Something that has fascinated me over the years is the fine line between reality TV and Documentaries.  They both seek to follow people around as they go about their lives, and they both construct the narrative around the day-to-day events.

I think the distinction lies in the fact that the documentary tends to make an overall statement, and the people involved are there to either support of dispute that narrative.  This is somewhat evidenced by the fact that documentaries tend to have an explicit narrator, while reality shows tend to be narrated by the show members during interviews.

I watched a lot of the original reality TV shows back in the 90s, and over time I found that I preferred those shows that were more about what people do rather than who they are.  So I tended to prefer Road Rules over Real World, Project Runway over America’s Next Top Model, and the Apprentice over Jersey Shore.  Show me people doing something that they love, and I can enjoy watching it.

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that there are many contrived scenes in both documentaries and reality shows.  For example, one of my favorite documentaries was once Pumping Iron.  In the re-release of the film, it was revealed that many of the scenes and interviews were done after the competition was over in order to create “good guy” and “bad guy” characters.  This is kind of unfortunate when you are talking about a documentary about a specific craft, because a “bad guy” character tends to reflect poorly on the craft itself.

So when I sat down to watch Indie Game recently, I was pleasantly surprised that there didn’t appear to be any of these contrived scenes.  Yes, there were characters, but those characters didn’t seem to be putting on an act or creating unnecessary drama for the sake of entertainment.

Team Meat

The film opens with Tommy Refenes waking up and checking his XBox on the launch day of Super Meat Boy.  He expresses his frustration that he can’t find the game in the XBLA Marketplace. As the film progresses, we learn the history and thoughts of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the respective artist and programming team of Team Meat.  They talk about their progression from making simple flash games until now.

Ed and Tommy seem to be two very different personalities, pulled together by fate to form a great game.  Both focus their time and energy into their craft in a different way.  Tommy uses his skill to solve problems as they arise, and Edmond uses his childhood experiences to inform his art.  Edmund seems much more outgoing, while Tommy is more reserved.  Nonetheless, both are equally emotional when reflecting on the potential for failure and when exposed to the game’s success.

Of the four designers followed in the film, I think I felt the happiest for Team Meat.  These guys poured everything into the game, and they expressed genuine joy and gratitude from their fans at the result.

On a final note, I really appreciated the point that Tommy made about how Super Meat Boy was not a game that he made “for people.  It’s a game I made for myself.”  While I’m not an objectivist, I’ve always appreciated the Ayn Rand kind of selfishness that this statement embodies.  It’s not the kind of selfishness that says “I want everything for myself,” but rather the kind that says “I define my own success on what I do, and I want to do what is interesting to me.”  That is a VERY good reason to make indie games.

Phil Fish

Thoughout my life, I’ve often found myself cheering for the underdog.  I think it’s programmed into us from a young age through through film and literature.  That said, sometimes the underdog is the underdog for a reason.

Our introduction to Phil Fish starts with him complaining about fans (who, presumably, are really excited about playing his game) that ask when the game will be completed.  He mocks their questions, flips them the finger, and says “fuck off.”  He then chalks it up as the price you pay for “being Indy.”  This all happens within his first 45 seconds in the film.

Now, I get that people can be frustrating, and I get that it’s possible that the makers of the documentary edited it in a way that puts Mr. Fish in a bad light.  Still, They couldn’t edit the footage if he didn’t give them the footage, and I don’t see the other designers talking about their fans in the same way.

After reflecting on it for a while, I think I was able to distill my annoyance with Phil Fish down to two things:

1) He seems to blame all of his struggles on others while claiming all of his successes as his own.  His girlfriend left him.  His ex-business partner is either “stupid or cruel or both.”  And so on.  I get that bad things happen, but the “me against the world” mentality doesn’t work when people ARE trying to help you and you aren’t giving them credit for it.

2) He spends a lot of time talking about the things he wants to BE, and very little time talking about the things that he wants to DO.  This is a subtle, but important, distinction.  The statement “I want to be a teacher” is very different than the statement “I want to teach people.”  Imagine yourself at a party.  You have two people that you can talk to, an these are their opening statements:

Person 1: “I get to do awesome things. Let me tell you about them.”
Person 2: “I get to be awesome. Let me tell you about it.”

Which one would you want to talk to?

Now, the purpose of this post is not to beat up on Phil Fish for his personality; there are enough blogs out there that unjustly do just that.  Frankly, I found it really interesting when, in the heart of the film, Phil talked about the game and explained how he obsessed over the aesthetics.  As someone who has shown my own products at a convention, I can appreciate the concerns, fears, and insecurities that can be felt when putting your own work out there for others to see.

The purpose of any blog entry is to present a topic and reflect on it.  Hopefully that reflection will provide a snapshot of the writer’s thoughts that can be explored at a later time.    With that in mind, I try to never catch myself saying outright that I don’t like someone. Rather, I find it much more effective to look at characteristics or traits that I don’t like, and then explore how I can work around those traits.  I find taking this clinical approach makes it possible to like people that I might have otherwise disliked, and to show compassion for people that others might dismiss.  More important, it helps me to see the traits about myself that I might not like seeing in others, and see how I can improve myself in the process.

Jonathan Blow

I want to take a moment to comment on Jonathan Blow’s portrayal in the film AND the criticisms he’s faced.

Jonathan Blow’s game, Braid, was already an indie success at the time that the film was recorded, so his input is in the film has the benefit of hindsight.  The thing that impressed me was that his entire discussion was about the game, and not himself.  It was all about the pleasure of the experience.

Jonathan Blow gets a lot of flack for his response to forum comments about Braid.  Apparently, he very actively responded to the comments about his game on the web.  He wanted the game to be seen on a deeper level, and was frustrated by the lack of depth in the reviews.  When he voiced that frustration, he was derided for being arrogant and opinionated.

I disagree with this assessment.  Jonathan Blow seems to enjoy thinking about things that he doesn’t fully understand, wondering how those things work, and discussing it with other people.  He doesn’t say “this is X,” but rather states “isn’t it interesting that this is X instead of Y?”  He joyfully considers interesting questions, and then tries to convey those questions to others for discussion. Some might call this pompous, arrogant, or opinionated; I call it “reflective.”

“An unreflected life is not worth living.”  – Socrates


This film gave me a LOT to think about, and I think it was worth every penny on Steam.  I encourage you to go pick it up today.  Also, if you have more time, here are a few videos that I think you might like.