Editorial: Blow’s Bombastic Buffoonery

Okay, I guess we could work with the Mr. Darcy, dark and brooding crowd.
“Excuse me, Mr. Blow, could you look a bit more…uhm…warm?”

Meets and greets, Lusipurrdy-people!

This week’s journey into the surface realms of my subconscious will take us past the deep recesses which hold all of my fearful secrets. Please keep all hands inside the cart, and do not arise until we have come to a complete stop. Stay away from the door marked with a knitting needle. What?! We all have our little kinks. We will be continuing onward to the door marked with a tibia, to a place that I like to keep a secret. See, as an optimist I tend to try to avoid conflicts (hahaha right?) that force me to call out people. Especially people I am not familiar with, because for all I know they could be a very nice person in private. Pol Pot may have enjoyed Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood or sang to birds, for example. But I will still reveal this room because I have a serious bone to pick with someone.

That person is Jonathon Blow.

Look, Mr. Blow gets a bit of flak for certain things he has no control over, I will admit. It is not like he wrote the gushing Atlantic article that called him “the video-game industry’s most cerebral developer” or the CBS news brief that called him “probably the most famous video game developer in the world.” We all have only a little control over our public persona sometimes, especially those of us who are fortunate enough to become newsworthy. Calling someone pretentious just because they are portrayed in a pretentious manner by other people strikes me as a bit intellectually dishonest, and truly mean-spirited in the fullest sense of the term. Perhaps that is why I held on to these feelings for so long.

The google image search for Jonathon Blow was just LOADED with goodies like this.
Behold a gaming auteur.

But here is my issue. Blow, either unconsciously or intentionally, has done little to diminish that image in the minds of his interviewers or the public, implying (extremely loosely) that he tacitly agrees with its assessment. It does not help that his image as “the most dangerous gamer” is predicated on his outspoken criticisms of things like skinner-box style psychological tricks in games. Or the lack of intellectual heft behind mainstream games. Or the fear of innovation in game design. Criticisms that, quite frankly, strike me as commonplace and rather banal when one thinks about it.

See, Blow is not the only person making these criticisms, and by themselves the criticisms have large merit. He is, however, the only one making these criticisms while simultaneously clouding himself in a shroud of intentional blindness. Ken Levine has often talked about making games that refuse to talk down to players (similar to Blow’s wish to see games made for those with long attention spans), but Levine does not make a point of highlighting his dismissive refusal to play modern games in interviews. This dismissal does Blow a disservice by denying him the tools he needs to create constructive criticisms.

This refusal to play would be one thing if Blow had at least some pedigree behind his name. But here again he falls a bit short. To wit he has released only a single game, a raucously successful game that only the most biased of haters would call less than interesting, but still a single game. And even THAT game was hardly the groundbreaking thought piece the media (and to an implied degree, Blow) made it out to be. To be sure, it attempted. I am not so jaded as to think Blow littered the narrative with poetic stream-of-consciousness verse just to be trendy. My problem is that he wielded those tools like a high school freshman who has discovered Tom Stoppard. The game knew smart, hip things will occasionally use that style of verse, but failed to recognize that one needs to justify its use. It was empty, pedantic, and self indulgent in the way it set itself up to appear “smart,” but one quick look behind the narrative’s curtains quickly revealed a liberal arts student performing a shadow play with sock puppets.

So long as that play pushes the envelope of kitten play in ways that ignores the derivative nature of AAA kitten play models.
Jonathan Blow has even been known to enjoy the play of kittens.

That all being said, I suppose I cannot be too harsh on the man behind the game…even if he has no idea what the word “pretentious” actually means. Blow can always take my criticism and set it on fire with the money he made off of Braid as kindling. Hell, the man even used some of his money for poverty relief and to help found and fund Indie Fund, a group which helped Dear Esther and even Monaco. It is really hard to dismiss his charitableness and his willingness to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to his beliefs. Neither of those admirable traits, however, discounts him from being poorly able to recognize his comparative normality in a sea of critical designers.

So there we have it, Lusipodpeople! What about your thoughts? Does Jonathon Blow deserve the praise he receives from certain circles of gaming and the mainstream press? Did Braid tickle your brain in just the right way? Feel free to let us know in the comments!

11 comments

  1. So what you are telling me is that this fellow refused to contradict journalistic puff-pieces written about him, whilst also showing open contempt for mainstream gaming, and producing high-brow indy games which people with a similar contempt for mainstream gaming might enjoy playing?!

    JONATHAN BLOW IS WORSE THAN HITLER! D:

  2. Good ol’ Jo Blow (I don’t know how he hasn’t gotten that nickname by now), he does seem a bit like a robot doesn’t he? I didn’t play Braid because its mechanic didn’t thrill me on first blush, and I’ve just not had time or desire to get into it since. I have enjoyed the soundtrack, though. Beautiful.

    What surprises me is how he got all this fame just off of Braid. I mean, when I looked back on it, it seemed like a nice indie title, but it sure as hell caught a ton of attention for a platformer in released in ’09. Maybe it was the right place and time, when indie devs were starting to become more successful along the likes of Notch.

