Filmmaking duo James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot talk to Develop about creating the emotional documentary
Meet the hottest duo in indie games: Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky.
Since 2010 they have worked tirelessly on a Kickstarter-funded project with a growing audience of gamers and developers.
They have already won awards and critical plaudits. A TV deal has been done. And at GDC their work will finally be showcased to the industry.
But their creation is not a game. It’s a movie about making games.
Develop readers are an astute lot – you probably know a fair bit about Indie Game: The Movie. You might even have been one of those who threw a few dollars in the pot to get it started.
You might have met Pajot and Swirsky at GDC when they scoured it for interview subjects. You might even be one of the interview subjects.
But what you might not realise is how much the movie, and its creation, holds up a mirror to how interactive electronic entertainment is made.
We might still be waiting for the game equivalent of Citizen Kane, but Indie Game: The Movie might just be the game development’s Citizen Kane.
The timing of Indie Game: The Movie’s arrival couldn’t be better.
‘Indie games’ are more prevalent than ever. So much so that the phrase is more elastic and abused than at any other time, used to all-at-once describe those resurgent bedroom coders working on PC games, iOS devs with years of experience who left the confines of a safe corporate studio, 15-year veterans who run 50-strong teams working with publishers on and off… and students.
‘Indie’ has stopped referring to the developers who take matters into their own hands to craft games that are either uncommercial, uncompromising or underground, it now refers to those games released without mainstream publisher support.
In an age of games made for smartphones, Facebook or digital distribution, indie is almost the majority amongst games development.
Indie Game: The Movie boils back down to the core of what making an independent game is all about by focusing on people behind productions that put indie games on the map. In actual fact, it aims to boil down to what making a game is about, no matter your commercial position.
The film looks at the pressure on Super Meat Boy creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refernes, Braid’s Jonathan Blow and up-and-coming designer Phil Fish and his game Fez.
But really, the overarching story is the struggle it takes to put together anything even remotely creative.
(Photo by Ian MacCausland)
Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky told us about the documentary:
LP: When people watch the film, I hope that whether they are a filmmaker, or a web developer, or a musician, they will take something from it.
When you watch someone struggle it’s… well, it’s comforting. There are disappointments on the road to a good work. It’s not easy to make something, and it’s reassuring to see other people have a hard time.
JS: Even though this movie is very much the story of Ed and Tommy, it’s also very much our story. And many other peoples’ too.
We were a two-person team using accessible technology to film individuals making something with accessible technologies that they would pour their heart into before releasing it to the world. In turn we poured our hearts into releasing their story into the world. So that’s not lost on us.
We didn’t exactly realise it at the time, but we were essentially filming ourselves six months in the future. We’d be filming Tommy and Edmund crunching to hit their Microsoft deadline date, and there we would be doing the same thing to hit our Sundance deadline later on.
SHINING A LIGHT
But a deep emotional look at the universal act of creation isn’t Indie Game: The Movie’s only virtue. It offers to throw a light on a world which many, even those in the industry, don’t understand.
LP: You really see people pour their hearts into these games and you see the heartbreak and jubilation that comes from that.
JS: When we did this it blew us away that this movie didn’t actually exist. No one had told the designers’ story.
Games are a massive industry. But we have all these documentaries about film making and the music business, but not video games. The documentaries there are are always about players, or Second Life, or how games are damaging.
Turning the art of coding into compelling footage has not been without its challenges – which goes some way to explain why this hasn’t been done before.
JS: Video game development is inherently un-cinematic. It’s…
LP: …it’s ugly.
JS: It’s people sat at computers for stretches of time. And when you have indie games development it’s just one person at a computer for a long stretch of time, so there’s not even an interpersonal dynamic going on there. You don’t see the immediate drama or story.
LP: When you approach making a film, you’re told to ask what’s going on, work out what happens, or else it’s just a number of people talking.
JS: And in making games, drama isn’t always guaranteed. We knew it was there, having heard all the stories while at GDC, but the question was whether or not you can capture it with a camera.
But going by the accolades, Indie Game: The Movie has captured that drama perfectly. And it’s done so to the extent that it could even help educate audiences untouched by video games.
