Indie Game: The Movie and Videogames as Art

Dec. 1, 2012, 2:36 p.m. in Videogames

Reality is perception. Perception is subjective. // Fez

A couple of exciting videogame-related things happened this week. One is that I've been raving on about Indie Game: The Movie, which I watched for the second time this week (and for the first time on the big screen!), and the other is that the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced plans to add videogames to their collection. It seemed like a perfect time to write a bit about why I love the movie, and my thoughts on videogames as art and inspiration in general.

Indie Game is a documentary that follows the story of three independent game developers - Edmund Mcmillen and Tommy Refenes, who created Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish who created Fez, and Jonathan Blow who created Braid (all three games are on Xbox Live Arcade, Super Meat Boy and Braid are available on Steam too I believe). It is a brilliant, and pretty emotional insight into the journeys of these game developers, their backgrounds and inspirations, the pressures and rewards of being a one or two person team creating something for millions of people. I don't think you necessarily need to be a videogame fan to enjoy this documentary - if you've ever been inspired, or created something, you'll probably find something here you'll relate to.

One of my very favourite things that the film conveys is the power that videogames have as a medium, to inspire generations. There's some debate going on about whether videogames should be classified as 'art' and be allowed to feature in the museum. Personally, I can't see how it's even a question, as it seems like a no-brainer to me. Granted, 'art' is a fairly wide and subjective term, difficult to define, but most of us would probably agree that a creation such as a painting or illustration is art, that musicians are artists, and even that skilled programmers are good at an 'art'. So, illustration, music, technical skills, and we haven't even started to consider story and writing.

Videogames combine all of these things, and then allow you to not only interact with the creation, but personally become part of it, and affect it through your own actions. Another thing people may say about art is that it should invoke emotion, convey something personal, inspire you. I can definately say that during my life, games have touched me and invoked as much, if not more, emotion in me than any piece of static art I've looked at, or song I've listened to. Of course, not all games are of the same quality, as not all art is, and not all games effect everybody in the same way, again much the same as any other medium.

There's a particularly poorly informed, substance-less, and - in my opinion - fairly laughable review on the Guardian website, whose arguments for games not being art include statements such as "A work of art is one person's reaction to life", "Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.", and "No one "owns" the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art." To me, these statements actually only serve as reasons for why games are art.

Let's take one of the most well known and loved videogame series as an example - The Legend of Zelda. Along with many other Nintendo games, this game series began in one mind, that of Shigeru Miyamoto.

Shigeru Miyamoto
This man is amazing.

"When I was a child," Miyamoto said, "I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this."

This was the beginning of Miyamoto's inspiration for The Legend of Zelda, and 26 years after the first game was released, millions of people around the world have fallen in love with and have been inspired by something that came from the childhood memories of one man. That to me, is pretty damn amazing. As for the last quote from that article, that nobody 'owns' the game, and there is no artist, I really have no idea what he is talking about. Miyamoto had an amazing imagination, but no technical skills, and so he worked with technicians and no doubt artists and people of different disclipines to create the games. Yes, many games are created by large teams of people, skilled in different areas, does this mean they are any less art, because there is more than one artist?

Going back to Indie Game, one of the people we learn a lot about is Edmund McMillen, the mind behind Super Meat Boy. Edmund grew up playing videogames like Super Mario Bros, and also being very creative, imagining and drawing monsters/creatures, and things inspired by his personal feelings at the time. Super Meat Boy is a unique game for sure, but is also a self-confessed homage to the games he grew up playing. Indie Game follows the game through development and then we watch its release, as people play the game, write reviews, upload YouTube videos of themselves playing it. Edmund starts to see fanart of Super Meat Boy. Drawings, creations. Why do these exist? Because his videogame inspired people. He comments at the end of the movie, how weird it is for him, growing up doodling Mario and drawing things inspired by games, to then, create a game and have people draw fanart from his game.

I think this was the defining moment of the movie for me, encapsulating the idea of videogames not only being art (created from inspiration, memories, and skill), but going full-circle. Inspiring art and creation that may one day lead to the kids who grew up playing Super Meat Boy becoming the next generation of gamers who create their own game. I believe it is a misconception that videogames are just a passive medium, kids sat in front of the tv, wasting time pressing buttons. Is it a waste of time, if this game challenges them to think in new ways, if it teaches them something, but most of all, if it inspires them, strikes up their imagination. Makes them draw something, want to learn a skill, want to create something themselves?

And of course, not everyone who plays games will go on to make games, or even to create in any form. But not everyone who reads books becomes a writer, not everyone who visits an art gallery starts painting, nor everyone who appreciates music become a musician. Yet for some reason, these mediums are taken for granted as being 'art', or at least to some people, a more 'productive' use of time. Not all games are as personal as others, indeed. Many games are designed to appeal to a mass market, and games like anything else, are trying to make money. Everyone will play games for different reasons. But in written media, as there are novels, there are also trashy gossip magazines. That's not a reason to judge the medium as a whole.

Indie Game shows just how much of a personal creation a videogame can be. In the movie, it's clear that the biggest motivation behind these games is creating something personal, a self-expression. Obviously, the three developers hope that people will enjoy their games, but they are never creating it based on 'what will be popular'. The film gives a really interesting insight into their different reactions when their games are unleashed onto the public.

When Braid was released, it was getting scores of 9 and 10, and it was selling amazingly well. But Jonathan Blow was unhappy about the reviews, because they missed what he felt was special about the game. People were praising it for the platforming or the puzzles, but really only at a surface level, they weren't getting what he wanted them to get. As somebody who likes to create art sometimes, I relate to this in a way, when you create you may hope that a certain bit of it is conveyed, but somebody might see something else. Obviously, it's a pretty normal thing about art that everyone will see something different in it, and I don't think in a way he could have expected everyone to see the game as he did, but I think it's interesting that this mattered to him more than the score it received. Similarly, it was interesting to see Super Meat Boy programmer Tommy, appear incredibly apathetic about how the game was received, even after it started selling so well. He was obviously proud and relieved to have finished the game, for himself, but it was clear it wasn't about the ratings for him. It was, however, a lovely moment, when Edmund showed him videos of people enjoying the game on YouTube, and it feels like this, more than scores and reviews made him feel like the game had succeeded.

Phil Fish, creator of Fez, seemed perhaps the most in need of external praise, he admitted he thrives on and requires feedback for his work, and as a creator myself, that's something I totally relate to. He'd been through a difficult time, with illness in the family, a dispute with a business partner, and a relationship break-up. I think he felt that if his creation could touch people in some way, make them smile, laugh, enjoy it, he would feel like he had achieved something and it gave him purpose. Overall, in many ways, the creations of all three games were clearly very personal, drawn from experience and memories, and I think if you play Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy after watching this movie, you will likely see something beyond that surface level "it's a fun game".

So, if you're still wondering whether videogames are 'art', or think that they aren't as personal as other mediums, go read about Shigeru Miyamoto, or watch Indie Game, or find out how many things have been created on the back of videogame inspiration. But it's certainly not all about creation, I believe videogames can inspire us - and do, me - to simply live with more reverence and a greater sense of joy and adventure. Can anything else really do that quite as well? :)