I grew up with video games, as did many people who are currently in their mid-twenties. For a decent chunk of high school, I used them as a social surrogate, but I didn’t think critically about most of the games I consumed. In college, I started to explore the world of indie games—starting with the big ones like Braid and Limbo, and eventually finding mechanically simpler yet strangely more engaging games like Gone Home, Papers Please, and The Stanley Parable.* While not all of those games are phenomenal, I appreciate the way they explore the medium. They challenged my preconceptions of what a game was, what it could be, and whether I could use it to supplement or enhance my understanding of the world in a way I hadn’t felt since my Xbox 360 gave me a comforting sense of social interaction.
Now, I crave games that push the medium and have challenging narratives. Journey is a popular example, but even Gone Home represents the ways a developer can blend your expectations with experience to create a story that could only be told through video games. That game tells the story of a college-aged girl returning from a long trip to her family’s new home in the middle of the night, only to find that no one is there. The dread that you feel at first—where is your family? what’s in the house? is your sister’s notes on ghost sightings indicative of what you might run into?—transforms into curiosity and then understanding as you experience the discoveries as the player-character. Moreover, the explored themes are more complex than they’re given credit for (I could—and might, eventually—dedicate an article to the topic). There’s a lot to say on that oft-misunderstood game, but the idea is that the interactive nature of games has a lot of potential, and reveals the ways that they can radically subvert current notions of the medium and art as a whole. Thus, I was excited to see this poster:
Imagine my displeasure when I actually watched GameLoading: Rise of the Indies, only to find that it is as generic as the mainstream games that the documentary’s subjects criticize. The film opens with shots of people playing games and voice-overs about how great indie games are. Then, we go through a mix of game developers talking about their games, some comments on games as art, and occasional forays into “games” as an abstract concept. However, there is no sense of continuity; it’s everything that we expect to see in a documentary, but without any insight. The developers talk dismissively of mainstream games, much like people unfairly dismiss any popular art, but they do so in a wholly generic film. It’s the pot calling the kettle black, which wouldn’t be such a problem if you didn’t feel like the subjects of the documentary were so intent on explaining how bad it is to be…er, maybe that wasn’t the best idiom to use, but you get the idea.
I will say that GameLoading touches on important topics, even if it does not probe them sufficiently. The discussions of individual games is important because it shows the way a single text can play with ludonarrative (the intersection of gameplay and narrative). “Games as art” is a discussion that has long been debated, and actually yields a lot of irony today where people demand games be thought of as art, but are intent on excluding anything challenging that they dislike as “not games” (if I see the phrase “walking simulator” used derogatorily again, I’ll have a heart attack). The topic that gets explored the least in popular discourse is what a game actually is, and I particularly liked the brief segment on the nature of play and its importance in our everyday lives.
However, these topics are covered sporadically and without a sense of progression, and thus none get sufficiently discussed; even the sympathetic viewer will get bored. A facile survey of loosely connected conversations surrounding indie games cannot, on its own, keep an audience engaged. Further, when the last third or so of the film transitions awkwardly to talking about the nature of diversity in gaming and the potential for queer narratives, it feels like an addendum, rather than an essential part of the potential indie games have for the medium. While this is by far the most interesting portion of the film—as much as Christine Love’s and Zoe Quinn’s games don’t click with me, I find their perspectives the most unique—it is not given the proper context or expansion. People who already know this and agree will nod their heads, and people who disagree will not see anything that could possibly challenge their beliefs.
Further, the issue of diversity isn’t just a problem that the film discusses, but a problem that it has. I never felt like there was a sufficient representation of the potential for indie games and the developers making them, which could be because no game is really explored in depth, but is more likely because the filmmakers didn’t find enough people with a diverse array of thought. Further, it appears that most of the developers are part of the same social circle, namely a white, middle or upper-middle class clique. They all have an artsy, almost elitist air to them. I don’t like to throw around the word “pretentious,” because it can be used to dismiss far too easily, but the guy who derides popular games because developers should be true to themselves—all the while making a post-nuclear shoot-em-up—is pretentious (I strongly dislike this guy’s review, but he illustrates this point comically). Further, if you want to get a stereotypical grad student answer to, “What is this thing you’re making?”, you won’t do much better than a guy saying he’s not making a game, but an experience. To discuss the revolutionary movement of indie games, you need to get a better representation of that movement.
GameLoading isn’t awful. It just wasted my time. I am passionate about indie games and gaming culture, but the only people who could benefit from watching this movie are those who know absolutely nothing about the subject, and those people are likely to have trouble connecting the dozens of nondescript dots.
I actually feel bad for the makers of this film, Lester Francois and Anna Brady, because their movie has become the subject of extreme derision at the hands of GamerGate. A lot of the criticism is unfair: it focuses on the developers’ looks (why is everyone obsessed with people who dye their hair?), a dismissal of developers who use game-making software (these are probably the same people who complained about writers getting access to printing presses), and a general hatred of games that don’t fit their idea of what a game should be. None of these criticisms are valid. But GameLoading does not present a strong case that it is a good movie, and I think that the subject will have to wait for people who can tackle it in all of its complexity.
*Papers, Please isn’t as mechanically simple as Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, but the point stands.