Jonathan Blow is the Most Pretentious Man on Earth

Jonathan Blow is the Most Pretentious Man on Earth

I kind of liked Braid. It didn’t deserve all the ridiculous hyperbole surrounding it but it was not bad. It had some cool puzzle mechanics and the art was interesting. However, the alleged message it presented was horribly implemented through (mercifully skippable) infodumps near the end of the game, much like Chrono Cross or one of the Matrix sequels. That’s just sloppy storytelling and I would have liked Braid better if it had ditched the story entirely and just been a rad puzzle game like it obviously wanted to be.

Braid is intrinsically linked with its creator, Jonathan Blow. Speaking as someone with a name like a Phoenix Wright character, I’m not going to make fun of his surname. It’s his personality that has earned mockery.

If you don’t hate the man behind Braid already, you will after reading this.

“Blow is the only developer on the planet who gives lectures with titles like ‘Video Games and the Human Condition.’”

Is this serious? Go to any English classroom or gaming blog and you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting someone who thinks they have the secret video games decoder ring to unlocking the meaning of life. The fact that Blow actually made a game instead of just pontificating is a mark in his favor, but that doesn’t make him some sort of visionary because he thinks that throwing loads of text at in your game equals brilliant subtext. So he thought he could make a better version of Blinx: The Time Sweeper; good for him. But his game is not unique in any fashion, and his upcoming game WitMyst doesn’t look like it’ll innovate anything, either.

I like how every article about Braid can be broken down to “games are dumb, so Braid must be smart.” I guess Portal doesn’t count as a game that has a story, makes you think, and has engaging puzzles. These interviewers are acting like Braid sprouted fully-formed from Blow’s forehead without any outside influence.

What’s more is that Blow has a shockingly immature understanding of the concept of wealth:

“‘It just drives home how fictional money is,’ Blow said, squinting against the unseasonably bright December sun. ‘One day I’m looking at my bank account and there’s not much money, and the next day there’s a large number in there and I’m rich. In both cases, it’s a fictional number on the computer screen, and the only reason that I’m rich is because somebody typed a number into my bank account.’”

I guess he doesn’t comprehend money unless somebody hands him gold coins in big money bags with money symbols on them. You know what’s not fictional, Blow? The work that somebody did in exchange for the money that they gave you in exchange for the work you did. If you think that’s fictional, I can’t help you.

Blow doesn’t internalize that that money represents a trade; he treats it like it’s just a tick on a page that isn’t real until someone puts it there, and that’s as far as it goes. This is of course false, for most people who bought his game, before they had that money they had to trade valuable time and effort of a day’s work for it. For it to end up in Blow’s bank account, they would have had to consider what he made to be valuable enough to trade their hard-earned money for it. On the other hand, the ridiculous praise for Braid as “intelligent” or “art” IS literally, just arbitrary marks on a computer. No one has to expend any effort or make any sacrifice or tradeoff to call Braid “art.” You write it, people agree, instant free online social capital. That Blow sponges such notoriety while dismissing money of course says more about us than about him or the value of his game as actual art. “Put your money where your mouth is” is a cliché because it’s undeniably true that words are cheap but putting money toward something actually incurs a cost.

Blow’s Braid has generated a substantial amount of money, which undeniably proves he has created something that people value. However, of course Call of Duty games generate far more money (as seen last week, when the latest mediocrity in the series earned the gross domestic product of a third world nation in sales), and therefore would appear to be far more valuable than Braid. Crass commerce may make Braid successful, but in perspective a non-event. Certainly nothing interesting to write about. On the other hand people love novelties like bicycle-riding monkeys. They also like being told they are smart for holding “unorthodox” opinions you just gave them, the more unfalsifiable the better. Calling a game “art” fits the bill on both counts. It’s a participatory fiction between authors and readers in which you get to be told you’re smart and authors get page hits. If you buy Halo 4, all you get is your game and all Microsoft gets is your money; but buying Braid is a magical experience in which gamers, game journalists and Jonathan Blow all get to feel “special.” Multimillion dollar prolefeed shovelware just can’t do that for you.

So Blow understands money and art about as well as a Southern Baptist understands evolution. That’s not a good reason to hate him. His unbelievable hubris and myopia are good reasons to hate him.

I will gladly pay you Tuesday, for an artgame today.

“Blow intends to shake up this juvenile hegemony with The WitMyst, a single-player exploration-puzzle game set on a mysterious abandoned island. In a medium still awaiting its quantum intellectual leap, Blow aims to make The WitMyst a groundbreaking piece of interactive art—a sort of Citizen Kane of video games.”

And of course a “Citizen Kane of video games” line. You can’t talk about WitMyst, the upcoming game from the creator of the greatest work of art since the hanging gardens of Babylon, without dopily throwing in a comparison to Citizen Kane. Someone should make a violin soundtrack and backstory to Snood and call it Braid 2.

