It was a muggy day in early May when I met with Winnipeggers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky at Toronto’s swanky Sutton Hotel. Hot off their whirlwind tour of the US, the clearly road-weary directing duo behind the documentary Indie Game: The Movie were in town to show their film at the renowned Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival.
Don’t let the name fool you though, Indie Game: The Movie isn’t just something for gamers or geeks. Any creative soul will be able to relate to the stories of blood, sweat, and tears being told in the doc. The Kickstarter funded film follows several indie game designers as they struggle to complete their respective games, including the sarcously titled Team Meat – the folks behind the wonderful platformer Super Meat Boy – and Montreal’s Phil Fish – creator of the recently released and long in development Fez.
We discussed how Pajot and Swirsky came to make a movie about game development, their shared creative experience, how the film has inspired non-gamers, their Sundance success, and about some of the criticism that has been leveled at their film.
Indie Game: The Movie is now available to stream or download on the film’s official site – www.indiegamethemovie.com – iTunes, and Steam.
Dork Shelf: So how did this movie come to be? What was it about independent gaming that attracted you guys?
James Swirsky: It all kind of started when we were commissioned to do a small piece by the Manitoba government. This organization called New Media Manitoba wanted to do a series of video profiles on Winnipeg and Manitoba success stories. One of the success stories was Alec Holowka, who made a game with Derek Yu called Aquaria back in 2007 and won the Seumas McNally Award at the Independent Games Festival that year. He was an indie gaming rock star…
Lisanne Pajot: In a way that an indie game designer can be a rock star. They’re still poor and in debt, but they’ve been recognized for their great work.
JS: But if you say Alec Holowka to the right people and they’ll be like “Oh my god, I love Aquaria!” It was amazing how much people had connected with Aquaria. We just thought it was just going to be this five minute puff piece about a guy who had made a game, but the more and more we talked with him the more it became this great story. The end product didn’t end up being this exactly, but as Alec worked on it, the more the piece became a reflection of how he was feeling and what he was going on in his life while working on the game. The game didn’t end up the way it had started and there were some great parallels between that and Alec’s own life. It was this idea that games can be personal, that they can be an expression, and a reflection of something.
LP: It wasn’t a new idea at the time, but it was new to us. I think we just started identifying with these people. We’re not really part of the film world – we’d done commercials and other things, but we’d mostly been working on our own – and we identified with these designers who were working hard on their own on something special. That’s what drew us to it.
We went down to the Game Developers Conference and the Independent Games Summit, and encountered all these people who were talking like Alec had been about their games - about personal expression, and about working really hard on their own and trying to reach lots of people.
JS: They were talking about how heart wrenching and emotional the development process can be – about how dramatic it was – and it kind of blew us away. We loved hearing these stories, we were very interested in the stories, and thought that if we could get this process on film that would be a documentary we’d be very interested in seeing ourselves. At the same time we looked around at the documentary landscape and there weren’t any docs on game development. There are some documentaries on video games but they are few and far between. The big, high profile video game documentaries are always gamer focused – King of Kong or the ones about people who lose their lives to Second Life or World of Warcraft – and no one is talking about what goes into making a game. We were fascinated by the process and it just seemed liked those stories needed to be out there. No one was telling those stories, so we did it. It was a movie that we felt we’d want to see ourselves, so we figured that if we wanted to see it maybe there was a good amount of other people who’d want to see a movie like that too.
DS: Speaking to that point, you were documenting these designers making their first big high profile game while you yourselves were making your first major feature film. Was it odd going through that sort of shared experience?
LP: Yeah, these things weren’t that big when we were collectively starting this. When we were filming these designers they were just trying to get their games out. They had a great opportunity to get on Xbox, but there were no guarantees that the games would be successful. Same deal with us. We got some amazing support from our first Kickstarter which was launched after only three days of shooting and a month of research. It ended up being $23,000. That’s pretty small for a film, but our goals were pretty humble. It was weird to be working with them on this trajectory of making something that’s appreciated in tandem.
