Do you know how video games are made? Chances are, unless you directly work on them, you really don’t. Those of us who consume media are often obsessive in that consumption, and through this we gain a deep knowledge of the outward function of art: its projected self. The underpinnings are locked off from us, though, the internal reality a mystery. Towards the end of this 20+ hour documentary on the making of a video game, one of the developers notes that those who play the game will (hopefully) enjoy it, for a few hours and then it will become memories. For those who worked on the game, that thing is very different, that thing — as they point out — is the summation of six years of life for a group of people.
Well, this stunning documentary puts that life on screen. After the success of a documentary series (prompted by a Kickstarter campaign) covering the development of video game Broken Age (2014), the developer, Double Fine, took 2 Player Productions (the documentarians) in-house. This crew embedded with the company over the entire development of Psychonauts 2 (2021), covering six years. This stretches from the conceptual stage — the thing existing as some vague ideas and a want to do it — to its full release in 2021. It covers changes in staff, changes of financiers and all kinds of joy and struggle. It also captures the world around the project, a necessary layer. An early highlight is a coded allusion to going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), later milestones include elections and the onset of COVID-19. This therefore becomes a relevant historical document, capturing unique moments and how they were lived through. Game development is a living process; this series makes it clear. You see, with this lengthy documentary, we have something unprecedented: an extended insight into how a studio actually makes a video game, a peek into that internal reality that we just see the projection of.
This is such a valuable series. Inherently, it is of great worth as it is so educational. The length is used expertly, allowing you to follow the arc of a studio, and the people within it, and to get a real view of how decisions are made and what thought goes into the art that lives on our screens. All of this is helped by the studio itself, Double Fine are a lovable group led by industry legend Tim Schafer. They make games defined by laughs and heart, games that garner a dedicated following and that stand out from the wider industry. Creativity is always a sell, usually the chance to play something unique — even if only in its writing, but often in how it plays. Now, we can see how that comes about, and it is pulled off with such style.
The overall production of this is excellent. Little touches become definitional, including the way the opening credits of each episode (a lovely animated sequence that takes us through Double Fine HQ) slightly adapts to each episode, reflecting its content. The care to the game, the intentional layers that are made visible to us through long form documenting, is almost matched by this meticulously designed series. Aesthetically, it is strong, adopted a clear visual language that matches the company’s style. The narrative work is also very impressive. Clearly, filming over six years, there is so much footage to choose from. There is still the feeling that not everything is shown or known — at a few points it is made obvious that there are things even we aren’t privy to — but there is such a commitment to openness. The documentarians are employees of the company and share their ethos; this is a Double Fine product and, when the aforementioned Psychonauts staffer talks about the game being more than just what players will experience, a viewer will reflect on this documentary. We enjoy over twenty hours of privileged insight, unprecedented access to creativity and process, but then that becomes memory too. This documentary is a labour of love, a work of real art filled with amazing decision making.
This isn’t just good because it exists, this is good because it is very good. Our storytelling keeps the overall project at the forefront but also picks key figures to follow. Narrative arcs are built up as we swap between meetings, talking head interviews and general footage of work. All interviews are conducted at the time, so there is a sense of immediacy, like an inner working is still being captured as opposed to a distanced reflection. The goal is to capture transparency, not to editorialise the process. Once again, our filmmakers are employees, taking their role as a key part of the production. Documenting the making of Pyschonauts 2 becomes part of the process of Psychonauts 2, this series playing an additive role. It is worth, at points, considering a kind of observer paradox, whether the cameras are altering reality in front of them through their known presence; however, this is easily pushed aside. Firstly, familiarity creeps in very quickly. As alluded to, this documenting is part of production so, with little delay, it feels naturalised. Also, the presence of the cameras facilitates and enables things. About two-thirds of the way through, for example, an open conversation is had (and a meeting held) about the possibility of a culture of encouraged overwork at the studio. It is a fractious and personal exchange, one where the viewer can see multiple sides. It also seems facilitated by the cameras, the knowledge that this is documented perhaps giving people more willingness to speak up, and being aware of what precedents are being set.
So much of this is celebratory but everything is shown here, within reason. This is a difficult project that is marked by disagreements and real issues. People joke about how it is a miracle any game gets made, and here you see that really is the case. Seeing the rough edges is the most valuable part as we are confronted with the reality, and the real people, behind the culture we consume. There really are lives wrapped up in this and seeing how they are affected over time is important viewing. Obviously, Double Fine is not an industry; however, as a landmark series in terms of scope and access, this series sets out a microcosmic view of the industry. Issues are laid bare, the reality of certain practices brought to life and the complexities can’t hide. But, amongst all the fascinating process, it is humanity that shines through. It becomes a joy to spend time with these people, to see their passions and their skills. The editing makes for satisfying character journeys and foregrounds the human rather than the bureaucratic. Games are made by people and that making is tough, often on people. One of the best arcs of the series comes from when one of the documentarians gets involved in a game jam, having no game development experience (every year or so, Double Fine do a fortnight long event where they drop the current projects and teams then have to make a game in two weeks, as part of a competition). Watching the camera operator be so inspired, and driven, as to sign up to create is wonderful. Watching what this leads to later is one of the most special moments in recent cultural memory. It is the kind of arc that only this kind of long form documenting can do.
But, outside of literal debates had, this also puts conversations on screen. We see practices and managerial styles, in an openness we otherwise wouldn’t. We are able to reflect on our own habits while also considering parts of the process shown to us. The aforementioned game jam is awesome, but is it a healthy thing to put the staff through? The business layer around video games is also shown to be a minefield: the need to produce at a certain level but then the inflexibility that can arise from that. This documentary knows what to show you and it knows how to present the aesthetic of standing back. Everything is a curated view but the view on offer is one that allows for independent thought. We are guided in a way that makes us feel unguided, that empowers us to think about what is on offer. A clever approach, and brilliant filmmaking worthy of its own documentary. Truly we are ready for an infinite line of recursive documentaries until all aspects of process are made clear to us.
Process laid bare is inherently fascinating. You don’t need to know Double Fine or have played this game to watch this. You just need to be interested in art. This is a vital document of how the sausage is made, a kind of necessary reading for those (like myself) who feel the need to comment on art, and claim a kind of authority. It is a portrait into the humanity that underlies creation, but is all to easy to ignore. This is engrossing stuff, so carefully crafted to keep you utterly engaged while constantly teaching you about art, artists and the art of process.