New Documentary Shows the Impact of Indie Video Games
Stephanie Beth is a high school teacher in Christchurch, New Zealand who focuses on media studies. She's also a documentary filmmaker who recently produced and directed Us and the Game Industry. The film, which chronicles the work of a handful of independent-minded video game developers, opens at Arena Cinema in Hollywood today for a weeklong run.
Beth doesn't play games, but her son does. That situation she says something is "not atypical to any parent." Through her son, the filmmaker noticed something that caught her attention. "I suddenly saw this astonishing energy of culture shifting away from one medium, or some mediums, to another," she says. With a keen interest in working on a project that incorporated "culture, science and art" and spare time, Beth went to work on the documentary. Filming took place between 2009 and 2012. Most of the participants are based in the United States, although a couple worked in Copenhagen, Denmark.
From first-person shooters played on living room consoles to mobile phone apps, video games have evolved into a massive industry that has a little something for everybody. They are no longer about kids and teens hanging around an arcade or even busting through Super Mario Bros. at a sleepover. There are games for children and adults. You can play by yourself or with strangers somewhere else in the world. Some are played to simply pass time while others are meant to test your physical endurance. You can play games for the action or the art or the narrative.
Beth got to witness part of this story. When she began research for the documentary, the game industry was stuck in a rut. "It wasn't growing," she says. "There were long established traditions, whether for role-playing or for first-person shooter." She learned, though, that there were people trying to break new ground in the medium. Ultimately, those were the people she followed.
Jenova Chen's video game, Journey, is central to the documentary Us and the Game Industry.
Beth learned about the games as she became more engrossed in the work. "Strictly as an observer, first of all, I saw people 20 years to 15 years younger than me working with a medium that I was not accustomed to working with myself," she says. "I could see how they instinctively picked up new tools, worked with tools." That almost natural inclination to play and build games is evident throughout the film. "To be able to take your childhood through to your adult life is a dream come true for people who have the tenacity and have the passion to see an industry keep growing into levels of maturity," she says.
That's how pervasive games are. As video games become increasingly recognized as a dominating cultural force, more movies about games have hit theaters and streaming sites. Beth's documentary is different. Where Indie Game: The Movie focuses on the hardships of making a game and the forthcoming Atari: Game Over is about a spectacular disaster early in the industry's history, Beth looks at the possibilities that exist in the medium.
"It's not a struggled story," says Beth. Without the drama that can come with stories about pushing boundaries to make great works, the film highlights the varied philosophies of game makers and the advances that they're making. Beth says that she enjoyed following people who were so entrenched in research and development to make games that weren't just fun or beautiful or exciting. These games are innovative as well.
Central to the story is Journey. A triumph for L.A. developers thatgamecompany, Journey went on to win numerous awards. It is a stunning game that blazes new trails with its interactive score. The company had a reputation for making artful games prior to the documentary, they also made titles like Flow and Flower. During our conversation, Beth recalls a conversation with Jenova Chen, the president and CEO of thatgamecompany, "He said, 'I can draw and I can program, but there are people who are better at it then me." Us and the Game Industry is as much about team-building and collaboration as it is about individual achievements.
Beth's perspective is of someone with a genuine curiosity about the future of video games and, now that the film is finished, she has some opinions on that topic. She says that there are "untapped areas" in multiple game genres where people will be working. Funding for games is also changing. One of the developers in the documentary, Die Gute Fabrik, successfully raised funds for a pack of four games through Kickstarter.
"This is the golden age," says Beth of video games. With Us and the Game Industry, we're able to watch that golden age unfold.
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.