The lights are on
In June of 2012, filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky released Indie Game: The Movie, offering an up-close and personal look at the creators of some of the most successful independent games in the industry. Jonathan Blow and his game Braid, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refene’s Super Meat Boy, and Phil Fish and Renaud Bédard’s Fez are all featured in the film.
The movie showcases not only the technical difficulties of building a video game, but also the emotional trials that independent developers go through during the process. As a result, the movie is in some ways more about the people making the games than the games themselves – and ends up being a more emotional ride than many viewers expected.
Now that the film has been out for over a year, and all the games featured in the film have released, we decided to check in with the developers showcased in the film to see what they are up to now and find out how the film affected their careers and personal lives.
This feature originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Game Informer magazine. New content has been added, including interviews with the filmmakers, and an extended interview with Team Meat's Edmund McMillen.
Jonathan Blow – Braid
Braid is the only game featured in the film that had already released during the filming of the documentary. In the year since, Blow has been hard at work on his upcoming game, The Witness. Braid was already a successful game when Indie Game: The Movie released, but Blow did see a small spike in sales after the release of the film. Blow is a completely independent developer, so appearing in the film did little to boost his already successful game design career or open new doors. Still, he was happy to be involved, saying, “I almost turned down being in the movie; at that time I had a pretty low opinion of the ways game development was getting represented on television and in the movies. But from talking to the filmmakers I could tell they were going to have a more respectful approach.” The biggest change in Blow’s life resulting from his appearance in the film is getting approached by fans. “I get recognized in public more often, but that is not a goal that I have been striving for or anything,” says Blow, “In fact, it gets hard to deal with sometimes.”
Current Favorite developers and games: Droqen’s Starseed Pilgrim, Michael Brough’s Corrypt and Game Title: Lost Levels, and IonFX's Miasmata.
Phil Fish – Fez
The outspoken Phil Fish is arguably the most memorable developer featured in the film. The long-in-development Fez was subject to legal complications from former development partners. This situation caused Fish a lot of stress – which he wasn’t shy about expressing in the film. Since the release of the film, Fish has ported Fez to PC with the help of his partner on the project, Renaud Bédard. He’s also dropped hints about the game coming to other platforms, including Sony’s consoles.
Fish, even before the release of Indie Game: The Movie, was not scared to voice his often-controversial views on video games in public forums. Quotes from personal appearances at assorted conferences, as well as from his Twitter account, were often the topic of news posts on video game websites vilifying Fish and his opinions. Fish recently grew tired of it, opting to no longer speak with press. He left Twitter in May by tweeting, “people see me in a documentary and they think they know everything about me. i feel so f---ing naked and constantly under attack.” Shortly after, he tweeted, “im going to get off twitter for a while i think.” The formerly frequent tweeter has been quiet ever since, appearing only on the Vine social network to post short videos that rarely have anything to do with video games.
Before silencing his Twitter voice, Fish did appear on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” session, where he said that he is currently working on porting Fez, but otherwise hasn’t done anything particularly creative. Fish said, “I haven’t really ‘made’ anything since the game came out. A necessary evil I suppose but life has generally been really good!”
Update: After a brief stint of silence, which occurred at the time this feature was originally published, Phil Fish has returned to twitter.
Renaud Bédard – Fez
Renaud Bédard was a small part of Indie Game: The Movie, but he played a large role in the creation of Fez. Bédard had planned to leave Polytron after Fez was completed and shipped, but decided to continue working on the game through the PC port, which released in May 2013. “I wanted to leave because I’d been working five years with one other guy on one project, and I needed to get some fresh air,” Bédard says. “Right now, I don’t think single-programmer indie development is good for me.” Currently, Bédard is working on an unannounced title with Capybara Games in Toronto.
Update: Since the publication of this article in the magazine, Bédard's new project has been announced. Learn more about Below by heading here.