JS: Yeah, the parallels are kind of uncanny. Starting out with humble beginnings making this thing that you pour everything into, and as a result saying no to other jobs, saying no to other careers, and working on this thing that has no real guarantees of success. Good prospects, for sure. Fez was a great prospect and Super Meat Boy had a great trajectory, but there were no guarantees. And as you watch them become successful, you’re very happy for them, plus it’s great for the film and what happens in it. Then when the film started taking on a similar life, it felt like we were filming a version of ourselves six or eight months in the future
LP: All the shitty parts for the designers in the film, that also happened to us…
JS: And it kind of continues to happen (laughs)…
LP: It’s always comes in waves. There’s stuff like this [Hot Docs], where people are excited to see your work and then you get dropped down again. But you just keep trying, and I think that’s the nature of doing things on your own. We didn’t sell the film, we didn’t pass it off to somebody, we didn’t have any help – we just had the two of us and it’s the same thing with those guys in the movie. They were doing it themselves, doing all this work, and trying to reach a lot of people. It might be ill-advised to do it that way. Maybe you need a bigger team to create something like that without going a little crazy, but the parallels were really strange.
DS: Someone who doesn’t know a thing about video games or game design can still get something out of this film because it’s ultimately about the creative process… Is it safe to say that if you’re a creative person you’ll be able to relate to the stories in the film?
JS: We do think that you could probably take every instance of “video game” in the film, replace it with movie or book or painting or music or whatever, and the broad strokes would remain the same. The emotions and the motivations behind it are the same. Yeah, it’s about making video games, but it’s also about making stuff. Pouring everything you have into something, putting it out there for the world, and then seeing if people get it… seeing if they even like it, and if they like it, why do they like?
LP: It’s so funny because I know the guys in the film are in a much better place now. Super Meat Boy has been out for a year and Phil [Fish] just released his game, and although you have this work that a lot of people seem to like you’re still sensitive about it. Just because you got a big stamp from the IGF or from Sundance, it doesn’t make you immune to criticism.
JS: It’s that whole idea of getting a thousand positive comments and then like two really bad ones. The ones that you pay attention to, and the ones that bounce around in your head are the negative ones. That’s a weird human inclination to focus on the negative like that, which is sad. I wish I could rewire my brain and I know that [Lisanne], Tommy [Refenes], Edmund [McMillen], Phil, and Jon [Blow] wish they could do that too. It’s just weird.
LP: It’s this new way of creating; having this chorus of people online all the time. I don’t think the creative process has had that before. You go away, write a book, and then put it out there. You’d get feedback, but it wouldn’t be instant like this.
DS: That kind of feedback seemed to help you guys as well as the designers in the film. I’m curious how you guys found Team Meat and Polytron though – I know there was a “trajectory” for the games they were making – but why choose to follow the teams that you did?
LP: It was total happenstance, but it was really organic. We started filming with Alec and he was like “Hey, I’ve got this friend Tommy, who I did a panel with at GDC last year. You should go talk to him.” So we went to talk to him and said we wanted to film him at the IGF since he was up for a big award. Funnily enough, Tommy didn’t inform Edmund (the other half of Team Meat) that we were filming and he was so totally confused by it.
JS: We were at the IGF in 2010 and Team Meat was up for the Seumas McNally. Edmund had no idea about the documentary at that point. Tommy had said something in passing to him, but we’d laid everything out for Tommy and asked him to please tell Edmund. Super Meat Boy was there and they were insanely nervous. When it came time for the big award we got closer with our cameras, and then Edmund and Danielle (his wife) are sitting there with cameras on them thinking they were going to win because there were cameras on them. They were all confused by it and then they lost. So that was the beginning – we filmed them losing.
LP: We actually reached out to and filmed lots of other designers. It just so happened that out of the pool of people we started with – we created a giant list on the wall in our house of all these different designers and crossed them off as we filmed with them – these guys were working towards a goal. They had a goal that was within reach and a goal that we thought we could film within the six months we had given ourselves. We ended up shooting for fourteen months off and on. So that’s how it happened.
I think what’s also interesting about the games we ended up choosing to film is that they’re very direct personal reflections, and that’s kind of special. Not all games are like that, and even if they are I don’t think with all games it would be as obvious as with the ones in the film.
When you pour yourself into something and you’re trying to express something, there doesn’t have to be a direct line to your life, but it was there in the ones we chose to focus on in the film.
