There’s a bit of an established formula for the video game documentary; generally, a filmmaker will find a subject in gaming, focusing on a particular community of creators or players, open the documentary with a few shots of everyday life, have a developer interviewed in a space that’s either open and a little bit too bright or cramped and full of blinking LEDs, and inevitably end the documentary with some optimistic thought about the future of the gaming community featured in the documentary.
Branching Paths sticks to this formula, and at times its style feels a touch cliched- in spite of this, however, it’s also a surprisingly compelling documentary on the indie game development scene in Japan- its one true flaw, I’d say, is that it needed a better sense of focus.
To delve a little, this Anne Ferrero directed documentary offers a curious view into the lives and art of several independent game developers in Japan, offering the perspectives of both Japanese natives as well those as of American, French, and other developers of other nations who’ve come to live and work in Japan. In a lot of ways, it feels like a documentary for people who have some familiarity with the topics being discussed. Don’t know what a doujin is? The documentary talks about the doujin scene, but never explains just what these games are- doujin, by the way, refers to self-published works- generally fan manga, games, and sometimes anime.
At the heart of Branching Paths are the Japanese developers who talk about the difficulties they’ve encountered making games and trying to make a living off of them. It’s not all about the hard stuff, though- the documentary explores the influences and inspirations behind an assortment of Japanese indie games. Moppin (Ojiro Fumoto), who you may know for his work on the fantastic Downwell was inspired by Rami Ismail to start making a game every week. Later, he’s seen talking to his fellow Japanese developers about his process at Bitsummit, which could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent of Indiecade.
One of the biggest obstacles that independent game developers in Japan face isn’t technical, but cultural: in the Japanese world of business, going independent is seen as unusual- especially for such endeavors as game development. As somebody from the United States, this difference in culture fascinates me, because over here we’re so used to rooting for the “little guy,” as it were. Indie devs here are thought of as creatives breaking away from the mainstream to do something creative, original and impossible compared to what can be done when part of a corporate machine. In Japan, however, being part of the corporate machine is considered more integral to success, and I feel that Branching Paths does a good job at conveying that idea.
Something that pleasantly surprised me about Branching Paths was the way it explored some of the elements of indie game development as a business. In the west, it’s well known that crowdfunding has become one of the most valuable tools in any indie developer’s arsenal, but in Japan? A game succeeding on Kickstarter is a surprise- newsworthy, even- at least, that was the case when the documentary came out, and Keiji Inafune and Koji Igarashi were blowing records with Mighty No. 9 and Bloodstained.
I liked the ending, even though it did seem to meander off a little- the documentary ends with a look at the game industry in Japan in which indies are still the underdog- overshadowed by big AAA publishers- but steadily gaining traction. It’s not unrealistically optimistic as a lot of gaming documentaries seem to be, but it’s not negative- just a little tonally ambivalent. Overall, Branching Paths offers an awesome inside look at the indie game development scene in Japan. In a lot of ways, the movie seems to meander, and while it could’ve benefited from a tighter focus on its subject material, it is on the whole well worth watching if you’re interested in Japan’s gaming culture. If you’re looking for a gaming documentary that covers something other than the usual subject matter, check out Branching Paths.