Some more recent info about WitMyst can be found in this article. Could it look any more like a certain best-selling 1993 adventure game if it tried? For all of his posturing about making amazing new things, Blow doesn’t appear to have a creative synapse in his entire body.

OK, I realize I’m coming across as bitter and petty. Let me pre-emptively address any claims that I’m just jealous of Blow’s success by saying OF COURSE I’m jealous of his success. For all of my gripes, he’s a model that I can at least partially admire. Blow made a halfway decent game that lots of people love, got rich off of it, and has the money to do whatever he wants. I might dislike him as a person but I certainly envy his career. He’s living the dream of every internet nerd who writes stuff about video games. The Witness might end up being something completely mind-blowingly innovative in a way I never would have expected. Blow will still be a pompous twat, but he’d have two pretty cool games under his belt, which is two more than I’ve ever created.

My ship will come in any day now.

Blow may be a withered, pathetic example of the self-indulgent navel gazing that plagues so many independent video game developers, but he’s also someone who beat the system, someone who started with nothing and became successful without any corporate aid. That is commendable. But can we please stop repeating this ridiculous fairy tale that he is an innovator?

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mesarphelous even though Twitter sucks.

Adventure, Platformer, This isn't just a video game this is ART you wouldn't understand it you plebian filth, Video Gaming

23 comments


  1. tony borell

    I never played braid, because I’m not an insufferable twit (most of the time anyway). Whatever, puzzle games are classist.

  2. Do you think his art pretentiousness is just a marketing ploy? Is it just his angle to sell more games to his niche market?
    Not bad marketing, especially if the one doing the marketing believes it.

  3. Alan Abdollahzadeh

    This is honestly the most idiotic and one-sided blog post I have ever seen in my life. You are a sad man trying to get attention, and I must say, it worked. I recommend you delete this quickly so that you may not look like more of a total pretentious ass.

  4. T206

    I agree whole heartedly. I think that his next game will just be another average self promotion so he can be seen talking with that silly lisp.

  5. Jeru

    Such a true post. I admire your willingness to speak the truth about individuals like Blow. They claim to be “innovators,” yet they rehash the same old shit that they claim they’re moving the industry away from.

    The sad part is that these college-educated journalists buy it.

    I’ve played video games since the Atari 2600. It’s safe to say that just about everyone borrows ideas that they gain inspiration from. It happens in any medium, be it movies, music, even art. Don’t let these people try to tell you that they’re true innovators. They just want attention, and your money (even though they pretend to hate money). We all need to eat.

  6. Xanathos

    By two perspectives. This is post is exhibit of first, a recognition that influences of games must be acknowledged when someone makes a game. From books, games, movies, etc. There is some artistic influence, so, yes, genre-wise is not original. But no, the sum of all those genres plus the style the author puts on it gives a sense of originality. Saying is not original at all, doesn’t make sense.

    And from other perspective, by being money just a means to an end, like that guy says and that seems “fictional” wouldn’t it be acceptable to say that by the ephemeral nature of money (Admit it, it’s made to be spent) is kind of fictional of how come and goes, specially nowadays?

    I strongly recommend that before stating these thoughts, you try to put in the other shoes. Yeah, Jonathan Blow is no “oh-all-mighty” game designer, and it’s not a fully original game. But he made something new under the vision of what he thought was original. He’s not perfect. Yet he’s not bad either. And I don’t find his thinking unreasonable.

  7. anonymous writter

    Hi Lee,

    Some time ago I used to be a Jon’s fan. I really appreciated his talks, I thought it had a lot of innovative content, reflections about video-games that no one honestly had put together before him. And I still think it does, and enjoy his talks.

    But then I started following more closely his “trades” with other people on the internet, and I noticed he is a very, very self-centered man with an unbelievable hubris. That is unfortunate, because he is such an interesting person that has interesting things to say. But he can’t take even the slightest criticism, and he is always at a “higher level” than the others around him. It really saddens me to see he is this egomaniac. You can fell a pretentious air even from his friends.

    He kinda reminds me of Phil Fish, in his hubris and lack of ability to take any criticism. The only difference I see is that he knows a bit better how to deal with the internet and actually has some intelligence, while Phil is just an emotionally challenged pretentious delusional prick.

    What the hell happened to these guys? Kellee Santiago bullshit talk about “game as art”, (a speech that when I first watched I found absurdly ignorant in what regards art and the story of art) really damaged the minds of some of these old indie devs.

  8. Pingback: Jonathan Blow’s The Witness wallpaper / ideology | Alien Fiction!

  9. Lee

    And Jonathan Blow is still far more tolerable than Phil Fish. His game is better, too.

  10. You started strong, you finished fan-boy.

    Give in to the Jonathan Blow, you know he’s right a lot of the time.