JS: There was also this wonderful past, present, future thing going on, in terms of the development cycle. With Fez you see the game being made – and all the doubt and craziness that goes on with that. And then with Super Meat Boy you see a little bit of the development, but we mostly concentrate on the release – and you see how crazy, wonderful, and horrible that can be. Then with Jon it dovetailed very nicely, where you get to see what happens after release and where you go from there. His story is insanely surprising. We kind of knew going in, but we didn’t know the extent of it.
We always wanted to have that narrative arc of someone making and releasing a game, and we ended up telling that story with four different people and three different games.
DS: It’s basically all white male developers in the film making 2D platformers. Were you concerned at all that you were limiting the film by not representing the full diversity of indie games, genres, and game designers?
LP: We thought about it a lot and that’s why we shot with like twenty other people. It was really about the people first, and then the games. We filmed with all different kinds of developers creating all different kinds of games, different genres, and different styles. But it just happened that this is what worked best together, it really created the statement we wanted. We think it showed the truth of what it’s like to do something like this. It was a struggle though. We wanted it to be representative and to show some diversity in this medium, but it would have been us just shoehorning that in when we had this story that we couldn’t resist telling.
JS: And I think that indie games are just so broad, that if we even attempted to say “This is the world of indie games. This is the movement,” we would just fail miserably at it because it would be a long ass documentary that no one would want to watch. Maybe in five minute chunks, but it would be really, really tough.
We were really self conscious about it though, because we feature three platformers and indie gaming is not just platforming. But we had to just concentrate on the stories of these people first, and then their games and the interplay between the two. We felt that if we portrayed the experience of making a game, that would be the universal part. If it were a 3D shooter made with the same passion and the same stories, people would still relate. A person making that game would watch the Super Meat Boy story and still get it. It seemed like the better movie to make.
LP: We wanted to make something that we were passionate about and felt good about, so the film was for us, but also for the gaming community that supported us a lot too. That said, we did want to make something that was accessible. Something that anyone could watch and take something away from. So that’s why we focused on the emotion, and that’s what film does the best.
DS: What has the reaction been amongst non-gamers and more general audiences?
JS: It’s kind of been like our dream scenario. Can we make this thing that is specific but not esoteric, and also has this universal quality that can show people why people like video games and make video games. We achieved what we were hoping in that we’ll get these people who come into the theatre with no reason to like this movie. They don’t play video games, they actually might even actively hate video games as just kid’s stuff, and a lot of them come up to us after and say “I can’t believe how much I liked that,” or “I can’t believe how much I related to that.” We’ve got some cool emails from people as a result. “I bought Fez,” or “I bought Super Meat Boy. I’m horrible at it, but I’m enjoying it…”
LP: Or “I’m sixty years old and have never ‘got’ video games, but I think I’m getting them now,” and that’s a great compliment.
JS: And that’s winning the battle right there, to get a 60 year old who hates video games or has never played games to play. I think that a lot of people don’t actively hate video games, it’s just that they don’t know or had never even really thought about them and what goes into making them. To many people games were just this toy that 16-year-old boys played with and it never progressed beyond that. When people look at this movie, hopefully they start looking at video games in a different light.
LP: We’ve had a lot of mothers who came with their kids when we were touring throughout the US. Surprisingly we have a lot of 10-14 year old fans who were aspiring developers, and they would bring their moms. The moms would often be like “Well he/she dragged me here, but I actually really liked it! I just hope it’s not as intense for him/her.” And we’d feel like we’d have to reassure them that these were probably extreme examples. It’s been good.
DS: The stories in the film are certainly relatable, but was it daunting at all to have to contextualize indie games and gaming in general? There’s so much nomenclature and terminology that gamers take for granted.
LP: At the beginning we try to define indie games in about five minutes, because otherwise it would have been just talking heads the whole time. We really tried to keep it as efficient as possible; we didn’t want to talk down to the audience, but we also wanted to have enough information so that viewers could move forward and get it a bit.
JS: It was essentially just the basics that we had to pare down. The idea of indie games being made by small teams making the kind of game they want to make, about the digital distribution that now exists, and that they’re making games that are not only personal but different and maybe boundary pushing.
LP: And the other element we touch on are the different aspects of game making. We were really tempted to get a lot more technical about it, since we have a lot of more technical pieces which deal interestingly with the thought behind game design. Design itself is a hard thing to put into a movie – the idea of creating rule sets and defining a world is hard to contextualize. We chose to show different elements of it, but our whole goal with that section of the film was to say that thought and decision are put into game design. That was the whole point.
