Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jonathan Blow and Games as Art

Amy knows that I'm sort of fascinated by the idea of video games as art.  I think that she's sort of interested in it as well.
At any rate, she sent me a really interesting article from The Atlantic by Taylor Clark about video game designer Jonathan Blow.  If you're interested in video games and their potential at all, I would really recommend it.
(this island from The Witness might ultimately prove just
as confusing as the one on Lost)
Jonathan Blow is the video game designer and producer who created Braid, a game that I've read about and watched videos of, but never actually played.  Braid is said to be remarkable in that it's meant as a sort of psychological journey and metaphor.  The themes of the game, the music, the gameplay and the artwork are all said to be designed with an eye toward inducing introspection and reflection in the player.  Blow's upcoming game, The Witness, is said to be similarly designed with an eye toward observation, contemplation, interpretation, and revelation.  It seeks to engage players in a calming, intellectually challenging environment.  As with Braid, The Witness sounds as if it stands in stark contrast to the hyperkinetic, frantic, adrenaline-fueled experiences created by the vast majority of games currently on the market.
When people try to link the words "video games" and "art" together, Blow's name is usually on a pretty short list of designers who produce games that might fit the bill.  Blow, by his own admission, seeks to do nothing less than create games which make insightful statements about the human condition and universal human experience. 

Clark's article in The Atlantic left me with some mixed feelings about Blow's motivations and work.  Actually, maybe I wasn't even conflicted about the work that Blow is doing (I think he's almost indisputably doing a very good thing and growing the videogame, as a medium, in a positive new direction) so much as I was slightly surprised by the dismissive, sort of condescending tone that he takes with pretty much the entirety of video games as they've evolved up to this point.   Blow undoubtedly sees a potential for video games that few other people have refused to even take seriously, let alone attempt to fulfill.  He understands video games as being not only a genuinely artistic medium, but one with the potential to create unique experiences that no other medium can replicate.  Blow believes that games cannot only be used to convey messages, but that their interactive nature can be used to guide players toward reaching their own insights and revelations, seamlessly blending their form with the function that they seek to achieve.
In short, Blow is a smart guy, and he might be genuinely deserving of the title of .  His approach to games is so ambitious that it almost tempts a person to come up with a term other than "video games" in the attempt to describe the sort of experiences that he envisions. 
On the other hand, Blow remains someone who's working in a field that is not without history and precedent, and although he may not really appreciate the current state of modern gaming, it's probably worth considering the evolutionary history of modern gameing before completely dismissing the form that they currently take.  For starters, video games need to work on a practical level, provide engaging experiences that people will pay actual money to buy.
For one thing, our larger American society has sort of yet to move beyond the point where we think about video games in the way that Blow would have us do. He wants a more intellectual, adult audience for his games, and if he might get one if he and other ambitious game makers continue to produce more high minded products. I'm not sure, however, that this audience that he seeks exists at this moment. Even if he does manage to create such an audience for his games, my guess is that it's going to end up being a select subsection of the larger video game market. I don't think Blow is going to end up transforming the entire video game world. I think he's going to create a category of games that appeal only to a certain type of person or that other people purchase in order to have available to them when they're in a certain sort of mood.

As I read the article about what Blow and a few other small handful of gamers are attempting to achieve, I couldn't help but be impressed by their dedication and devotion to creating not just better games, but to an entirely different kind of experience- one that might genuinely elevate video game play onto a level that might almost indisputably be called art.  I'm glad to see that people are trying to move the whole gaming experience forward.  I genuinely believe that different variations of the video game experience are likely to be as important to future generations as film, television, and music have been up to this point.
The point of disagreement that I have with Blow, as I've said, comes in the snobbery and condescension with which he treats almost all other modern games.
It's true that a lot of popular modern games involve violence, combat, and lots and lots of action.  But to hear Blow (and by extension, his mouthpiece for this article, Taylor Clark) tell it, the evolution of the modern video game as an action-packed, combative form of entertainment is either purely coincidental or the result of sleazy, unethical scheming on the part of game designers who randomly decided to cram bloodshed down every one's throat as a preferred method of making a quick buck.
I think the truth is a little more open for discussion.
Game companies and game designers have been delivering combat, violence, and action for years not simply because these are the easiest things to program (some of the violent games, in fact, involve intense production, amazing artwork, and fairly complex game mechanics).  Instead- and I think that this is the part which is so vexing to Blow- I think that modern video games are visceral, escapist entertainment simply because so much of their audience craves these sorts of themes.
In saying this, I'm not trying to make a cynical, dismissive statement about he hunger of modern audiences for violence.
For a long, long time there has been an often discussed (if not always clearly delineated) difference in the art world between high and low art.  High art has typically been thought of as a more intellectual approach to art- more thought provoking, more stimulating, and often relying upon greater levels of education or powers of perception from its audience.  Lower art (or popular art) has often been seen as more accessible to (and some times more representative of) a broader class of people.  Lower art is often thought of as more decoratively symbolic.  It can be more escapist, providing for a refuge from the daily difficulties of life as opposed to presenting an intellectual challenge that must be overcome.
I tend to see Blow's work as something akin to higher art, while Call of Duty and Halo may fill more of a lower art niche.
And there's nothing wrong with the lower art niche, in my opinion.
We've always had folk music and rock and roll which stood as counterpoints to symphony and opera.
It's easy to be dismissive of games that contain a lot of action and violence, but these games, at the same time, are typical narrative works in which the player takes on the role of some sort of hero who is fighting against and trying to overcome evil.  That sort of story has been with us since the days of Greek mythology, and almost certainly long before.  Blow can say what he wants about the stupidity of the bloodshed and violence, but even our oldest myths and fairytales contain stories of heroes fighting against monsters and the oppression of evil men.
Furthermore, on an emotional level, action games are satisfying in a way that are not only visceral and exciting, but also cathartic and, in a strange way, orderly.  A person may go through their day suffering all sorts of unfairness, frustration, and annoyance involving work, the boss, fellow students, finances, romantic difficulties, etc., etc..  The world can, of course be stressful, frustrating, messy, and unfair.  Not only the good guy not always win in the real world, but he often endures many of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" just to get through his day.
So isn't it sort of understandable that a fair number of gamers, when it comes time to flip on their machines and escape from the world for a while, just want a chance to enter a realm where ultimately the righteous will triumph and where the bad guys are not only clearly delineated but also capable of being dispatched in spectacular fashion with some sort of high powered weapon? 
I'm glad that Blow is making games that will challenge people to really think (and such games definitely have a role), but much of the time video games represent a chance for people to escape to a world where they don't want to think so much as simply have the chance to decisively overcome obstacles.  On many days, the real world just sort of falls short in offering us those sorts of opportunities...

