Indie Game: The Movie

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As ACMI’s Game Masters exhibition enters its final month, it’s evident that video games are finally being recognised as a valid form of artistic expression in Australia.

While the government has begun implementing the long overdue R18+ classification category for electronic entertainment, Game Masters has given us a glimpse of into the art and minds of some of the most creative people the industry has to offer.

One of the most fascinating things about the exhibition is seeing the proliferation of fantastic games made by small, low budget but fiercely creative independent studios alongside the traditional big names.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky recently documented the trials and tribulations of three of the biggest names in indie games Jonathan Blow, Team Meat and Polytron in their award-winning documentary Indie Game: The Movie. We spoke to the pair about independent game, film production, and the parallels between the two.

Milk Bar: What inspired you to make a documentary about indie game developers?

James Swirksy: It all started with a small, commissioned documentary we did on an indie developer named Alec Holowka (of award-winning Aquaria fame). It was a commissioned, promotional piece for the Canadian Government and we went in thinking we were going to film a light little story about a guy making cool games.

It turned out the story behind the game was something very different and much more heart-wrenching than we ever expected. In talking with Alec, he told us the story of a person who started out making one game, but ended up with something much different and much darker than he originally thought.

In many ways, the game became reflective of what he went through making the game, it became an extension of himself in ways. And it was that idea – the idea of games as personal expression – that got us thinking about doing something more about independent games.

MB: IGTM looks at the limitations indie developers face in making games. As independent film makers, what were the parallels you saw between the developers and yourselves?

JS:  We’re very much an independent production. The film was made by two people doing everything. From shooting and editing to making the website, it was all Lisanne and myself except for the fantastic music, which was the work of Jim Guthrie. This process created this very unique perspective in making this film. Here we were, two people, on our own, making a movie about people doing the exact same thing with games. The parallels were uncanny.

Lisanne Pajot:  It created an emotional attachment and level of dedication to the story that I’m not too sure would have been the same if we were a well-funded, 10 person team. I’m sure we still would have produced a good movie, but it would be a different movie. This film is a story about making video games, but in many ways it’s our story as well. Which I think goes a long way to making the film a universal watch. It’s a film about making games, but really it’s a film about the creative process.

MB: You initially used Kickstarter to fund IGTM. Crowd funding has since played an increasing role in the funding of independent film, games and other pursuits. How has crowd funding changed the way you do business?

LP: Crowd funding has definitely changed the way we approach our films. Of course, the money and actual funding is important and critical to doing what we do. But equally and maybe even more important is the empowering idea of talking directly with your audience. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a creator.

IGTM  is the result of a two year long conversation with a growing audience that began with a campaign on Kickstarter.  This audience grew with us and the dialogue we have with them continues throughout the film’s release and will carry on into the next project. So, it’s this powerful idea of growing a fan base and taking them with us as we make the next thing.

If you do that and do it well, middlemen and middle companies start to play a less powerful role in what you make and how you make it. There’s a quiet creative revolution going on right now, and I think film is a high profile audience-driven project or two away from it really breaking open in a very large way, a la Tim Schafer and the Double Fine Kickstarter.

MB: As film makers, where do you stand on the ‘Can games be art?’ debate?

JS: We are definitely in the ‘Can be art’ camp. Given the technical talent, dedication, passion and, most importantly, creator’s intent behind these games – to me, they can’t not be art. Like movies, video games definitely represent the artistic spectrum that has poppy, commercial art on one end (blockbusters) and ‘pure art’ on the other (experimental film), so I can see where people can feel uncomfortable declaring Call of Duty of Madden Football art, much like calling The Avengers or Transformers art. But at that point, it’s ones personal definition of art that is up for debate. Which is totally fair.

LP: I should say that we don’t mention the word ‘art’ once in the film. Nor do we talk about the ‘Games as Art’ subject. But, we do think that after seeing the film, if a person was asked if games are art whilst leaving the theatre, this film would definitely help tip the scales towards a yes.

Game Masters is running at AMCI until October 28.
‘Indie Game: The Movie’ is available for purchase and viewing here.

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