JS: It sounds so basic to someone who knows about games and knows that every little thing in a game is a decision by someone, but for people that don’t know that, this first introduction to it kind of blows them away. The fact that you have to teach a player how to play the game, etc. It’s great when that’s a revelation to people who watch the movie.
DS: How did your collaboration with composer/musician Jim Guthrie come about?
JS: We were listening to Jim’s Sword & Sworcery soundtrack when were editing and heard it playing Sworcery. That game is beautiful. It reminds me so much of the feeling I got when I was playing Commodore 64 games. You would pop in a disk and you don’t know what was on it. You’d just load it and play it. I didn’t realize this, but when I was a kid all my games were pirated. I would just get a box of disks with no labels. I never thought of it as a kid, but I never bought a game. My mom had a friend at school who gave her disks. So yeah, [Sworcery] reminded me of that – It didn’t tell you what to do. And it was just that wonderful feeling of magic that I hadn’t felt for a long, long time. Of course, the music is such a huge part of that and you can’t not fall in love with that music. So when we were looking for someone to help us with the music and we sent off an email to Jim.
LP: We were editing and were like “Whoa… what if Jim Guthrie did the music?” I think I was feeling extra confident – it could have been because I was drinking lots of coffee that day – and just said “I’m going to write him.” So we wrote him and we didn’t expect to hear back, but he basically agreed to do it in like twelve hours. He even delayed his own album to do it.
JS: It was crazy. We showed him a rough cut of the film and it was the first time anyone had seen anything. It looked horrible – a lot of the animations weren’t there, there were a lot of scenes in it that really bogged it down, and I think it was about half an hour longer. It was just ugly. But he watched it all and then responded with crazy enthusiasm, and sent us this wonderful, profanity-laced (in the best way possible) note saying how much he enjoyed it. That was great to hear for us, but then he also wanted to do the music which was such a relief, and then working with him was a dream. This was our first time working with a composer…
LP: It’s the first time we’ve ever worked with another person! We’ve only ever worked with each other on productions. Jim is a pro: Not only did he do Sword & Sworcery, he’s also rock star in Canada (he was nominated for a Juno), and he’s a commercial jingle writer so he knows how to work with other people. He’s an incredible talent. “Hands in My Pocket,” that’s his song!
JS: He delivered the whole thing in about six weeks.
DS: Speaking to the story of Phil Fish and the game Fez, in the third act there’s this big crisis with his team – namely the dissolution of the partnership between Fish and colleague Jason DeGroot. It felt like that needed to be explored more in the film. Were you there when that happened?
LP: No, we weren’t there. We struggled a lot with that because that was a totally unexpected direction. We showed up in Boston for PAX East and Phil happened to be staying at this super fancy hotel that his new partner had put him up in. And we got there and were like “Okay, we’re going to go film you show your game for the first time at PAX!” and he was like “Yeah, we’re not going to be doing that.” My first reaction was selfish, thinking that we’d just paid for this hotel and trip saying “You have to show it! This is the reason we’re here.” It just unfolded that they were waiting to resolve these issues, and it was so sad to see how stressed out about it he was. It compounded everything and that whole experience was so much more stressful because things remained unresolved.
JS: And the stakes were insane. He’d been working on the game for four years and this was the first time that the public would see it. Up until then he’d just been getting comments saying “Release the frigging game already!” and all this crazy stuff.
LP: So yeah, we were wondering how to handle this because it totally threw us for a loop. Throughout the film you have a very subjective look at all of the designer’s lives – you’re in the moment, you’re in their heads, and as these things are happening to them you hear what they’re thinking. So that’s how we handled it. We tried to be as clear to the audience as possible to show what was in his head. You are going through in this situation with him, and we didn’t explore getting the other side because it just would have turned into a whole he said, she said thing which wasn’t what we intended for the film’s direction. We wanted to show the emotions of releasing your work, and this was just part of it.
As we’ve talked to more people while showing the film, the idea of teams not working out, and the enormous pressure of teams starting together so young, a lot of people have related to that conflict. So we think it speaks to something, but we were very careful about how we put it in there. We don’t share anyone’s name, and we keep the details very vague intentionally because what we considered important was that emotion – getting to that point where you feel that you’re hopeless.