    I know there’s some kind of “deep” narrative behind Braid, but I’ve never read it since I haven’t played the game so I don’t know anything about it. But I do know that complexity for the sake of complexity is just bad writing.

  3. He’s quite outspoken, which means that his Twitter-feed is always good for an article on a slow news day.

    It is no mystery as to how he got such penetration into gaming media.

  4. I feel like there’s a lot of that going on around twitter, but I suppose it made it his job to be seen.

  5. I never played Braid, and I doubt I ever will. I agree that the man gets too much praise for one title, because it’s too early to tell if that was a measure of his quality or a fluke. I am very interested in the Witness (which I’ll admit has everything to do with me liking beautiful landscapes and bright colours) and hope he proves to truly be a talented designer, and not the aforesaid fluke. As to the man himself, I’ve seen him speak only once, before presenting the Witness trailer before some live audience and he struck me as socially awkward and somewhat timid. And that I can certainly relate to.

  6. @Mel – I don’t think that is the case at all. Speaking your mind does not = trying to raise your media profile.

    If I happened to be a game developer with a breakout success on my hands, then what do you think people would say about me? I bet I could upset a very large quantity of people in a very short period of time.

  7. I guess it depends on how genuine you think he is. I don’t know him lol.

  8. But I do know that complexity for the sake of complexity is just bad writing.
    @Mel – And that is what I felt was going on with Braid. As I said in the article, it’s most definitely a good game, with the puzzles and the time mechanic and whatnot. Hell, if he had just dropped the modernist style prose out of the game entirely I don’t feel like I’d be having this issue with it; every time the story took place in the game (such as the very final stage) it was a pleasure and hinted at a real smart guy behind the design. But the excess writing flawed the whole product to the point of being, well, pretentious in its narrative.

    @SiliconNooB – C’mon, no need to be so harsh. Hitler? I’d aim for Goebbels. Maybe Goring.

    It isn’t so much that he makes his criticism – it’s that he makes his criticism while, in my opinion, not having much to stand on himself. He self-acknowledges that he refuses to play most AAA games, so he’s seemingly basing a lot of his observations on either scarce experience or outright dismissal. This leads to him ignoring or insulting the few (and they are few) intelligent, forward moving AAA releases that come out. The man compared “The Walking Dead” to “Dog Food rebranded as People Food.” Jaded cynicism gets you to a point, but if one is so caught up in their narrative of Indie = Good / AAA = Bad that they are unwilling to acknowledge when those lines fudge, one is just being dumb.

    The further problem is that the narrative that has erupted around him, one which he has tended in interviews and speaking arrangements, is one of a lone voice in the wilderness. But he isn’t. His criticisms are widely held by a plethora of journalists, players, and designers. They’re the right criticisms, but it seems to be me that his belief that he is the sole person delivering them to be utterly false.

    It’s a real shame, because he really has done good. His game is good (if pretentious), but it’s no Bastion when it comes to great Indie narratives. His work on improving conditions for Indie developers to work deserves equal praise. But then he opens his mouth and I’m like, “Don’t ruin it. Don’t ruin all the good will you’ve built up with me.” And he does. And I cry.

    @Wolfe – Braid is still worth a day of play if you’re ever interested in seeing what the kerfluffle is about, but I agree- I hope he isn’t a fluke and I’m very interested to see how The Witness pans out. Apparently it’s supposed to be like Myst but with a bit more self-conscious design on the Puzzle Front, which intrigues me to no end. And I would love to see if Blow’s writing improves at all.

  9. I have also taken issue with a few of his criticisms – but I don’t tend to agree with anyone 100% of the time.

    In terms of his views on gaming he still has a better strike-rate than a lot of game “journalists”.

  10. I’m late to this discussion, partly because I do not have a strong opinion on Blow himself – largely from a lack of familiarity of things he has said – so I initially felt like I would have nothing to contribute to this discussion, but that was selling myself a little short. I am grateful for strong voices like Blow’s, regardless of how strongly I may agree or disagree with him when it comes to that.

    Because I have – at least – played Braid and while I also felt he was being indulgent, I am very glad for it. I am sick of measured and safe and minute writing in games. I would far rather have bombastic buffoonery with at the very least a semblance of a mind behind it than inane vapid drivel.

    Also, I think it’s okay for somebody’s mind to be reason enough to be given continued attention. Blow only has one game, but it gave him the spotlight and he has used the spotlight to present ideas and opinions, and while these ideas and opinions may appear to be – or might actually be – banal or commonplace, I believe that that is only on a surface level. Two people could have a distaste of Call of Duty, but one might articulate his reasons with far more convincing and interesting intellectual vigour.

    I understand that I am somewhat defending Blow’s intellect after admitting to not be very familiar with it, but I suppose it is an extension of my frustration that when big ideas or bold statements or true intellectual discourse occurs in the gaming community, it is so often dismissed as art student drivel. And while it sometimes may very well be, I find it is more often either a fear or lack of understanding or some uninteresting desire to be all-encompassing that causes people to write off such discussion.

    We need more gaming philosophers, even if they are occasionally – or even often – pretentious and insufferable. It’s why I actually agree with your piece on Peter Molyneux. The man makes terrible games, but I love that he is a personality in the community.

    So bring on the Blow.

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