Branching Paths: A Charming and Uplifting Documentary on the Japanese Indie Game Scene

on September 3, 2016 2:53 PM

Director Anne Ferrero recently released her feature-length documentary Branching Paths: A Journey Through Japan’s Indie Game Scene. In the documentary, she takes the viewer on a two year journey through Japan’s indie game scene, and gives an inside look on this usually quite secretive community of creators. She highlights not only their accomplishments, but also their failures. Additionally, the documentary offers a brief history on the doujin video game scene, that is pretty much unknown to many western gamers.

Before watching the film, you should ask yourself what you know about the doujin games coming from Japan. For those who don’t know, doujin video game developers are somehow similar to what the western audience would consider indie developers. Although, they mostly create works strictly as fans without any concern about turning a profit.

I will admit that I went into this movie with a preconceived thought that it was going to be Indie Game: The Movie based in Japan. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong, as I discovered that the word “indie” is about where the similarities end between the two films.

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Something I noticed throughout the documentary, was that it was completely free of platform bias. Ferrero spends plenty of time with developers of mobile, PC, and console games. Each developer shares a different story, but their drive is united by one single theme: Passion. Throughout the interviews and gameplay segments, developers are almost always brought to answer the question, “Why are you doing this?”

It’s interesting to see interviews with some pretty well known names in the indie game industry such as Keiji Inafune and ZUN. These developers started making games on their own and slowly became well known. Now, when a game has their name on it, people have much higher expectations. It’s harder for smaller indie developers to get that type of recognition, and the documentary makes sure to show their effort in detail. I personally appreciated these scenes, because not only did it show me games that I have never heard about, but it introduced me to developers I would have never known.

Ferrero takes her time with each developer, and each expresses his thought on the indie game movement in Japan. While the interviewee speaks, the documentary shows clips of Japan, or relevant events that really immerse the viewer in the scene, and even allows a foreigner like myself to connect with what they’re talking about. At times It’s difficult to understand the cultural differences, but often creators explain them themselves, so that they become easier to grasp.

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A section of the film focuses on crowdfunding. These scenes were lead by no other than Keiji Inafune (Mega Man X) and Koji Igarashi (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). The two creators talk about their experience using the KickStarter platform. They also mention their time working for a large game development company. Both bring up different experiences leading up to leaving their respective companies, but one thing they share is that they wanted to create the games that they wanted.

Maybe we can glimpse the future of the game industry through the actions of these big name creators. They left their comfortable and stable jobs to pursue a carrier as independent developers. However, when they get to that point, where do they fit in? Being so well known makes it hard for them to fit in to the normal “indie” label. So they land somewhere in between, and the documentary details this confusing reality the quite nicely, from the voices of the developers themselves.

The soundtrack for the documentary was provided by Low High Who? Productions. The production company’s unique beats flow well with the urban cinematography that is often the backdrop for many of the scenes. The music creates a certain mood in each interview that moves you in a way that you wouldn’t expect.

Something that Branching Paths offers is an introduction to Japanese events that were created to close the gap between the usually solitary indie developers. Events like BitSummit, Tokyo Indie, and Picotachi are showcased, giving a glimpse on how they offer developers a chance to meet up and show their work to other creators and gamers.

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Ferrero’s documentary never loses focus and I never felt lost despite the variety of games and creators placed under the spotlight. There is a clear sense of organization and careful planning that went into the filming, creating an extremely enjoyable flow when introducing new developers and moving along the two years timeline.

Seeing the Japanese indie scene right through the moments depicting the raising of its popularity makes you almost feel part of it in a small way. The creativity and ideas that these developers bring to life are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Ultimately, the determination these developers show in creating their games goes beyond the industry. The documentary shows their real life struggles, while the only thing that often keeps motivating them is the need to share a a gaming experience with someone else, no matter how big or small the audience.

Branching Paths is a documentary made for gamers, fans, and developers from any region. It’s charming and uplifting, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a reminder that some dreams do come true.

You can find Branching Paths on Steam and Playism.

 /  Staff Writer
Azario Lopez has held multiple positions in the game's media industry. At DualShockers he focuses on providing coverage for niche and indie video games in the form of news updates, reviews, and interviews.