There was some controversy surrounding the representation of Fez’s legal struggles in the film, and it is one of the few elements of the film that Bédard is unsure about. In the film, Polytron is at odds with its co-founder who is threatening legal action, and it is unclear if the filmmakers reached out to him for comment. Bédard says, “People that have seen the movie ask me questions about that, and where I stand with that, which goes a bit into personal space and it’s not something that’s much fun to address. Still, I completely understand (and respect) [filmmakers] James [Swirsky] and Lisanne [Pajot]’s approach. They were trying to show the emotional and mental distress that a situation like that can cause, and how Phil goes through it. Bad breakups happen, it gets messy, and it’s not a bad thing to show that it happens.”
Otherwise, Bédard is happy he was able to be involved with Fez. It has created many opportunities for Bédard, who says, “I’m not sure how much of that to attribute to the movie itself, but reaching a general audience, students, and bedroom developers is definitely something.”
Current Favorite developers and games: Candy Box, Québécois Gamesbymo’s A.N.N.E., games from Aliceffekt, Guacamelee, Starseed Pilgrim, Ni No Kuni, Monaco, Fract, and Xra’s Memory of a Broken Dimension.
Tommy Refenes – Super Meat Boy
During the film, Tommy Refenes was struggling, financially, mentally, and physically. Things have gotten better for Refenes since the film and game released. “It was tough. I was working about 20 hours a day and getting very restless sleep where I’d often wake up taking panic gasps of air,” Refenes says. “The success of the game helped in a way, but really just not being in that situation anymore was a much bigger help.” Refenes is hard at work on Mew-Genics with McMillen, and is also working on two side-project tools that will help developers create games.
Refenes is mostly happy that he appeared in the film. Refenes says, “I’m honored to be a part of the movie; but I do wish that it wasn’t being filmed at the most stressful time in my entire life.” In retrospect, Refenes said he might have opted not to be filmed at certain points, and he would have chosen different words to express his distaste for non-independent games. “Everyone thinks I hate triple-A games because I said Halo and Call of Duty suck,” Refenes says. “I don’t think those are good games, but I never discount the work and time that went into them – but that’s not something that comes across in the movie.”
Much like McMillen, Refenes gets recognized in public now. “I never know what to say to people when they come up and talk to me. I’m always nice but when they say stuff like ‘You were really inspiring’ it still catches me off guard and I stumble over myself. It’s always flattering when it happens, but it’s just weird.”
Current Favorite developers and games: Cactus’ Hotline Miami, Mossmouth’s Spelunky, Fire Emblem Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Grand Theft Auto V, and Jonathan Blow’s The Witness.
Edmund McMillen – Super Meat Boy
Since the release of Super Meat Boy and his appearance in the film, Edmund McMillen has released The Binding of Isaac and an expansion, The Wrath of the Lamb, which just broke 2 million units sold. Currently, McMillen is hard at work on Mew-Genics with his Team Meat and Super Meat Boy collaborator, Tommy Refenes. He is also working with Nicalis on porting The Binding of Isaac to consoles and fostering a classic Game Boy game collection, buying large bundles of Japanese games online.
Appearing in the film has created a few life changes for McMillen. He now gets recognized in public by fans, something he’s not entirely comfortable with. “I put my foot in my mouth a lot,” McMillen says, “I’m not the most appropriate person when it comes to joking and I always just assume that people know my sense of humor and I end up saying something weird.”
He is glad that he appeared in the film, even if it has become a sort of ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation. “I didn’t want people to recognize me. I didn’t want to be this poster boy for indie games. I want my games to be them,” McMillen says. “I don’t know how to take a compliment like, ‘Hey, I like you.’ – ‘Really? Cause I’m not a huge fan myself, so I question your taste.’” McMillen loves talking about what he does, but for the near future, he will be doing it off-camera.
Current Favorite developers and games: Surgery Simulator, games from Tyrone, 1001 Spikes, Spy Party, Spelunky, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Jonathan Blow's The Witness, and Kid Dracula for the Game Boy.
Head to the next pages to see previously unpublished interviews with the filmmakers and Edmund McMillen.
Email the author Kyle Hilliard, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.