Indie Film Meets Indie Games: An Interview with James Swirksy of Indie Game: The Movie (Part 2)

I recently had the opportunity to speak via email with James Swirsky, co-creator of the upcoming film Indie Game: The Movie. It promises to be a spectacular look at the burgeoning world of independent games and the people who make them. Be sure to check out part one of our conversation if you haven't done so already.

In part two, James and I talk a bit more candidly about triple-A games, documentary films, and the world of competetive air guitar.

Paul Alexander: So James, I was going to send you this question ahead of time so that you’d have some time to think about the answer. But then I realized that it’s not really a question.

James Swirksy: That’s OK. Non-question questions are good, too.

PS: Well let me start of by asking this: Have you seen or heard of the documentary Air Guitar Nation?

JS: We actually have it with us! It’s on our “to watch” list.

PS: It’s a great movie! Well, the reason I bring it up is, I was thinking about how documentaries about obscure topics have a tendency to frame those topics in people’s minds, since they’re typically all anyone has to go on about that subject.

JS: Yeah, I think you’re right in that there does seem to be a trend in that direction. It’s all about introducing “normal” audiences to a world they’ve never considered before. Spelling bees, air guitar, typography, cheerleading competitions, Jesus Camp – they’re all really obscure little universes, and they’re filled with these passionate people whose entire worldview revolves around the film’s subject matter.


PS: In the case of air guitar, it seems like a no-brainer. Obviously, no one who watches the film is going run out and decide to become a competitive air guitarist… (Well, except for me, I guess. I was ranked sixth in the nation at one point.) But in the case of Indie Game: The Movie, do you see the culture of indie gaming as analogous to something like air guitar? A culture that's steeped in obscurity? Or is it about to be something bigger, and you just happen to be the first to make a film about it?

JS: Whoa, wait a second. Are you really ranked?

PS: …Yes. It was an easy example to bring up because I’m…intimately familiar with it.

JS: Wow. Are you in the documentary?

PS: Sadly, the documentary came out before my air-guitar career began. But I digress….

JS: Well, to answer your question, indie games are somewhat rooted in obscurity, but that is quickly changing. So part of our movie is definitely about introducing the audience to this area of games and game culture that they likely didn’t know existed.

But a larger part of the film is aimed at what indie games can kind of represent — which an evolving direction of video games. Games used for purposes other than entertainment, games used for personal expression, games used to evoke emotion…. I think indie games are about to be something bigger, or rather that the market will evolve, creating a space for these types of games and this type of production. This might lead to indie games exploding, but I see that as a function for the market allowing it and audiences coming around to it.

Coming back to air guitar, I think that whenever you have a world full of passionate people, you have interesting stories — because usually these people are passionate for compelling reasons. I’d imagine that’s true with the whole world of competitive air guitar, just as it is with indie games.

PS: What you said about these kinds of games being made for different reasons made me think: There’s sort of a precedent for what’s happening with indie games in the history of art. Technological fidelity (the invention of the camera in particular) forced art to steer away these attempts to emulate reality. Artists started playing with form and content. Likewise, the tech behind games is plateauing.

JS: The tech is plateauing, and it’s becoming more democratized to boot.

I think all entertainment mediums, if you trace them back to their roots, start out for strictly utilitarian purposes of communication (or fidelity). They tend to start out purpose driven and then evolve to higher goals. I think that is definitely happening with games. And what’s exciting is that games have more dimensions of possibility than any other comparable medium. Never has such a rich medium thrown interactivity into the mix. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface.

James Swirsky

PS: I agree. I think we’ve barely seen a thimble of the innovation that we’re bound to see from indie games. It’s just exciting to watch them get off the ground. Now, when you say the tech is becoming “democratized,” what do you mean?

JS: Well, look at products like Unity, Game Maker, or Flixel. These are tools that help empower creativity and creation. They bypass a certain amount of requisite knowledge and manpower and allow you to create things that simply wouldn’t have been possible with the same budget and team size a few years ago. It’s the same way that After Effects, Shake, and Final Cut Pro allow me to have the same tools as a Hollywood production.

