Santa Cruz native subject of Sundance-winning documentary
Edmund McMillen remembers the moment when his professional ambitions became apparent. He was a freshman at Soquel High School, when a local independent artist named Clay Butler visited as a guest speaker.
“I just thought he was the coolest guy in the world,” says McMillen. “I knew that I wanted to do exactly what he did, which was whatever he wanted. Just to get paid for being creative and doing your own stuff. And I knew it wasn’t a very lucrative career because you risk a lot to do it, but I could just tell right away that if I had the ability to do that I would be very happy.”
That revelation was only the beginning of a long process of making his dreams a reality, but the payoff has been substantial. Now an independent video game developer, McMillen is a subject in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, winner of the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and an official selection for the SXSW Film Festival later this month. The film will be screening at The Rio Theatre on March 2, followed by a Q&A with the film’s directors, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, as well as McMillen and his partner Tommy Refenes.
McMillen and Refenes created the popular game Super Meat Boy, the development and release of which is featured prominently in Indie Game. In the video game—available on Xbox 360, Windows PCs, Mac OS X, and Linux—players control Meat Boy, a red, cube-shaped character, as he attempts to rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the game’s antagonist, Dr. Fetus.
Beyond Indie Game’s narrative about the challenges of creating and distributing independent video games, McMillen says the film is “about independent artists trying to live the American Dream.”
Those artists work in a medium that exists at the intersection of art and science—a video game begins as an artistic seed that requires scientific cultivation. “It’s a very left-brain right-brain thing,” says McMillen. “Most developers I know are usually groups of two. In Team Meat, Tommy is the very technical side, he builds the engine himself, he programs everything. And I do all the traditionally creative stuff: character design, game design, level design. Together we make the full brain.”
In addition to design and development, Indie Game focuses on independent distribution, which is important beyond a developer’s desire for recognition or wealth. Because of the interactive nature of video games, a developer’s artistic journey is unfinished until another person plays the game. “When you release something, you’re definitely having a bit of a conversation with a large group of people about what you’re doing. It’s cool to see how people view what you’re doing and interact with them in that abstract way,” says McMillen. “It can also be crushing,” he adds with a laugh.
McMillen can laugh thanks to the success of both his game and the film, the latter of which comes as no surprise to him. “It’s hard for me to talk about the film being good because people will think, ‘Well, you’re in it, of course you’re going to think it’s good,’” he says. But it was a sense he had from the first time he met the filmmakers, which is why he and Refenes granted Pajot and Swirsky full access, even during moments of considerable vulnerability. “They were just so like-minded that I just knew that whatever they were doing was going to do really well,” says McMillen.
For McMillen, who still resides in Santa Cruz—the city is used as a framing device for his story in the film—Indie Game represents a significant period in his life. But while his story is one of success, it is also one that is far from over. “I’ve got years to go and hopefully many more games to make,” he says. “But for me it’s all about the adventure of doing it and not so much about the outcome. I know I’m going to get better and that’s what’s exciting.”
“Indie Game: The Movie” screens at 7 p.m. Friday, March 2, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit indiegamethemovie.com, or indiegamesantacruz.eventbrite.com.