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The Art Of Crafting Indie Game: The Movie

Filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky are the team behind a new documentary called Indie Game: The Movie, which offers a glimpse into the lives of the developers behind Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Fez. I spoke to the team for an article in the latest issue of Game Informer (#230), but one page couldn't hold the dozens of questions I had for Lisanne and James. Below is the bonus portion of that interview. 

Do you want to talk a little bit about the beginning of the project? Originally you were going to go with a vignette style, right?

Lisanne Pajot: Yeah, we were inspired to do this piece based on a short that we had done on Alec Holowka, one of the co-creators of Aquaria...and we did a story about them and it had never occurred to us that games could be personal. That the whole act of making Aquaria was an emotional experience for Alec and then the game was reflective of that emotional experience.... So the piece was kind of heartbreaking and uplifting and we felt really good about it and it got a really good response online. It was a corporate video, really. It planted the seed, we thought that if we could get a bunch more people like this then we could make a film. We had been going down to the Game Developers Conference for a few years covering it for a tech organization in Canada and we’d always been drawn to the Indie Games Summit. There were all these people that would go up on stage and talk about their games but really they were just talking about themselves...

James Swirsky: Their personal experience.

LP: Yeah, a lot of these games were doing incredibly well and reaching millions of people, like World of Goo and Braid, and then we looked around and there weren’t a lot of documentaries about making games out there at the time.

JS: Yeah, and it kind of blew us back a little bit because here you have video games that are bigger than music and bigger than movies and there’s no documentaries on them, you know? 

So jumping back a bit, I’m wondering how much you two followed games before you started the film.

LP: Well, we had followed the gaming industry and gaming through work that we had done with a tech organization in Canada. That was my experience, but James has a deeper experience in the games industry than I do.

JS: Yeah, Lisanne is not really a gamer so much but I was a complete Nintendo and Sega Genesis kid and games completely defined everything I did probably up til I was about 16 or 18, and then it kind of faded away a little bit. What really killed it or got me away from games was that I was a games tester in QA at Electronic Arts in Vancouver for about two years. It was a good and a bad experience. 

What were some of the games that you worked on?

JS: Oh, I was on NBA Live 2001 and NBA Street and I did a little bit of NHL 2001.... NBA Live was actually one of my favorite games going into it and it just completely killed the magic of games for me. For eight years or so I didn’t touch video games after working there and it wasn’t until we started going down to GDC and hanging around the Indie Games Summit that games started to get interesting to me again. World of Goo and Braid and all this stuff, they feel different. They look great, they look like real games...

But they have a bit of a soul.

JS: Yeah, you could feel that there was someone who made this and they have something to say and it feels hand-crafted and it feels like someone is on the other side of this game.

I want to talk a little bit about what I think is the first gut-shot of the film: when you can hear Lisanne ask Phil [Fish, creator of Fez] what would happen if the game didn’t come out and he said that he would kill himself.

LP: Yeah.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from that scene?

LP: I totally didn't expect him to say that. And he is cool with it being out there, which is fine. I think it really strikes people when they watch the film, you watch only about thirty minutes and everything seems like it’s moving at a pace and is semi-positive and stakes are being raised and then all of a sudden the film changes. It sort of kicked off an act of the film that you didn’t expect.... So I think the key thing with that scene is that it’s uncomfortable because you’re not too sure where he lies and what he means. Of course you want to care for him.... From a film perspective, people are shocked by it, but they also want Phil to succeed.

Is it an odd feeling that part of you is excited the more stressed out he gets because you know that it’s great footage? Do you want to talk about that balance between rooting for him versus rooting against him for the result of a better film?

LP: Hmmm...yeah, I don’t know.

JS: When that stuff is going on you feel anxious and you feel in the moment...but you’re so in it that you’re thinking about where this places in the film. When something like this happens, the other half of your brain is like, “Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening.” You start to feel for these guys, so you get what you need to get in order to tell a story and then the camera goes off and you try to be a human being with these guys. You try to empathize with them and try to help them out as best you can while never really affecting the story. I think the good thing about that is that we didn't really have any power to affect the story, so it’s basically just get what you need, and then just kind of see what happens and see how you can make it better for the person going through this horrible, horrible moment in front of you.

So was it the kind of relationship that didn’t need a release form? Was there ever any talk of, “Hey, if this thing becomes huge, maybe we can split the proceeds between developers and filmmakers?”

LP: Uh...no. (laughs)

JS: In documentaries you can’t...well, you shouldn't do that. You don’t pay your subjects at all. But it’s very strange, that kind of  blue skying never really came up because we didn’t think it would be what it turned out to be. [Laughs]

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