Misunderstanding

When you spend enough time around academics, creative people, and other assorted intellectuals, you notice eventually that they tend to fall into one of two broad categories: people who care about ideas, and people who care about names. There are those who read about concepts because they find them fascinating to think about and rewarding to weave into their lives, their art, their beliefs. Others read the works of famous thinkers so they can say they’ve read them.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that these are two entirely separate groups of people, of course. It can be hard to wrap your head around ideas, so when you do, you probably want to tell somebody. We all sometimes fall into the trap of sounding boastful or arrogant when we’re trying to sound smart.

However, every now and then you run into somebody who has bought uncritically into the idea of knowledge as social capital, obsessively accumulating and performing it to climb an imaginary cultural hierarchy. It’s hard to miss these people, really, as they insist on making themselves heard even when they have nothing to say. They’re accustomed to thinking of conversations as contests, and care less about contributing to discussions than they do about winning them, citing unrelated concepts left and right until they namedrop-kick everyone into stunned silence.

That’s the kind of person Jonathan Blow feels like to me. He wants to make smart games, but more than that, he wants us to know how smart his games are. So he fills them with inspirational quotes by the likes of Einstein (attributed of course, lest the gravity of the reference is lost on us), and apparently weird Youtube videos about how science is nobler than art. He abhors ambiguity, which threatens the profound message he intends to deliver to us, but enjoys being vague to make his work more challenging.

For all his lofty aspirations, however, his design ethos is rooted in some messy categories and simplistic or downright naive assumptions. When asked about his design approach, his responses often end up painting it as an innate, inexplicable talent, a common attitude among people who like to consider themselves exceptional. Rather than situating art in the intertextual web and social contexts that shaped it, this view rids it of context by framing it as the spontaneous and original creation of a genius mind. The line this stance draws between talented individuals and regular people is mirrored in his seemingly binary view of good programmers vs. bad programmers. Or good aesthetics vs bad aesthetics.

He often earns himself ridicule on Twitter for acting like the textbook example of an oblivious, privileged artist. Most recently, when he made the rather weird decision to tweet this image, which plays into the trope of the self-destructive artist who demonstrates commitment through self-denial, a notion that encourages harmful behavior and demeans those who are not fortunate enough to be able to subsist on art alone and therefore can’t afford to devote their lives entirely to it.

The real reason people respond so harshly whenever he makes an ill-considered statement, however, isn’t outrage over his propensity to put his foot in his mouth, but frustration with the ideology he represents. Although the obsession with knowledge, rational thought and hidden truths that Blow demonstrates masquerades as a harmless interest in science, the desire to find a simple set of rules behind any phenomenon is also a huge driving force of reactionary politics.

You can see this mentality at work when people blame the poor for not being more careful with their spending, or shame fat people for their dietary choices. In reality, the interlocking systems that affect our economic situation and body shape are far too complex to draw a straight line from cause to effect. These judgements are based on a reductive understanding of the underlying processes, but they carry the air of logical reasoning and so present an effective way to reframe prejudice as a scientific position.

It’s a very appealing ideology. Not only does it elevate its politics to the level of objective reasoning, far above the opinions of less rational folk, it enables its disciples to perceive the circumstances of their lives as meaningful consequence. If the rules of the universe are as simple as they believe, then their current fortune is the result of a few good decisions on their part rather than a million lucky dice rolls.

This has about as much to do with science as a renaissance fair has to do with history. When you view the pursuit of knowledge as a means to a cultural end - like having your game seen as smart - specific insights are irrelevant to your quest. It’s form that matters: the symbolism, the iconography, the terminology, the practices, all torn from their intended frameworks and performed ritualistically. It’s science fanboy-ism, is what it is.

None of this is intended to say it’s wrong to make or enjoy a game about clockwork systems or finding hidden meaning in your environment. Yet when the same game is propounding that this search for patterns and rules is more noble, more honest, more truthful than self expression, my eyebows end up wandering to the top of my skull. Jonathan Blow may mean no harm, but the ideology his games are steeped in is far from harmless.

Noncompliance

I doubt that I need to point out at this stage that I don’t care for The Witness. The game has been in development basically since forever and I knew the whole long time that I would not care for it. Still, with the reputation Blow has in this community, it seemed equally inevitable that it would be well-received, and when the release of the game drew near, I expected to spend the next few weeks feeling very alienated on social media in between glowing reviews and screenshots of pipe mazes presented with calls for help or boasts of success.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to be completely sucker-punched by this gem of a text from Lulu Blue.

It may be a bit early to make that call, but I’m pretty sure this is the most important thing that will ever be written about The Witness. I think it’s spot-on, and I think it comes at the game from an angle I didn’t expect game criticism to cover, especially not this early in the game’s hype cycle. Yet most of the response from the critical community seems to consist of finger-wagging at the tone of the text, which is doing the article a disservice.