LP: At every screening it felt like someone in the audience had an epiphany – they would raise their hand after and tell us what it was about.
‘So these people who make the games – they are artists too, right?’ The film never talks about art, the word art is never used. But still, it has turned a light on in people’s heads.
They see what these people go through to make games. And funnily, a lot of the people who responded in that way were women, aged from 30 up to 60.
JS: And older gentlemen. It seemed people over 30 really had their eyes opened. They would come up and say ‘I’m not a gamer’ or even ‘I hate games, but’ and then step up to acknowledge how they had learned about games, or saw them in a new light, or might even go out and buy Super Meat Boy.
LP: We had a lot of developers attend the screenings at Sundance. Even though every game is different, and every team is different, we have seen people come to the film and respond to it, or appreciate what’s on screen.
Because our movie is just about one or two guys in a heightened situation and a dramatic soundtrack – it’s a dramatic film. I was worried the people in the wider industry wouldn’t get it, but they did.
JS: We really had to strike the right balance, and so far so good. But the real test will be the showing at GDC.
The opening day of GDC this year will finish with a screening of Indie Game: The Movie to attendees of the Indie Games Summit, the very birthplace of the documentary.
It promises to be a defining moment for the film, the sort of narrative climax too perfect for even the most uncontrived screenplay.
JS: It’s extremely exciting and stressful. This is the best possible audience in every way to ask for – but it’s also a huge test because it’s their story.
It might be Ed, Tommy, Phil and Jon’s story on screen - but everyone in that room can relate to it. So the reception there will be the real test.
We’re pretty optimistic going in, but this audience knows what is talked about, and there will be 500 of them there with microphones.
LP: I think people in the industry get what we’re trying to do – make a movie for them, but also for a broader audience. That’s why, for instance, a lot of technical stuff hasn’t been included.
Don’t be fooled. The film wasn’t devised to satisfy an ulterior motive on changing how games are perceived – it was to tell the stories of three developers. To tell the stories that populate Develop every month, pepper forums each week, and keep Twitter chattering around the clock.
And yet… Pajot and Swirsky are hopeful that they can teach the world about what it means to be a developer, as well as what a developer does. Gamers, after all, more often than not only hear about the game, not the game developer.
LP: To random people on the street when it comes to the games that they play, the person that makes it isn’t on their mind – I’m sure that’s true for most games and most teams.
JS: There seems to be two camps – an audience that doesn’t think about them or doesn’t want to, and an audience that does.
But what we’re hoping to show is that there is an immediate connection between a developer and their game.
If you see our movie, and understand how the developer crafted that game, then play their game, your experience will be richer.
People will appreciate more if they understand what went into the passion that goes into any game.
BEHIND THE SCREENS
Indie Game: The Movie was shot over a number of months from mid-2010 onwards. Although the final cut only focuses on three games productions, film-maker duo Pajot and Swirsky filmed over 20 developers – even more if you include the number of game jams they attended.
“We were shooting a lot of material, but as we were going, the timelines started to line up with the development of Super Meat Boy, and Fez’s first showing at PAX,” explains Pajot.
“The original cut of the movie had four other developers in it but it was three hours long.”
Also on the cutting room floor; much of the footage of actual coding.
Pajot adds: “There is some computer work shown. But the heart of the film is the emotional journey of creating something.
"It’s about how people pour their souls into something and how people understand it on the other side.
"I think that’s why we’ve had such a positive response to it at places like Sundance, where like-minded people have faced the same struggle.”
Independent film festival Sundance offered a strong debut for the pair. Indie Game: The Movie won a festival prize for documentary editing, and during the week-long event it was announced HBO planned to adapt the concept into a dramatic TV show.
Not bad for a film about a technology subculture made with a small chunk of change made from crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
This whirlwind Cinderella tale even has a bit of dramatic irony – Swirsky had once turned his back on a dev career, having once been a tester for EA Canada.
He explains: “I grew up as a gamer, back before when they were called gamers. Up to a while, until… I worked in QA.
"That was the death knell for my love of video games. At the end of that, which was a horrible job, I went away from games for a while. It wasn’t until we went to GDC for a corporate video filming that I rekindled my love of games.”