was feeling.

S!: Me, too!

EH: It was a dose of reality that I really appreciated. Creating something on your own (or with a small team) is hard — very hard. Most people never get any significant response from their efforts. That’s important to note.

S!: The movie does show a lot of highly successful indie game designers. Someone could walk away with the wrong idea that success is just a matter of course. I mean, they certainly say otherwise in the film, but the examples they show are almost universally high-achieving successes.

EH: That’s why I’m so glad that one lady talked about her failure. That is, a successfully designed game that failed to get any traction with the audience.

S!: Yeah. That was a nice dose of reality.

EH: It was even better toward the end when she made it clear that in the wake of the failure she was trying again. I love the way she simply shrugged and said, “I’m a game designer.”

S!: I wanted to cheer!

EH: The only part that felt unreal or contrived was with Vlambeer — the two guys from the Netherlands. They said they were “indie,” but it was clear that had financial backing. How else was that guy flying all over the world?

S!: I guess it harkens back to the basic question of what “indie” really means. Does it matter if they have a bankroll if they go about making their games the same way — just two guys following their muse?

EH: But there’s a real difference between them and all the others who were clearly struggling to pay the rent while they worked on their dream projects. It just seemed a little disingenuous to me.

S!: I can totally see that. I even agree. But it’s still an interesting question. Is there some point measured by success or money where you stop being “indie” no matter what your creative process is like? Is there a time where you switch from being the plucky “indie artist” and become an “established superstar?”

EH: Personally, I don’t care one bit at all. I want good people to make good games, so you and I can have a good time playing them together. You can call it “blue” gaming for all I care. In the context of this film, though, it seemed that the Vlambeer vignette went outside the internal definition they were establishing in the narrative.

S!: So, when all is said and done, what did you think of GameLoading as a whole? I found it to be a really interesting look into a corner of the gaming world I knew very little about. I learned a lot about what’s out there, and what an individual designer can accomplish on his (or her) own, or with the help of a few talented collaborators. But I think it could have done that even more effectively if the movie had a stronger editorial perspective. Right now, it really feels too much like the filmmakers gathered up as much footage as they could and just kind of dumped it out for me to sift through. I’d certainly recommend it for someone who wants to learn a little about the topic, but I imagine that if you already knew a bit about the indie video game scene, you’d find this movie to be rambling and unfocused.

EH: I agree it could have used a little more aim. But … I’m a sucker for this type of film, so I didn’t really care too much about the lack of focus. I’d call it “worth watching at least once.”

I want more!

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