PS: So coming back to Indie Game: The Movie: It seems like you’ve interviewed quite a few people for this film. Why did you opt for this approach instead of, say, following one or two struggling developers over the course of a year? Is it difficult to weave a narrative for the film with so many different interviews?

JS: It’s definitely been more difficult to “weave” than to follow specific events, but at the same time, our approach offers more freedom. I think the biggest reason that we didn’t go for following people is that games take a long time to make, and frankly, the process isn’t exactly “cinema friendly.” One of our chief challenges is to make a compelling documentary about an industry where the primary activity is typing. So, there’s a lot of talking and a lot of typing, and then it’s our job as filmmakers to make that dramatic.

Now having said that, we will be doing a fair bit of following up and checking in with a few teams at different stages of development.

PS: Gotcha. So you guys are heading to New York Comic Con tomorrow, which is a pretty mainstream event as far as pan-geekery goes. You mentioned receiving a huge outpour of support from gamers. Have you been able to gauge interest in Indie Game: The Movie outside of the games community?

JS: I think the most encouraging experience in terms of the “outside world” was pitching our project at WestDoc 2010. We were pitching to an audience and judging panel full of mainstream broadcast and distributor executives, and the response was so overwhelmingly positive that we won first place! The majority of people we’d been talking with knew nothing about games, let alone independent games, but they were fascinated by the stories behind them. So it’s looking like there is definitely an audience beyond games for this film.


PS: I read somehwere that you actually have some first-hand video-game industry experience yourself?

JS: Ha…not too much. I spent a year and a half as a QA Tester for EA Canada. I actually hold a record for number of bugs written for NBA Live 2001! It was a fun — and then dark — little period of my life…. I can definitely relate to some of the triple-A horror stories that it seems every indie developer has.

PS: Would you care to elaborate?

JS: I wouldn’t call it a horrible experience, but it did steal away from the “magic” of games pretty quickly. It operated very much like a machine — which it needs to in order to create games on such a large scale — a machine that requires workers for “input.” So you’re very much aware of your own cog-like nature.

And that’s okay. But if you have a creative itch, you realize quickly that this environment won’t be a great place to pursue your ambitions…even though, from the outside looking in, it seems like the perfect place for such a thing.

PS: It’s tempting to dismiss big corporate entities as evil or soulless, but the truth is that there’s so much money involved, and people’s jobs are at stake. It’s a serious business. Creativity can be good, but it can also be inconvenient. I guess the indie-games space is sort of a response to how difficult it’s been to exercise that creativity in that realm.

JS: Triple-A games operate the way they do for a variety of reasons. They are big corporations and come with that traditional type of baggage. Indie games are maybe not always a direct response to that, but they are certainly an alternative for both game designers and audiences.

PS: I also get the sense that some of these guys just aren’t cut out for what fundamentally amounts to an “office job.” They’re sort of zany, mad-scientist types.

JS: That’s absolutely true. A lot of these guys are independent people, full stop. They have a vision and a need to realize that vision on their terms. What results is fantastic auteur-like games that we probably wouldn’t get any other way.

PS: Do you think that some of these guys have the industry savvy to have huge success and make it work “on their terms”? Or are most of these indie developers relegated to tinkering away in their homes or basements or whatever, creating games for a small, enthusiastic base?   

JS: Some guys definitely do have that “savvy,” and those are the obvious success stories everyone knows of. I think the most market-successful indies do have that realization that they are operating in a business space and function accordingly. A good example would be Team Meat (Super Meat Boy) – those guys are marketing geniuses, doing things on their terms in an exceptional way. 2D Boy (World of Goo) is another beautiful example. Creative developers with a business flair are in the best position to get their product in front of a large group of people.

Super Meat Boy

A huge thank you to James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot for taking the time to respond to my queries over the last few weeks. Be sure to check out their website to preorder the DVD, and follow them on Twitter for info and further updates on Indie Game: The Movie.

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