Innovation and human expression in Stephanie Beth’s grassroots gaming documentary.
When I think of video games, I think of the blockbuster hits that dominated the screens of my youth (Golden Eye, FIFA, Counterstrike, etc.). As I grew, however, I lost interest in the pixilated explosions and lackluster gameplay. Stephanie Beth’s Us and the Game Industry explores the drive behind those gamers who ended up on the other side of the “fed up” spectrum—instead of abandoning their beloved controllers they took control, pioneering a new genre of video game.
Like music or writing or any other art form, video games have gone ‘indie’. Weaving from personal to professional, Beth’s film vividly demonstrates how six players-turned-programmers struggle to find meaning in their lives as they strive to develop games that better those of others. The result is a documentary on the human psyche that merges the gap between the physical and the digital in a uniquely indie way. Blending intellectual, inspirational and, often existential conversation with video game, Beth’s documentary captures the emergence of a groundbreaking digital genre. As Jason Rohrer (Sleep is Death, The Castle Doctrine) puts it: “It’s new and it’s quiet.” Finally, a healthy alternative to sports games and guns.
Over the past four years, this brand of pensive video game has surreptitiously breached the mainstream. Last year Zach Gage’s SpellTower jumped to #6 in Apple’s App Store. Jenova Chen’s most recent project, Journey, is the first game ever to be nominated for the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the 2013 Oscars. Indie games are beginning to find a place on the shelf between Angry Birds and Call of Duty because they are not just used for entertainment, boredom, or escape; they are used to inspire, connect, and educate. As Us and the Game Industry demonstrates, this new genre of gaming represents the continuity—instead of the contrast- between screens and reality.
No game has made more of an impact in the mainstream than Jenova Chen and ThatGameCompany’s existential Journey. The game’s protagonist—described as a “soul” avatar—is more akin to a spirit than any human form. The being moves about the screen gracefully, venturing from desert starkness to mountain serenity in a palpable metaphor of life. At times, the avatar meets other souls along the way (played by other users finding themselves in the same digital word), moving and interacting with them through visceral communication. As the game unfolds throughout Us and the Game Industry, it seems as though Chen has created more of an epic poem than a video game.
Beth’s Us and the Game Industry creates a movie about minds on the forefront of technology and independent thinking. As Beth’s protagonists search for meaning in their own lives, she documents the creation of their pixilated legacy. They see games as a means of human expression: expanding the bonds of our linear reality into a virtual world where anything is possible. Like the words of Atticus Finch or the stanzas of Homer, this new genre of gaming blends facts with fictions so its players get real-life lessons. Us and the Game Industry’s message is clear: (video) games are one of man’s most innovative tools; they can be used to notice life, to enjoy it, and to better it. So dust off that controller, venture into Beth’s indie world, and get your game on.