DS: There has been a bit of criticism from the game community about how exactly DeGroot is depicted in the film though. He is quite literally turned into a faceless villain in the third act. Did you ever reach out to him for his side of the story?
LP: We’ve talked to him. He doesn’t want to be part of the movie and we understand. Having that kind of conflict is tough, but it was also so part of Phil’s journey so what could we do? And Phil would talk about it all the time. It’s this weird thing where we don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable and bad, but we made specific choices in the filmmaking so that the audience would see that it’s a very specific lens that you’re looking at this situation from.
**Editor’s note: Pajot and DeGroot subsequently told us that they had been in contact with one another after the film was completed. A disclaimer has been added to the film stating that DeGroot was not asked to participate in the documentary.**
DS: Can you talk a bit about your indie approach to screenings (festivals and the road tour) and distribution (online, iTunes, Steam) of the film?
LP: We decided not to sell the film at Sundance because it just didn’t feel right. It would have taken longer to get out and screwed up the whole thing with all the Kickstarter backers.
JS: It would have been the complete opposite of the spirit in which the film was founded on and made. It didn’t feel right at all.
LP: So we’ve done everything ourselves in the hope that we’ll get the digital release out as fast as possible. That’s why we booked a tour in the States, calling up theatres, taking tickets, selling t-shirts, and going up on stage – we’ve been on this tour for eleven weeks. We did it so we could get the film out in our own way, as quickly as possible, worldwide. Normally films are territory-based, so if we’d sold it we would not have been able to do the worldwide thing.
JS: And it would be DRM’d (Digital Rights Management). It basically would have hit all the hot button issues within the community of people who consume digital stuff. Part of every conversation we had at Sundance involved people saying that we could do that, but it definitely needed to be DRM’d, geo-blocked, and targeted.
LP: And we don’t have time to release it until the fall, which means your digital won’t be out until 2013. It was just all these conversations that scared the hell out of us.
JS: Yeah, we’ll put it in a few theatres but it will definitely lose money. It’ll probably lose about $200,000. It was just all these things that didn’t make sense…
DS: The old model of doing things basically.
LP: This is making movies. But we knew we had thousands of people who wanted to see it in theatres: how the hell were we going to do this? So we took a page from Gary Hustwit, who made Urbanized and Helvetica, and called him up to ask “How do you do this?”
JS: Does he just seriously just call up a theatre and book it, go there, and show it by himself?
LP: And he was like, “Yeah. It’s hard.” As two people that made a film, how do you get it into theatres for people to see? Not until the tour started doing really well did we start getting offers to play it theatrically. Only when people saw that we were selling out theatres did they decide to play that little movie in their theatre. We’re opening in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto at the end of the month as a result of this tour.
It’s funny because Toronto was like the next big thing on our list. Basically coming here and interviewing the Sword & Sworcery team, Raigan and Mare of Metanet, and all the amazing creators, but after we’d collected nearly 300 hours of footage we started thinking about just how the hell we were going to make this work. We feel bad for not coming because we know that there are great creators here, but what we were going to do? Just keep shooting and then not be able to include it?
JS: And also at that point it started to become clear that it wasn’t going to be this narrative film with these smaller essay pieces in it. It was just not working and we ended up taking out these essay pieces one by one. It was hard to do, but the story was clear: it was Jon, Tommy, Edmund, and Phil. That’s it.
LP: That’s what you do. You shoot and you try to find what the story is, but it may not involve all the people that you shot with. We’ve cut about half of all the extra content that we want to do.
DS: You guys made a pretty big splash at Sundance earlier this year, making a deal with a small time producer named Scott Rudin and a little known TV channel called HBO…
LP: What’s weird is that he called us before Sundance! It’s also weird that I had to wiki him because I wasn’t sure who he was.
JS: We got an email saying “Scott Rudin would like to talk to you,” and I was immediately like “Lisanne, google Scott Rudin.”
LP: Yeah, it just didn’t occur to me who he was at the time. I know directors, but for some reason I don’t know producers! I felt silly. But yeah, basically Scott Rudin and HBO optioned the film, like a book, to use the premise – game development – to make into a fictional TV series.
DS: And will you be involved with that at all?
JS: Yeah, that’s the even weirder part! We’re going to be involved as much as they will let us be. We’re consulting producers, but it depends if it even happens since they have so much going on.