This week on the Spotlight, we take a different approach. The featured release on deck is a documentary, produced by StudioBento, that seeks to explore the world of independent game development. So, sit back and relax and enjoy this review of the film.
The Kickstarter phenomenon is one that has, without a doubt, changed the industry in numerous ways. The rise of its use in the landscape, however, would not have been possible if not for the resurrection of the independent game development scene. This weekly feature usually focuses on upcoming projects to check out, see if they’re worth your time and gives a glimpse of the horizon of video games. A film focusing on the sorts of developers that go to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and the like? It felt like a good fit for the feature this week.
StudioBento, comprised of the Australian filmmakers Anna Brady and Lester Francois, seeks to not only give a brief history of the rise, the fall and then the resurrection of the indie scene in gaming but also explore the spectrum of personalities that comprise it. The sheer number of artists, designers, programmers and more who parade through Rise of the Indies’ brisk 96-minute run-time is impressive all by itself, but it is the approach that Brady and Francois have concerning the focal point of their documentary that it really shines.
The history lesson of the indie scene that gets the ball rolling (starting way back in the heady days of basement nerds and CPRGS, etc) sets the stage for the more intimate portrait to come. We’re introduced to the developers of The Stanley Parable, Davey Wreden and William Pugh, soon after. Wreden, in particular, will serve as the backbone of the entire film. We move back and forth between interviews, segments and all sorts of themes yet we never stray too long from Wreden and the trials and tribulation of development from his perspective. The subject under the microscope is given time to explain why game development became his passion, what pushed him to even make the original Source engine mod in the first (that was later remastered with the help of William Pugh) and just how the entire process of getting a game out into the hands of consumers is. We’re shown first just hand how intense that can be, the emotional toll of it all. It is hard not to feel elated right alongside Davey as he starts seeing the Steam sales charts on launch day. The thrill of hearing his partner-in-crime, whom he never met but, only collaborated via Skype, mention that a publication gave their game a perfect score? Those close moments of feeling are captured with an expert hand that is, honestly, brilliant in spots.
The same cannot be said when it comes to the other moving parts of the film, however. The other key players in the film definitely bring something to the table yet it rarely ever reaches the heights of what the scrutinous lens on Wreden achieves. The idea that games are “for everyone”, harassment in the online sphere, stealing of game ideas, indie dev communities and more are mentioned and, to varying degrees of success, are explored. Themes are explored at a breakneck pace that, frankly, there just isn’t enough time to analyze them. Harassment is addressed but it is brief and Zoe Quinn’s side of the story is presented in a rather matter of fact sort of way. There isn’t much else done here though, in this instance, the film is probably better for it.
The flick jumps from the Austin indie game hippie commune of a house, home to both Parable developer Wreden and roommate, Soundself creator Robin Arnott, to San Francisco and the UK. It shows just how global this #IndieDev phenomenon truly is though we never linger long enough in any one place to really explore the inhabitants and their work. One of the lingering bits that I wanted to see far more of, the Train Jam, enters about midway and never quite goes the distance.
Game Loading: The Rise of the Indies is very upbeat even downright bubbly in sections, Quinn bit aside. It flies from legends like Romero and Daglow to rising talents like Lucas Pope and Richard Hofmeier and, whether one is familiar or not, they all provide interesting insight into the process. It seeks to explore some heady themes though rarely lingers on them for too long. The closer analysis of Stanley Parable developer Davey Wreden and his journey to launch day and, ultimately, the GDC conference is compelling. This will be the first of many films to come in the future regarding the subject and, ultimately, it remains to be seen if it will stand the test of time. It will, however, serve as an interesting snapshot of a time in the games industry in which the reflexive, personal and deeply contrasting works of indie devs helped to utterly transform a landscape yet again. It serves as a reminder that even in the age of DLC, marketing machines and pre-order campaigns starting a year before release, that there are still games that tell intimate stories. There are games that feature mechanics that are daring even insane. There are people making things that matter.