First things first: Obviously, it’s unhelpful and mean-spirited to simply call The Witness stupid. This is so obvious, in fact, that I am surprised to see people take the claim at face value, as if Blue was simply attacking the game out of malice or spite, as if a writer taking on high-minded ideas would throw around insults so carelessly. The moralizing responses of other critics imply that Blue is acting like an outraged internet commenter and needs to show respect, but I think these calls to order betray a misunderstanding of the situation. The post isn’t calling The Witness “stupid” to cause offense, but to challenge its unquestioned status as a “smart” game.

And that, frankly, is amazing.

You see, when a game is considered clever by the gaming community for whatever reason - the ideas it references, the intellectual airs or earlier works of its creators - it can go remarkably far without its ideas, themes and politics ever coming under close scrutiny from our critical apparatus.

Near the release of The Witness, we may joke for a while about pee jars, Tai Chi, and Google Alerts, but after a few rounds of harmless puns, everyone will pipe down again (or be asked to pipe down), because the consensus in our timeline is that Jon Blow gets to have these little quirks and gets to say all the weird things he says because the games he makes are just so interesting, aren’t they? Besides, we’re all supposed to hold judgement until release, it’s bad form to discuss creators instead of games, even though it’s these people and their work and design ethos that shape their games in the first place.

Then the game comes out, and so do the early reviews, all praise and enthusiasm. Perhaps they grill the game over technical issues or length, or warn readers that it might not be their thing exactly, but for critics at this stage to look at a game’s ideas and then dismiss them as without merit is incredibly rare.

There are many understandable reasons for this: sometimes writers don’t feel like they’re equipped to analyze these heady concepts, and focus on analyzing the game-y parts instead. Sometimes they assume that is what their audience expects of them (and they are not wrong). Sometimes it’s because they’ve been trained that professionalism means playing nice and focusing on the good sides, of which I’m sure the Witness has plenty (it’s gorgeous, for one thing). Sometimes they are reluctant to criticize “smart” games because they’re worried people will stop making them if the community isn’t encouraging enough. Sometimes all the “smart” stuff happens so late in the game that their ability to discuss it is obstructed by their audience’s fear of spoilers.

Whatever the reason, at this stage most discussion of a game’s intent, message or subtext is limited to nodding along with its creator’s claims or maybe making vague, ominous statements that everything is not the way you have been led to believe.

In the following weeks and months, a lot of people are going to present their dissenting opinions, but at this point the conversation has moved on from being about the game itself to being about the initial response to the game. That second wave of critics doesn’t come in late because they used the extra time to craft a more thorough and thoughtful breakdown of the game, but because they saw the early reviews and now want everyone to know how misguided their enjoyment and appreciation are. Can’t you see that Game X did it first and Game Y did it better? Can’t you see how refined and intelligent their tastes are?

Here too, the core of the game goes ignored, it is simply a contrarian exercise some critics like to indulge in, reflexively rejecting the mainstream to distinguish themselves.

So it usually isn’t until a few months or years after release, if at all, that people start to look at the ideas and politics of “smart” games and to criticize them on a level that, up until this point, everyone just kind of assumed was as good as everyone else said. Of course, at this stage most of the damage is already done, all the nodding, all the “Isn’t it interesting?” and all the “We need to talk about this game!” have hoisted it into the pantheon of our medium’s history. Now anyone who wants to ask very basic questions about it must be willing to play the role of the iconoclast, tearing down one of our culture’s sacred idols.

Games criticism, in its current form, is the eager accomplice of canon. We happily turn the alleged importance of “smart” games into self-fulfilling prophecies, placing their creators on the thrones of a history we’ve allowed them to write. Clearly they earned their place, this is a meritocracy after all, whose values they were allowed to prescribe. Like every list of great works, the main operation of our canon is exclusion. When you draw lines to define the domain of true art, you also end up defining what falls outside of it: the counter cultures, the novel aesthetics, the niche tastes.

This is the system we built, and it was primed and ready to receive the next masterpiece of genius game designer Jonathan Blow. Everyone was ready to nod their head sagely at its immense cleverness and profundity until all future reference would have to be made in hushed tones or cheeky irreverence. Then, just as everyone is drawing their breath to begin effusing praise, Lulu Blue steps in and says the unthinkable: this does not deserve our time, this does not deserve our attention. There is nothing to be found inside this game. The Emperor is actually naked.

It’s unheard of. Even when harsh reviews of these games are written, they never go so far as to question their importance. Even the worst Emperor still deserves a monument in their honor, surely? Blue’s text is a daring attempt to resist this system of veneration, putting forward the simple, radical idea that we do not have to talk about this game (the great irony of their text and mine being that we talk about the game in the process of making this point).

Perhaps you think it’s unfair to single out Blow to address this kind of systemic issue. You’re not wrong. Nor is this process fair to the creators whose works go ignored while the videogame intelligentsia churns out thinkpiece after thinkpiece on Blow’s design process, his inspirations, his exercise regimen. He does not deserve to be attacked simply for being successful, but he also does not deserve to have his games talked about just because.

And really, if you’re looking for an example of a game that wants to look more important than it is, you could hardly find a more egregious offender.

This article was created with the help of Patreon. If you’d like to see more games writing of a similarly heady bent, and have money to spare, please consider supporting me on there.