In this month's issue of The Atlantic, a profile of Bay Area video game developer Jonathan Blow situates him "in a medium still awaiting its quantum intellectual leap," which Blow intends to provide. This ambition has its perils: "To Blow, being labeled the most intellectual man in video games is a little like being called the most chaste woman in a brothel: not exactly something to crow about to Mom and Dad."
We meet Blow again in Indie Game: The Movie, an affecting documentary portrait of him and three other game developers, which opens at the Roxie this week. Here Blow describes how the success of his game Braid, which made him a fortune, also broke his heart. "I visualized that I was going to have some kind of connection with people through this game. And they think it's great, but the connection's not there." Next to a YouTube video of Soulja Boy playing Braid, and clearly not appreciating its finer nuances, we see Blow looking deeply, existentially wounded.
To those who eschew the corporate imprimatur, whether for personal or aesthetic reasons or both, this is what "indie" sometimes means: independence as a terrible sort of freedom, a tyrannical isolation. Inevitably, it seems, the developers with whom filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky became acquainted all are self-secluders hunkered down in front of their computers for years at a time, obsessed, strung out from their labors, playing games, yes, but obviously not always having fun.
The wrong way to explore this would be with so much critical distance as to seem condescending. But Pajot and Swirsky frame the gamers' common quest in distinctly human terms, steering straight into the tensions that result from seeking self-expression through an innately interactive art form. Even in the highly accelerated 21st century, the path between private creation and public consumption still seems like a long, tough slog.
Forging their way through a new aesthetic frontier, these young men seem wrenched and perplexed by the flickering uncertain image of what it means to realize their own artistic ambitions. Montreal's Phil Fish can't ever seem to finish Fez, his allegorically poignant game about a two-dimensional character in a wondrous three-dimensional world. Santa Cruz developer Edmund McMillen, half of the team behind Super Meat Boy, keeps expecting failure even with success staring him in the face; welling emotion finally cracks through his composure when he imagines some hypothetical youngster playing his game and feeling inspired, as he once was.
And then there's Jonathan Blow, who says, "If you don't see a vulnerability in somebody, you're probably not relating with them on a very personal level." What that has to do with video games is exactly the question Indie Game: The Movie strives to answer, and why it's worth seeing.
Indie Game: The Movie plays Friday, May 18, through Monday, May 21, 2012, at the Roxie in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit roxie.com.