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This year has been pretty amazing in terms of cinematic experiences for geeks and gamers. The Avengers was an epic melee of classic one-liners and superhero action, The Dark Knight Rises was a sound round-out to one of my favorite trilogies to date, and Wreck-It-Ralph plucked at my retro-loving heartstrings in clever, meaningful ways that resonated beautifully with its vibrant animation.
And yet, the most definitive experience this year for me came from an independent, two-person team delivering a deep and raw documentary that has been critically acclaimed by The New York Times and is the winner of the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The documentary, Indie Game: The Movie, is an exceptional exploration of the struggles small-scale indie developers face, but more than that, it analyses creativity at its very core and examines what people will go through in order to realize their dreams. Indie Game: The Movie is a passion project about passion projects. And the struggle of creating indie games demonstrates that this is the toughest creative medium to commercialize out there.
Like with creating music for a record label or making a movie for a big studio, artists are under a constant and immense pressure. They experience excruciating hours spent in front of a computer, sacrificing their sanities, and the emerging torment of ever-increasing isolation. I can certainly attest to the isolation, but when it comes to creating games, still more pressures are present than just these.
In no other format of creativity is your work criticized so consistently. At every step of the development process — from announcing your game to releasing various demos, gameplay, footage, and screenshots to the final product — you are seen and judged.
Can you imagine releasing 30 seconds of your upcoming song to the public to be evaluated or a 15 minute clip of your new movie to be picked apart by fanboys? Not really. If my favorite band announces a new album, they post singles when they are properly mastered and then finally release the album. It doesn't really happen to the same extent for games, and I think it's a really fascinating phenomenon of the industry. You can actively track a project from the initial stages until the very end.
In Indie Game: The Movie (and some may remember from actually being part of it), we're shown the public's outcry when the game Fez seemed to fall off the face of the Earth due to no news of its progress being announced for months. Death threats were made, and the usual Internet flaming ensued, and, as always, the people of the Internet hid behind anonymity.
But thanks to the documentary, we're able to see the result of these comments. Indie developers can't just space themselves entirely from the public because they are dealing so closely with them, and it's often that connection that makes indie gaming so unique and memorable.
And it's precisely the hardcore gaming fanbase who are tracking games that make indie game creation such a tough job. Any misstep is never overlooked, and I feel that gamers have a particular prowess for reigning over the Internet, which makes their opinions ever more evident and thus unavoidable. You simply cannot hide behind the pixels.
It is also interesting to have just watched 343 industries' "Making of Halo 4" pieces so recently after having seen Indie Game: The Movie. The videos were adrenaline rather than passion. I felt like I was watching an Egoraptor cartoon rather than the creation of something special. Now, I'm sure the developers spent countless hours in front of computers, pumping out endless lines of code, but I have been given no indication that many at the studio poured any soul into it. Ryan Payton, one of the studio's previous creative directors, left the studio for that exact reason, stating that he was no longer "creatively excited about the project."
Don't get me wrong: I quite often revel in blockbuster video games. Bethesda owned my soul until I decide to get engaged. But Super Meat Boy and Braid have character and an elegant simplicity to them that you cannot help but love and respect. I believe a video game can only really earn this respect when heart is in it, and it may sound tacky, but you can tell when a game was crafted with love.
The video game industry's future is so immensely uncertain. I can't even begin to predict where we will be in five years (Half-Life 3?!), which both excites and terrifies me. One thing I am sure of, though, is that passion and dedication will always find its way into games. We just have to support those who are brave enough to make it happen.