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.
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.
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!