In the last decade or so, indie games have become a big deal. The people and teams who work to create their own unique gaming experiences, as well as the culture surrounding them, have caught the attention of gamers, media and publishers alike around the world, proving that with modern day development and distribution methods, great games can come from unlikely places.
However, whilst renowned for being the birthplace of many present day video game companies, as well as some of the most iconic and revered franchises in entertainment, let alone gaming history, indie gaming is viewed from a different perspective in Japan. Arguably less prolific than its international counterparts and with full recognition by the press and wider gaming community yet to reach its peak, those who choose to pursue a career in independent game creation are destined to walk an unfamiliar yet thoroughly exciting path. Branching Paths, a feature-length documentary from Anne Ferrero, seeks to chart this journey, looking at the people, places, culture and stories that come together to create Japan’s indie game scene.
The film follows Ferrero’s two year experience with the Japanese indie scene, meeting and charting developers of a variety of backgrounds, from hardened industry veterans such as Keiji Inafune and Koji ‘IGA’ Igarashi, to the likes of university graduate Ojiro Fumoto, creator of the critically acclaimed Downwell – this creates a diverse and thought-provoking perspective by demonstrating the varying approaches to indie development in Japan, sharing the thoughts of those who are new to game development as well as those whose careers have fortuitously taken them in this direction. As well as Japanese developers, the film also takes the time to hear from western indie devs working with or in Japan, contemplating their thoughts on the surprising contrast between Japanese and western attitudes to the indie movement, as well as their involvement in bringing Japanese indie games to a wider, international audience.
Japan is no stranger to independent creativity, with ‘doujin’ original works serving as a prolific aspect of entertainment culture across a whole host of mediums, including video games. This largely ties into long-standing attitudes towards independent game development in Japan, seen largely as a hobbyists activity as opposed to a viable career option, and it’s fascinating to see how approaches are changing following the overwhelming success of indie projects in the west, as well as the emergence of platforms such as Kickstarter and Steam in Japan, which are beginning to make it easier for small teams and individuals to forgo a big-name publisher when creating a game. Traditionally western-dominated media coverage of indie games has led to many overlooking the differing accessibility of self-publishing in other parts of the world, as well as the cultural mindsets that affect the way and to what effect they can be used – Branching Paths delves into the specifics when it comes to the challenges and questions Japanese indie developers face, eloquently putting into perspective just how different the character and culture of the Japanese indie scene is to that of other countries’, yet highlighting the similar levels of fervour and inspiration that run thick throughout it.
Throughout the film, compelling commentary and interview sections are complimented with sublime presentation and cinematography. Every shot, from the bustling streets and idyllic landscapes to those focusing on the workspaces and events hosting the developers themselves stitch an exquisite yet realistic picture of the culture surrounding the indie games scene, bringing together the physical beauty of Japan as a nation with a warming, human observation of the individuals and community championing independent creativity. Tokyo-based label LOW HIGH WHO?‘s soundtrack meshes well with the film’s footage to create a unique, laid-back mood that’s easy to sink into. Presentational parallels can be drawn between Branching Paths and toco toco tv, Fererro’s Japanese culture-focused series which focuses on a mixture of people and scenery to similarly spectacular effect.
Ferrero has shown us a well-crafted, beautifully presented and thoroughly engaging perspective on Japanese indie game culture unlike anything seen before, clearly a labour of respect and affection with a strong desire to showcase the creativity, passion and talent of Japan’s indie scene that many of us are likely yet to have fully appreciated. Those interested in indie development, Japanese games culture or simply wishing to learn more about the attitudes and opinions of those behind the country’s creative independent force will find this to be a must-see production, one which is just as likely to inspire as it is to inform.
Branching Paths can currently be purchased on Playism and Steam, and will later be available on iTunes. A selection of the titles featured in the film are also on sale on Playism, so be sure to check them out.