I normally don’t put my hand up for reviews. As most of you know from what I write, I simply attempt to be funny. But I like being analytic and critical on occasions, most especially if I can contribute to debate, or a conversation that inspires higher learning, or just a bit of ‘hmmm-ing or ahh-ing’ at the very least.
Gameloading: Rise of the Indies is a seriously thorough documentary highlighting and introducing us to the world of indie games and the developers behind them. Furthermore, this documentary tries to explore the wider impacts that indie game development have and are having on media and culture.
“Indie game developers are like misfits”
The Documentary opens with an introduction to the developers of the Stanley Parable, who happen to be a two man team (Davey Wreden and William Pugh) who are barely in each others’ presence due to one living in Texas and the other in the UK. They communicate predominantly through Skype and despite all this, they have managed to develop a fantastic puzzle game that received numerous accolades including the IGF Audience Award in 2014.
Amongst other groups, we are also introduced to the immensely fun Train Jam initiative, a collective of game developers who travel together by train from Chicago to San Francisco and collaboratively design new indie games during the 52 hour trip.
We don’t even need that much of an introduction to the now well known Zoe Quinn and her game, Depression Quest, which she describes as an exploration of the idea that choices, or the taking away of such choices can affect game outcomes. As a result, her game is an interesting way for players to understand and relate to serious issues such as depression and how it affects day to day living.
The documentary explores the experiences of various developers, from the creative explorations of Soundself as being developed by Robin Arnott, to the visual ones of Tale of Tales and their obsession with visual story telling.
These are all people who live and breathe games in ways that your average gamer and maybe your average AAA game developer does not. These are the people Peter Molyneux probably wishes he was, or had in his development team.
These developers see indie game creation as a way to extend their world-view to others. The way many of these indie developers speak about their creations imply a broad emotional affection towards gamers and games in general. There is a strong sense that they want to share, be it their personal story, a new way of seeing the world or sharing a way to connect with new people you’d normally not meet.
There is a lot of love in the indie game community apparently, and everyone likes to hug each other.
Indie games are a great opportunity to explore new methods to learn. As opposed to the current stereotype that video games isolate the player from their immediate environment (the usual glued to the screen or phone trope), indie games are exploring ways to make games interactive, physical and social experiences that apply the console, computer or handheld as only one part of gameplay.
In short, indie games are made the way they are because the developers behind them aren’t exactly pandering to the stereotype of a screaming multiplayer kid mashing his or her fingers on a console (ie. the horrible way I happen to play Age of Empires).
The one thing I got out of this documentary is that indie games are a deeply personal endeavour, and the developers behind them are literally wearing their hearts on their sleeves in bringing these to the public.
Further, what struck me about the mindset behind indie games was how strong the need to tell a story through games was. Several developers intimated as to how they no longer saw games as quests that needed to be ‘won’, but as journeys that educate and impart wisdom through experience. Soundself could be seen as a new spiritual method to explore meditation and the heartbreaking indie game, That Dragon, Cancer is a deeply personal journey to relate to and understand the devastating real-life effects of cancer. Sometimes, the game doesn’t let you win, but it does help you change.
It was also a new avenue for people who never even saw themselves as video game creators to become one, such as Christine Love, who used the Japanese game format of the visual novel to tell an innovative alterative history tale about the struggle of women living during the Chosen Dynasty in Korea.
On a technical level, the film is quite polished. And while the documentary segues into different topics, it still feels a tad manic in its exploration of the genre. If it is not conveying the development of one particular game and the personal development of its developer, it is jumping with little to no context on to the next theme or subject. As a result, we are watching the development of the Stanley Parable in the first five minutes, to the background of Soundself’s creation to theories regarding learning and development to the history of indie gaming to exploring games through narrative to Zoe Quinn to visual representations in games to Train Jam to sound editing.
As a result, I never usually get where the story transitions or whether there was a point being made in certain sections.
Nonetheless, the documentary is jam packed with information. The interviews and depictions of certain developers’ journeys are enthralling to watch. These developers are genuine people, with fears and hopes and want nothing but to express themselves through the medium and have their game played.
I tip my hat to the segment charting the journey of Australia’s own Armello. That particular segment was informative in how a small development team pushed to get their game seen at major conventions such as PAX using guerrilla marketing tactics.
It was particularly useful to also have the various challenges of indie game development addressed. From lack of funding (and sleep); to inappropriate marketing skills; to the great scourge of online harassment, we become privy to the tears of stress during game launch, to finding a spare square metre of space at a convention to promote a game.
It is notable that great tact was used to address the spectre of that weird movement that I-shan’t-dignify-with-its-name. It made no reference to the personal reasons for the vitriol between the parties involved. But rather, painted a picture as to how damaging this kind of harassment is to nurturing an indie community, from discouraging people to create new games to how easily a game developer’s dream can become a personal and deeply intimate nightmare. None of which is necessary, or particularly helpful to the genre, which takes diversity in storytelling, creative ideas and accessibility seriously.
One thing that the documentary highlighted is how intricately tied a game is to an indie developer’s self esteem. Many developers confessed to feeling ‘impostor syndrome’ on occasion when trying to promote their game, as if being an indie developer somehow made them fake or unworthy to show their talents to the world.
Again, indie game developers just want to hug and get hugs in return, and they really do. The documentary makes the indie gamer scene feel far more collaborative and self supportive than mainstream developing companies do. Whether because of the lack of general corporate and business support that larger companies can access, or because indie gamers are much more lovable is up to the viewer to decide I suppose.
This documentary has packed a lot of themes and stories into one hour and a half, which, either because of jumpy editing or just through wealth of information, feels a tad longer. But it is hugely informative and you cannot help but feel a strong fondness towards the people featured in it. It is obvious that the documentary’s message is that Indie Games are becoming a genuine cultural movement, filled with a lot of heart and personality and that it is getting bigger. With all these developers also creating easier access to developer tools and creating cultural spaces where these new and diverse ideas can be explored, the rise of the Indie Game is inevitable. And while it doesn’t explore the possible future direction of these games, it certainly shares its hopes for more diverse story telling and exploration of new ways to experience games.