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'Indie Game' Follows Developer to Hell and Back

There's a stage in "Super Meat Boy" called "Hell," and the video game's creator, Edmund McMillen, was living through it.

The lifelong Santa Cruz resident and his Team Meat partner, Tommy Refenes of Asheville, N.C., had to cram four months' worth of work into a two-month span if they wanted the game to have any chance of success. Microsoft was offering to feature "Super Meat Boy" on the Xbox Live Arcade, the console system's downloadable game marketplace, but it needed to be finished for the October 2010 independent-game promotion.

McMillen and Refenes were working 15 hours-plus every day and getting less than five hours of sleep.

"Sleep deprivation will make anyone lose their mind," he said.

What little money they had was running out, and the bills were stacking up. The 31-year-old McMillen, who hadn't had health insurance since he was 18, owed Dominican Hospital nearly $50,000 for emergency gallbladder surgery he had undergone. Refenes had racked up $800 in overdraft fees buying a few too many Coke Zeros to fuel his marathon programming sessions for the game.

"It was horrible -- the most stressful time in my life," said McMillen, the game's artist.

And the cameras were rolling the whole time.

SUNDANCE SPOTLIGHT

Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot met Team Meat at the March 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. McMillen and Refenes were showing an initial version of "Super Meat Boy," a classic "platformer" style of game that both parodies and pays homage to -- through cutscene references and in-game design elements -- the games they grew up playing, chief among them "Super Mario Bros."

Swirsky and Pajot were planning a documentary on indie games and the people who make them -- artists who forgo day jobs, the chance to work on the next "blockbuster" game, and even a measure of social interaction to bring their own visions to interactive life.

Team Meat was a good fit.

"It felt cool that we were making something independent and

Canadian filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky relied mostly on their own savings and two successful fundraising campaigns on Kickstarter.com to fund their movie. (Ian MacCausland/Blinkworks)

they were making something independent," said McMillen, who has spent the past decade making indie games, including 2004's award-winning "Gish." "There were a lot of parallels."

Like Team Meat, Swirsky and Pajot had no outside funding for their project, relying mostly on their own savings and two successful campaigns on the fundraising website Kickstarter.

McMillen had been approached by others looking to do a documentary about indie game makers, he said, but Swirsky and Pajot "stood out to me because they seemed to really get it."

It appears they did. "Indie Game: The Movie" is set to premiere Jan. 20 at the Sundance Film Festival, one of 12 selections in the World Documentary category.

While the documentary will

As Meat Boy, you must jump and run past various instruments of death to complete each level. (Team Meat)

appeal to the gaming crowd with its examination of how video games are made, the film has something in it for non-gamers as well, both the filmmakers and McMillen said.

"It's an underdog story ... about people following their dreams," Pajot said. "It's about watching the creative process and all the ups and downs they went through to release their games to the world."

"I can't think that it wouldn't inspire anyone who watched it," McMillen said.

OF MEAT AND MONSTERS

The documentary also features Jonathan Blow, creator of 2008's critically acclaimed "Braid," and Phil Fish, who's spent four years working on his 2D-meets-3D title "Fez."

But Team Meat is the main course.

Swirsky and Pajot spent months shooting Team Meat, mostly in the Live Oak apartment McMillen shared with his wife, Danielle. The filmmakers created a trailer out of the first interview they did with McMillen, which they used to launch their initial Kickstarter campaign. They reached their $15,000 fundraising goal in two days.

In the trailer, McMillen talks about growing up in Santa Cruz, his ultra-supportive grandmother, the third-grade teacher who said his drawings of monsters were "a cry for help," and the child-like inspirations for his game "Aether."

'Growing Up Edmund' Trailer

"We fell in love in a way" after the first interview, Pajot said. "It was like a first date. We were like, 'We really like you.' "

While Swirsky and Pajot had filmed more than a dozen other indie game developers, as the Xbox deadline for "Super Meat Boy" approached, the filmmakers knew McMillen and Refenes would be their key subjects.

The documentary "just sort of organically turned into a story about them," Pajot said. "To do [their story] justice, it took over more and more of the movie."

SUPER SUCCESS

The week before the game's Oct. 20, 2010, release, Pajot went to North Carolina to film Refenes, while Swirsky set up shop in McMillen's living room. They were filming the moment the game was released.

Team Meat was worried. Indie games hadn't been faring well on Xbox Live Arcade in the months leading up to the release.

"We had no idea how successful it would be," McMillen said.

But Pajot and Swirsky did. They had noticed the increasing media buzz surrounding the game and the growing legion of fans following Team Meat on Twitter and Facebook.

"They worked so hard," Swirsky said, "and they went through hell and back."

By the time "Indie Game: The Movie" premieres, McMillen said, "Super Meat Boy" will have sold more than 1 million copies. About 200,000 have been downloaded through Xbox Live Arcade, while the rest have been sold mainly through Steam, a video game download service available on PCs and Macs.

"It's been a life-changing year," he said.

Though the game's success has afforded him financial stability -- and health insurance -- McMillen said he wouldn't let that change his indie mind-set.

"It's by far the best game I've ever made," he said. "It's raised the bar for me personally, and I look forward to making a bigger game that will push me even further as an artist."

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