I have always enjoyed documentaries about the process of making movies. The fascination began with the "bonus features" embedded on DVDs in the late 90s, little behind-the-scenes snippets that would end up being one of the driving forces behind my pursuit of a film school education. Watching how the Wachowski brothers created the "bullet time" effect for The Matrix, seeing Peter Jackson render Middle Earth in painstaking detail for Lord of the Rings, or even examining what exactly happened during the production of the Star Wars prequels was captivating to me. There were so many people with specialized skills coming together to collaborate on a single project, and every one of their contributions, big or small, seemed to matter. Watching people create was as entertaining as watching the creation itself.
My interest in "how it's made" has extended into the realm of video games as well, as I've often found myself reading articles online or watching short vignettes that chronicle various aspects of a game's development process. However, compared to the feature-length docs that are still produced regularly for modern blockbuster films, these glimpses into the production of video games are usually unfulfilling. Creating a game seems so much more complex than making a movie due to the nature of interactive entertainment and the number of variables at play. The process demands a massive level of collaboration, creativity, and decision-making on the part of artists and technicians over a long period of time. While recent docs like Indie Game: The Movie have offered extended looks at what goes into the making of a few modern games, there hasn't been anything out there that fully captures the process in its entirety.
However, I recently came across a post on Kotaku highlighting a project that fills this void. Double Fine Adventure, a 20-episode web-series documenting the development of an adventure game called Broken Age, is a remarkably compelling, enlightening, and charming piece of filmmaking that thoroughly covers the making of a game from conception to release. Kickstarted alongside the game itself, the series, produced by 2 Player Productions, grants unprecedented access to the offices of Double Fine Productions and its founder, the legendary Tim Schafer, as his team sets out to fulfill the promise of delivering a finished product to 75,000+ loyal backers. Not only is this the best account I've seen of how a game is made, it's one of the best documentaries about the creative process, period.
While watching Schafer and crew generate a game idea from scratch and then put it together piece by piece would be engaging enough, the unique circumstances under which Broken Age was developed add an additional layer of intrigue. Double Fine launched their Kickstarter for this project when crowd-sourcing for video games was in its infancy, and though the approach has since become widespread, it is not without its own pitfalls and controversies. The appeal of Kickstarted games is that they allow developers to have the creative freedom to make exactly what they want without a publisher breathing down their neck, because the financing comes directly from fans. In the case of Broken Age, it also allowed Schafer to revive the once thriving "adventure" genre that was long past its prime. However, with that creative freedom comes a limited budget, greater pressure to deliver a satisfying product, and impatient, demanding backers who want a return on their investment in a timely manner. This trade-off presents a difficult series of challenges for Double Fine to navigate and adds stakes to the journey of Broken Age's development as the series progresses.
More than anything, what sets Double Fine Adventure apart from other docs about making media is that it nails the "fly-on-the-wall" approach to documenting. Since the series is spread out across so many episodes, there is no reason to plow through every aspect of the development process at breakneck speed or divide the content up into compartmentalized segments. Instead, we can settle in for a long scene in a conference room as a big decision is made (more exciting than it sounds), bounce over to an animator slowly describing the process of bringing a character to life, and then spend time getting to know a few members of the team on a more personal level. One early episode (see below) largely focuses on three concept artists and their various approaches to the trade, including explorations of their amusingly diverse work environments. Episodes flow freely between the business side and creative side of the project, and throughout the series, the filmmaking style is completely unobtrusive and allows the audience to just "be around" these people as they do their work.
This may make it sounds like Double Fine Adventure is an under-produced assembly of raw footage with no distinct style, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. The cinematography is great, with surprisingly interesting and well composed shots given the confines of the small office most of the episodes take place in. The editing is also excellent, particularly in sequences that subtly evoke symbolism with clever juxtapositions. And the original score by Dustforce composer Terence Lee is especially worth noting for the chill, chip-tunes-esque vibe it lends to each episode. The stylistic choices, combined with the subject matter and pacing, give the series an oddly therapeutic quality for me; it is immensely satisfying to be around these artists while they work on a project with the artistic freedom they are afforded, as if the Double Fine office represent the utopian ideal of a professional creative workspace.
But perhaps the relaxed, zen-like state the show seems to exist in is more a reflection of the series' main character than of any stylistic choices by the producers. Tim Schafer is, in fact, as much the subject of this story as Broken Age itself, because he is the man ultimately in charge of birthing, naming, and raising his seed of an idea to a fully formed product. He is the primary interview subject and the person the viewers spend the most time following around. Despite the immense pressure of being constantly confronted by decisions and solely responsible for most of the game's writing and overall direction, the guy never seems to crack. He constantly mugs for the camera, is always ready with a sarcastic quip to defuse a potentially serious moment, and frequently breaks the 4th wall by conversing with the producers. He is also refreshingly self-deprecating and forthright about the challenges in front of the project throughout the series, never trying to save face for himself or the company. And he comes off as an ideal boss, a confident leader who is open to criticisms and suggestions and genuinely understand the importance of collaboration. He is as likeable a "character" you could ask for at the center of a series like this, and undoubtedly the glue holding both Broken Age and the Double Fine Adventure doc together.
As a fan of Broken Age and many of Schafer's other games, I am highly predisposed to enjoy Double Fine Adventure. Growing up, I distinctly remember struggling through the puzzles of Full Throttle with friends, and The Secret of Monkey Island, along with its sequels, remains an all time favorite. If those weren't enough, my recent playthrough of the Grim Fandango re-release cemented Schafer as one of my all-time favorite designers. So it's hard to say if this doc is truly something special or if it just conforms to so many of my interests. Regardless, I've found it to be special gem in the landscape of "making-of" docs, and a series worthy of a wider audience than the niche group of Kickstarter backers it was meant to serve.