You can probably see where I'm going with this.  I tend to think that Blow is really shooting for a "high art" experience in video gaming, whereas the vast majority of video games are created as escapist entertainment for a gaming community that gaming companies see as more of a "low art" sort of crowd.
I really think it's cool that Blow is designing more advanced, ambitious, high minded games, but, for me, anyway, I think that these sorts of artistic games are likely to simply gain a place on my shelf right alongside some of the more traditional, action-oriented fare.
If I'm in the sort of mood to challenge myself or expand my horizons, I'll probably reach for one of Blow's games.  If I want to work off some of the frustration of my workday and enjoy a story, I might reach for Mass Effect.
I'm genuinely happy to have more artistic options, but I guess I was slightly bothered by Blow's seemingly abject rejection of action-adventure games as they currently exist.
Even with options out there that are meant to challenge my cognitive abilities and make me grow as a person, I know that there will be some nights when I just want to shoot zombies.
Still, I look forward to trying The Witness.  It sounds really interesting, and I'm definitely curious to see if it's as cool in practice as it sounds in theory.


The League said...

Its an interesting article. I can't help but feel reminded of the hypertext people from the 1990's who were convinced that the fact that you could now click through branching options meant that the concept of a linear narrative without participation would mean that basically stories and books as we knew them would become irrelevant as users interacted with the flow of the narrative or clicked to find out more about specific characters, etc...

Some of that has occurred in video games.

I wonder if the world of better narratives Blow is seeking is limited by a mix of programming capability, the limitations of a controller with less than a dozen buttons on it, and the inability to ever perform functions the game didn't anticipate or make room for.

To some extent, I wonder if it's a programming and processing issue. But given our seeming cultural bent toward passively engaging in a story (and the failure of the hypertext concept to take off after 20 years), it sort of makes sense that the part we want to engage in is the part that's basically "Duck Hunt" (which is a clear narrative in the title, btw).

I'm not a game theorist nor a gamer, but a lot of Blow's rhetoric reminds me of the mid-90's discussions for what people thought the internet was going to make happen. And then we all watched cat videos.

J.S. said...

Well, there will always be people watching cat videos or doing something equivalent (although I can tell you, from experience, that not all cat watchers only watch cat videos). I think most people recognize that evidence games haven't even come close to reaching their full potential, though. I'm not sure that Blow's games are really taking a big step toward moving gaming forward (to be honest, I think he might be overselling his actual products a bit), but at least he's taking the crucial step of not only rethinking what games can be, but trying to design a genuinely different set of games as well.

The League said...

I guess part of why I brought up the hypertext folks is that part of what fell apart for them was that they were trying to manage the heavy lifting work of writing novels and conveying of theme, intent, character, etc... now across multiple branches, but it didn't necessarily follow that the audience wanted to go there with the author. They didn't WANT to keep experiencing the same story from multiple angles, no matter how potent the content.

What I guess I'm wondering is if the work done by the person gathering the intent and themes is done in sub-routine as the primary function is processing the story and plotting itself. Playing a game and making those interactive decisions doesn't actually do much to do more to convey the intent and themes, and they must, by necessity, be delivered at least somewhat on rails or with a breadcrumb trail to get you there. At that point, why are you doing work at all?

Why not just experience the story as a passive observer?

I think that's the biggest challenge to overcome for Blow. I haven't played the games described, but its hard not to see the same enthusiasm from the author I remember about the hypertext geeks. I am glad the writer mentioned its not just an M. Night "TWIST!" he's referring to (because, man, it sure feels like it from his description), but its also hard to buy that this is working successfully when the author himself can't figure out what he's supposed to be getting from the "deeper meaning", but assures us its there. That's a failure on Blow's part, not a "feature".

J.S. said...

Well, I'm not sure that it refutes your overall argument, but the author actually did pretty much figure out the meaning of Braid, and Blow confirmed it, right? Also, I think that games don't necessarily lose their unique quality in terms of emotional impact just because you''re on a breadcrumb trail. Also, some games have different outcomes and plotlines that can be reached depending on decisions made in the game. To carry out the movie metaphor, you may use only certain sets and other characters (some may never be used) based on your choices, and your choices may influence the final ending of the game (and it's message to some extent- see The Suffering, where you turn out to either be a villain or a martyr depending on the morality of in game decisions).