What a Load of Blow
This week, The Atlantic wrote an extensive profile/preview piece on Jonathan Blow and his upcoming game, The Witness, titled "The World’s Most Dangerous Gamer". Before reading this Op-Ed, I encourage all of you to click over to The Atlantic and read the story. It’s quite long and will probably take 15-30 minutes of your time.
I think most gamers will agree that Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, is a pretty heady guy. Braid was/is a non-traditional game that stretched the boundaries (and brains) of most games and gamers. With its introspective gameplay, soft music and humanistic theme, it represents an antithesis and departure away from big budget titles like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Halo. In short, it’s a great 'statement' game for the (ever-ongoing) 'games as art' debate. For all intents and purposes, Braid put Blow on the map and made him the king of indie darlings.
That being said, he’s kind of an idiot to gamers, game makers and the industry as a whole, and Taylor Clark and The Atlantic not only gave him a pulpit, but also pushed his radical message further than any gamer should accept.
Although video games long ago blossomed into full commercial maturity (the adrenaline-soaked military shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, for example, racked up $400 million in sales during its first 24 hours in stores last fall), the form remains an artistic backwater, plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels.
I think most level-headed gamers will agree that a lot of games are mindless at the core. The best selling games of 2011 were:
1 - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
2 - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
3 - Battlefield 3
I’ll go so far as to say that none of these games makes a great, intellectual statement on the human condition (a case could be made that some of the events in Skyrim allude to a deeper statement on the human condition vis-à-vis the civil war, racial overtones and the nature of being an outcast), but it’s easy to attack games as being puerile when you only take a cursory glance at the gameplay and thematic structure of the most popular titles. I’ll go so far as to say that many popular games invite such an examination, but to condemn an entire industry and emerging art form based solely its blockbusters is irresponsible. Yes, there is ample evidence that games could do with some variation and evolution in theme, but that’s true in every medium. If non-game-playing society wants to start hammering games and gamers for being consumers of mindless crap, they need only to look at themselves in the mirror and really examine the media that they enjoy consuming.
For instance, compare the previous list of 2011 best-selling Xbox games, to the top-grossing films of 2011:
1 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
2 - Transformers: Dark of the Moon
3 - The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
Where is The Atlantic piece bashing Transformers for not being The Tree of Life? Why aren’t they lambasting television culture for making/watching crap like Jersey Shore, American Idol, and NCIS and not making/supporting more 'challenging' shows like Arrested Development and Downton Abbey. In short, you can cast stones at video games, their culture and their creators all you want, but the problem with 'mindless entertainment' is that it’s exactly what the public wants.
There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. In games, brick-shaped men yell catchphrases like "Suck pavement!" and wield giant rifles that double as chain saws, while back-breakingly buxom women rush into combat wearing outfits that would make a Victoria’s Secret photographer blush. In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding.
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I won’t go so far as to say this point is total bunk, but the greatest flaw in logic continues to be that Clark and Blow judge games only by their "blockbusters" (no praise given to the "handful of truly smart games") and, in doing so, only take the most cursory look at the narrative while negating any possible chance to look at a deeper meaning. While it is true that most popular games are about killing bad guys, you can also turn that same simplistic view on every medium. To put it a different way, the view taken here would be akin to me saying that Citizen Kane is just about an unhappy, rich man who dies while wanting a sled, and Hamlet is about a whiny, entitled boy who can’t get over the death of his father and hates his mom and step-dad. Isn’t oversimplification fun!?
Take a game like BioShock; on its surface, it’s a game about running around and killing people. You know what else it’s about? The objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand and the nature of the individual. What makes us human? Why do we do the things we do? Are we truly independent thinkers or slaves to an ideal, a society, a dogma? Are you a man or are you a cog in the machine, pulling on the great chain of society, serving only the will of your masters while casting aside your own wants and needs?
What about Red Dead Redemption? Hollywood has constantly bemoaned the death of the Western, but Rockstar suddenly found a way to make the formula work with the tale of a reformed outlaw, working against most of his newly reformed morals in a quest to regain his family, nay his soul. An ill-informed outsider could look at it and say, "It’s a game about hunting people down."
Furthermore, many game developers should be insulted by the tone of this story in its insinuation that Jonathan Blow is some sort of artistic messiah, here to rescue the industry from drivel. To imply such is a spit in the face to highly-artistic (and much more personal) developers like Ken Levine, Tim Schafer, Markus Persson and the team at thatgamecompany, who are constantly working to innovate and push the boundaries of narrative and gameplay.
In conclusion, I will say that Clark and Blow make some points that resonate. In my opinion, we should be wanting games that challenge us on more than a gameplay level. I hope I’m not alone in saying that I hunger for more games like BioShock, Braid, and Portal, games that make you think, make you challenge the way you think and really shoot for a deeper intellectual/emotional meaning and examination… just like any good book or film. Such experiences are the gaming equivalent to 'brain food'. Much like a sumptuous meal, these games are needed to keep your gaming brain healthy and growing. That being said, there’s no shame in enjoying a bit of 'brain candy' (like Call of Duty) now and then. In the end, THAT is what Blow and Clark are gunning for here, they want you (and the industry) to be ashamed of liking and making brain candy.
I think the big statement to take away is that we live in a harsh world; many of us work jobs we hate, go to schools we loathe, and have boring day-to-day lives. Everyone has the right to switch off for an hour or two a night and enjoy some brain candy, no matter what Blow and Clark say.