A new documentary film, GameLoading: Rise of the Indies was released this year after a successful Kickstarter. The film, which is available for digital download through Steam or from the GameLoading web site, was created to showcase the diversity in the indie game development community and celebrate the works of indie game devs. How successful is it? Let’s talk about it! But first, let’s watch a trailer, after the jump!
There is a point at which “full disclosure” feels like “smug namedropping.” Hopefully, it will suffice to say I’ve had dinner with several of the people in GameLoading: Rise of the Indies. It’s not relevant which of the people, because I’m here to review the film as a whole, rather than any of the products created by the developers profiled in the video. I also did get a free review copy of the film to watch at my own pace, so consider that part of disclosure.
Indie game dev in 2015 is both a “scene” and not a “scene.” Throughout the year, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve been interviewing East Coast indie developers about their titles. None of these developers are in GameLoading: Rise of the Indies, but they’re still a diverse group of developers doing great work. Indie games, themselves, are much bigger than this film.
It would be impossible to cover everything to do with indie game development in a single film. Any documentary has to make choices. GameLoading focuses a lot of its attention on the indie developers featured in the Independent Games Festival, or IGF , interviewing many of the developers of games nominated in 2013 and 2014. In addition, the documentary makers spoke with a few other indie game creators who have gotten some notoriety. Among the games profiled are The Stanley Parable, Thomas Was Alone, SoundSelf, Two-Faced, and Analogue: a Hate Story. There are clips from dozens of other games as well, in every format from in-depth interviews to game cameos. Blink-and-you’ll-miss Splice, or Game Dev Tycoon, or Axiom Verge. Blink-and-you’ll-miss a good half-dozen creators who probably had much more extensive interviews cut for time.
That Dragon, Cancer is in this movie. This year, I saw a guy at GDC playing That Dragon, Cancer in the indie game area in Moscone Center. That Dragon, Cancer is not a great expo game. I looked at the screen, and saw a bunch of people’s legs. They were probably discussing something, but I could not hear what, because the man playing the game was wearing headphones. I glanced over to the young man and saw tears streaming down his cheeks, right there in public. I decided at that moment that I would not play That Dragon, Cancer at GDC. Or possibly ever, but it’s good that it exists.
Another highlight of GameLoading is an interview with Cart Life creator Richard Hofmeier. It’s a highlight because, at one point, Richard refers to himself as “a big narcissist” and I literally busted up laughing. He is actually the humblest person in the world.
Some of the people interviewed in GameLoading are part of what you’d be likely to call the “scene.” Some of them, I’d say, are not. If you can’t tell which is which, the easiest way is to look in the background during large group scenes in the film, and see which people show up together most frequently. These people are friends with one another. I think that’s reasonable, because when people share a common interest and work in the same sort of job, it’s natural for them to become friends. But because it’s very easy to see the same people repeating in the backgrounds of shots, GameLoading: Rise of the Indies does not do a good job dispelling the common impression that the indie game scene is cliquish and insular. Indie gaming itself, as a profession or hobby, is actually very welcoming. But it’d be hard to get that impression from this film. I don’t know how to fix that exactly, but it is a problem in the sense that it’s lead to a lot of toxicity surrounding the film and trailers. You don’t have to look hard to find that.
With a new documentary about indie game development, a comparison to Indie Game: The Movie is inevitable. Because of all these different titles showcased, and all the creators interviewed, GameLoading has a much broader perspective than Indie Game: The Movie. GameLoading even gives a historical perspective on indie games as a movement by talking to some indie game developers of the past. In addition, it touches on the journalistic and academic perspective of the indie gaming culture. This is worthwhile and honest. But this approach has a huge drawback: the film is very disconnected.
As an example, people have criticized Indie Game: The Movie for over-simplifying the relationships between Phil Fish and the other stakeholders in Fez. This is a worthy criticism. But when one is watching a film it’s nice to have a little drama, and seeing a person with an obstacle to overcome creates dramatic tension. It’s a tough balance to strike, because a documentary wants to reflect the world accurately, but even a documentary should have some kind of narrative. GameLoading lacks a strong narrative arc, and because of that, it bogs down, particularly in the middle. At about 45 minutes of its hour-and-a-half run, I wondered to myself: how is there another half of this? Where is it even going?
It ends up going to the IGF Awards. Here, (spoilers in this paragraph for events that actually happened a year ago, but I like to err on the side of caution) GameLoading shows award results so that it can come to a happy conclusion. In 2014, Papers, Please was the Grand Prize Winner. Lucas Pope and team, however, don’t feature too prominently in the film, so GameLoading concludes instead on the Audience Award won by The Stanley Parable. GameLoading also touches a bit on the Nuovo Award and its significance by highlighting Luxuria Superbia and SoundSelf. This is one time in the film that the movie focuses on its interview subjects a bit more than trying to cover indie game dev as a whole. It gives the film a narrative beat to close out on, so that’s an understandable approach, but it also may give the wrong impression of the awards ceremony.
GameLoading also follows the events of that year’s Train Jam to provide some story, but this is really disjointed. The Train Jam actually takes place on a train that starts in Chicago and heads to San Francisco for GDC. Chronologically, it would occur on the week before the awards that conclude the movie. But since the movie jumps around a lot, and cuts in Train Jam footage a few different times, time surrounding the Train Jam has no meaning in the film. We go to PAX, then to PAX East, then to a GDC afterparty, and then we’re back on the train again. You might be forgiven for thinking people are trapped on a train for an entire year, but they’re all still wearing the same clothes.
I imagine showing this film to my mother. I’m not using “my mother” as a stand-in for a clueless technophobe, like some people do. My mom is a with-it pop-culture aficionado who texted me last night to complain about Age of Ultron. I think she’d be lost by GameLoading, and I think that’s a shame.
I care about the subject matter in GameLoading, so I liked the individual segments. I am not sold however on the movie’s format and editing. A little more judicious cutting would’ve created a tight narrative around just one or two games, but that would be Indie Game: The Movie again, and might not have satisfied all Kickstarter backers. A bit less cutting, and maybe a great internet mini-series could’ve been made of this, following one creator at a time reality-TV style, and leaving less material on the floor. But that would’ve been exponentially more work for the film-makers.
Overall, I understand why the film is what it is. I think it’s unlikely to win over any audience that’s not already receptive. On the other hand, if you’re already a fan of some of the games on showcase and want to see people whose things you like talk about those things, this is for you.
If you’ve seen the film, and want to leave your thoughts, comments are open! If you haven’t seen it, and have had your curiosity piqued, get GameLoading: Rise of the Indies, at GameLoading.TV.
Questions/thoughts? You can comment below or email the author of this post at aj@Tap-Repeatedly.com.