As someone that enjoyed 2012’s Indie Game: The Movie, which primarily followed the eccentric Phil Fish as he developed Fez and Team Meat’s work on Super Meat Boy, I decided to check out the latest indie-centric documentary, GameLoading: Rise of the Indies. Funded by Kickstarter and released in late April, GameLoading looks to take audiences back into the ever expanding world of independent game development and publishing.
Filmed over several years across multiple cities and countries, GameLoading interviews a number of different personalities and developers, but it ends up focusing the most attention on Rami Ismail from Vlambeer and Davey Wreden, whose game The Stanley Parable enjoyed a highly successful and critically acclaimed launch.
While the film follows some cool and inventive exercises in down and dirty game design, it spends most of its time jumping between interviews. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that format, but there seems to be a pretty specific archetype being featured and it ends up creating a homogeneous message, greatly underutilizing industry veterans John Romero and Tom Hall (founders of id Software) — both have extended interviews (almost 30 minutes worth) on the “Member’s Bundle” for an extra $10, but in the main film they’re on screen for a matter of a few minutes at most.
Their experiences in the fledgling era of gaming are some of the most interesting things StudioBento got on tape, and it’s sacrificed for multiple visits with contemporary game makers like the aforementioned Ismail and Wreden, as well as Zoe Quinn, Ryan Green and others creating “deeply personal” games that invariably tackle obscure and/or heart wrenching topics. It’s not that there isn’t a place for games like that, but they seem to get an incredible percentage of the screen time.
Unfortunately, what ends up happening is a lot of different people rehashing the same material, trying to make what they do sound vital and complex while simultaneously encouraging viewers to just dive in and create something because it’s so easy. If you’re already heavily invested in the indie scene you’ll probably enjoy that, but if you’re a more traditional gamer that still sees value in big publishers and AAA games you may walk away from the film thinking there’s something wrong with you.
Yes, I get it, this is a movie about independent gaming, but the people it interviews seem to all love one another’s work and have no use for anything outside its scope. It’s a solidarity that can’t possibly be 100 percent genuine because, even if you do support the movement and have friends within it, the indie community has grown so vast that you’re eventually competing with your contemporaries for buys — even if getting rich isn’t the goal, so many games hit the market every day that there have to be no shortage of failures.
It’s here that GameLoading misses out on opportunities. We get Rami’s story about how his game, Ridiculous Fishing, was completely ripped off and how it affected him. And we also hear about the disgusting harassment of Zoe Quinn, but that’s about the extent of the adversity. We’re told somewhat about the struggle, but no one actually on film seems to be struggling as they tap away on expensive laptops and hang out with their buddies.
Surely somewhere out there are more compelling stories among indie developers about sacrifice and desperation. Almost everyone here looks to be young, unmarried and without kids. When you’re that age it’s relatively easy to take chances.
And while no one comes and directly says it, there’s a prevailing undertone that when games don’t succeed it’s because the audience didn’t get it. Everyone waxes poetic about the world of indie gaming, but there’s no depth or insight to their commentary, which gives the whole thing aspects of a well-funded infomercial.
Despite my criticisms about Rise of the Indies and how it presents its source material in almost unending flattery, the film isn’t without merit. What’s probably the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the sense of passion that comes across when they talk. Even if the “starving student” angle is dubious at best, everyone seems to be in the world of game development because they truly want to create something deeply personal.
Ultimately, GameLoading: Rise of the Indies is a shallow film that allows its subjects to shape its direction (as much as there is one). There’s simply way more talk about individual’s games than their experiences or the industry as a whole. The result is the indie game community coming across as a bunch of glad-handing hipsters who are cooler than you because they make stuff without guns. If you’re hardcore into game development you’ll probably check it out anyway, but if you’re on the fence, Indie Game: The Movie is a more interesting look behind the curtain.