Director: Anne Ferrero
Duration: 83 minutes
Branching Paths – Documentary Review
In the Western part of the globe, the indie gaming scene is well known and often well acclaimed by publishers and gamers. We simply cannot think of a world without indie games because they bring an entirely different gameplay experience to the mix, with original concepts and quite often new thrilling mechanics. While Japan is the leading country for video games in general, the indie game scene hasn’t quite yet developed such normalcy. Branching Paths, a documentary from Anne Ferrero, show us the evolution of indie games in Japan.
Japan is well known for its innovative leadership when it comes to video games since the very beginning of its existence. Many huge developing companies are often led by a veteran from Japan but the creativity is often kept in a jar. They know what will sell and they restrict their employees from experimenting. This is where the indie game scene comes in, as indie games allow developers to fully implement what they want to see in a game – whether it sells or not. Unlike the big leading companies, indie games are not a team effort but a game developed by a single developer, or at times developed by a very small studio. They do not have a large publishing company standing behind them and they must tackle every aspect of bring their video game to the market.
Internationally, especially in United States of America and European regions, the indie game scene is booming. These games can offer players most large companies cannot. A sense of creativity, a new gameplay experience, often with intriguing gameplay mechanics. The video game scene is not whole without these smaller indie games and we can no longer think of a world without them. In Japan however, the indie game scene is nearly unheard of and still has a long way to go. Anne Ferrero follows indie game developers from Japan for two years straight, capturing the hardships and evolution of the indie game scene in her multi-language documentary Branching Paths.
At the beginning of the documentary, ZUN tries to pinpoint the difference between doujin and indie games but he sees the line dividing these genres slowly fading. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is unknown and it is this thrilling evolvement that Anne tries to capture in her documentary; the evolution of the indie game scene.
In Branching Paths, we follow a series of developers from all kinds of ranges in a time span of two years, via several game conventions such as Tokyo Game Show, IndieCade, Digital Game Expo but also Global Game Jam, BitSummet and Tokyo Indie Fest as well as the developer’s smaller monthly meetings.
On one side of the indie game scene, we have several renowned veterans such as Koji Igarashi, best known for the Castlevania series, and Keiji Inafune whom worked of the Mega Man series. The latter left Capcom to create his own studio, Comcept, and his own video game series Might No. 9 while Igarashi left Konami and thus the Castlevania development team and launched his new project Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night into the world. On the other side, we see student graduate Ojiro Fumoto that takes Rami Ismail‘ advice to heart as he begins to create one game per week, leading up to the development of Downwell. Lucas Pope also appears shortly to discuss the indie game scene in Japan, although his indie game Papers, Please! does well internationally. Quite a few other games made their appearance such as ToqueL, Manifold Garden, Vane and Astrebreed but not as detailed as Downwell.
The entire documentary states that succeeding in Japan is incredibly difficult since the mobile market is much larger than the PC market is, and focusing on having their video game released overseas is a step they are required to take. This specific route is difficult but crowdfunding campaigns are a great way to start although the concept of Kickstarter is still quite vague in Japan. Three success stories are shown; La Mulana 2, Might No 9 and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. At the same time, Downwell has its own success story thanks to the watchful eye of Devolver Digital. Ojiro Fumoto feels that indie games are great and “the result is greater variety”, whereas “some are very niche while others have specific themes.” Creating a game that is loved by many is great as it’s a good resource for income as well as getting ‘fame’ in the indie scene but Fumoto claims that “it takes only one player to justify a game’s existence” and this is a perfect motto for all indie game developers to live by.
As for the documentary itself, it does not focus on the video games themselves nor on the developers as much as it should. Instead, it focuses on the evolution of doujin and the indie game scene in Japan, as well as the contrast to the evolution of the indie game scene in the western world and what it means to small studios. The fact that it does not follow one developer at a time, and thus switches between Japanese, French and English language, is a tad confusing but the filming itself is done wonderfully.
Unlike Indie Game: The Movie, Branching Paths does not follow a specific developer or video game franchise for a certain amount of time. The key storyline is the hardship and difference in the evolution of the indie game scene in the Western part of the world and Japan itself, as well as the fading thin line of indie games vs. doujin. The developers chosen to follow are of great variety, from veterans to recently graduated students and while their paths may vary somewhat, their end goal remains the same; creating games that they love without any kind of restriction. All-in-all, it is an interesting documentary to watch, especially for those that simply love Japanese indie games.