Branching Paths has been labeled by some as Japan Indie Game: The Movie. Anne Ferrero’s documentary obviously shares the same goal as James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot in shining light on small scale game development. The comparison doesn’t seem an apt one on watching both however. Swirsky and Pajot, by luck or design were able to find enough drama to make rock stars of its subjects (or at the very least Phil Fish), digging up tantrums, crises of confidence, triumph and trauma. Branching Paths makes nice, if unassuming and insecure figures in the Japanese indie space seem, well, nice if unassuming and insecure before ultimately deciding a cottage industry will broadly stay that way.

Ferrero follows different developers from 2012 when events like Bitsummit started a concerted effort to shine a light on indie development in Japan, up through to 2015. From James Mielke representing Bitsummit to  Jo White running Picotachi out of his small Kichijoji cafe, the early narrative is one of foreign developers and industry figures trying to drag small Japanese games into the limelight, or at least get developers talking to one another. Ferrero herself expresses surprise at the number of foreign indies working in Japan, and the peculiar issue of national identity pervades through the film. Devine Lu Linvega (aka Aliceffekt) talks about how exploring a foreign culture influences his work, while Jake Kazdal and 17 Bit find inspiration from legendary game creators past. Kazdal comments that Japanese indies can only survive due to foreign money, or foreigners trying to act as a social glue for a very scattered scene; as we’re pondering that, Aliceffekt is forced out of the country on an expired work visa, and in the film’s most darkly comic transition, Eric Pope talks next about Papers, Please.

With the Japanese indie space unused to attention, what ensues is an obsession with labels that the western industry has largely moved away from. Ferrero tries to explore comparisons between indie game development and the purely amateur doujin scene. The almost uniquely Japanese mindset of creating purely for the benefit of oneself and one’s peers has a conflict of interest with the indie scene that struggles to make a living. As Touhou Project‘s Zun puts it ‘Doujin are turning into indies; whether that’s a good or a bad thing for the scene, I don’t know’. While it’s never expressly stated, it seems the mentality of several is that making money on a project is tantamount to selling out on your values; Masahiro Onaguchi, talking about his ‘almost finished, but it’ll be out in ten years‘ fighting project EF12, compares himself to Gaudi and says of part-time development ‘I’m enjoying myself, isn’t that the main thing?’

For those with more name value, there’s a discomfort and a sense of self-conscious unease in the film. Money versus passion is a leitmotif through the 90 minutes; Koji Igarashi (Symphony of the Night)’s rabidly successful Kickstarter for Bloodstained is touched upon, and Iga is hesitant to call himself ‘independent’ given his financial success and established name. As he calls himself ‘big indie’, industry veteran Yoshiro Kimura seems almost too defensive in declaring ‘indie’ as a mindset where outside cash is a factor. His game Million Onion Hotel is put on ice midway through the film as Yusha Yamada Kun finds a publisher, and he discusses taking outsourcing contracts to keep the lights on.

The hints of Onion Games’ struggles aren’t lingered upon for too long; Ferrero’s portrayal of the space is generally very positive. That allows for genuine feel good moments, the rise and rise of Moppin as Downwell nears release being a highlight. There’s a lack of clear contrast however, arguably some of which being down to timing. Keiji Inafune talks on screen about the formation of Comcept and the desire to maintain control of his own IP. Had Branching Paths been a few months later in release, the release and critical and public panning of Mighty No.9 would have been an intriguing ‘big indie’ counterpoint to Downwell’s one man success.

As is though, the chronological approach of the film sees an end at TGS 2015 and its downsizing of indie floor space as opposed to the big time feel of the prior year. Left wondering why, Ferrero and devs guess that too many Japanese developers are reluctant to enter the world stage, due to financial concerns, or pure lack of English speaking ability. It’s a slightly unsatisfying climax to an otherwise enlightening film that warmly portrays some brilliant talent (many of whom friends to KP, for the sake of full disclosure). Their story is certainly not yet fully told, and hopefully Ferrero will be up for telling more down the road.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)