  11. ghtregerg

    I’m glad I’ve never played Braid. It seems to have been made by the sort of pretentious hipster who forgets that games are not primary meant for a narrative the way books and movies are; they’re for having fun.

    The idea that perfectly enjoyable games without plots (Tetris, for instance) are somehow juvenile and unacceptable compared to excruciatingly boring art-house ‘games’ is rather sad. It’s like the people making this sort of thing have forgotten that games are intended as a source of enjoyment. Whether or not a narrative is involved, a game succeeds or fails based on whether or not it is fun to play.

    • Bluebell

      Movies do not have to depict a linear story or a narrative. The medium is capturing a continuous sequence of images and displaying them in order so as to give the illusion of movement. There’s no need for a narrative at all. It could just be documenting any process, such as the passage from day to night, the birth of an animal, or water flowing along a river. Similarly, books do not have to provide narratives. Usually novels do, but books can be anything from a collection of poems—poetry do not require narrative—to textbooks, which may contain instructions or information, or attempt to educate concepts, among other things.

      Games do not have to be “fun”. It is sufficient that they are engaging in some way. I think most people would not use the word “fun” to describe games like Journey, Walking Dead or Amnesia. For example, I think “scary” is the word many would use to describe Amnesia, and “scary” is not at all the same thing as “fun”. Movies like Requiem For A Dream and 12 Years A Slave are also probably not fun to watch but many certainly find them very engaging. On the other hand, a lot of people found Transformers very entertaining and many thought Blazing Saddles was very fun to watch. Games are also usually accepted as an educational tool, so they can be fun and engaging ways to learn something and that something can be anything from strategical thinking to the politics of international relations to how to count to ten to something intimate and personal about yourself.

      Games like Chess, Othello and Go have no narrative and are perfectly enjoyable games but they’re not considered juvenile and unacceptable. This idea that you claim exists and find sad sounds like a very silly idea. The concept of a game was thought of thousands of years ago and the idea that their purpose or intention should remain immutable and unchanged after such a long time with no motivation also sounds like a very silly idea.

  12. Lee

    Played an hour of The Witness. It’s alright. It’s a Myst clone; who would have guessed?

    • Czach

      Saying that The Witness is like a Myst Clone is like saying that Hamlet is a clone of the shitty tragedies that came before it. He does things similarly, but have you really seen someone do what the Witness has done to the farthest extent that Blow has done it? In Myst it’s like 5 instruments playing completely different melodies – while in The Witness it harmonizes all those elements together.

      The puzzles in Myst aren’t even thematically relevant to the narrative. On the other hand, Blow has jumped ahead in terms of psychologically reading the player to the point where he knew that the immersion would cause them to see the puzzles everywhere in real life – as seen by the tumblr here & the alternate ending: http://thewitnessirl.tumblr.com/

      Furthermore this holds thematic relevance to the various quotes in the game – which are about the perception of reality. We’ve seen environmental puzzles in games before, and we’ve seen static puzzles in games before – but have you experienced a moment where you were actually surprised at an environmental puzzle? Although these elements are a given in so many other games – this is the first time where the gamer is made so hyper-aware of the environment to the point of insane analysis. Just look at all the Lets Plays online to see people going into an insane environmental puzzle-looking rush when they find out the true nature of The Witness. And then Blow slaps them in the face by forcing them to watch the 50 minute long Secret of Psalm 46 video in order to pick up the environmental puzzle – which is about people going mad from easter egg searching. This would simply not be as powerful a psychological trap if it was found in something like Assassin’s Creed – because the player of Assassin’s Creed is not made innately aware of his collectible-hunting madness.

      Also, Myst is linear. Even with hubs, you can’t simply drop what you’re doing and go around searching the way you can in The Witness. That, by itself, is a completely different context of communication. Blow’s open world structure has meaning specific to the game itself (related to his core idea of being able to step back and widen your perception).

      So when you sit back after the whole experience, assuming you toughed out through it, you now have that immersion effect ingrained in your eyeballs from looking at 500 puzzles & environmental puzzles. You have both endings. You have all of the audio tapes that are talking about perception & the true nature of reality. You have the 6 videos. You have the beautiful scenery & atmospheric sounds in your head. All you have to do is to combine the dots (pun unintentional – but on hindsight, relevant) that have been granted to you viscerally through the game itself in order to realize what kind of work of art this is.

      That is, unmistakably, true innovation. I don’t understand how you can even say that that isn’t innovative at all. Sure, I agree that some parts may be overblown and could have been communicated better – but can you name a game that has really brought perspective up to the forefront by playing the player like a harp like that?

      (Take note that I have played Antichamber before, and while that is similar in execution – Antichamber does not ensure that all the pieces cohere to the extent that The Witness does – because it doesn’t even communicate much other than its own abstraction. There is simply no comparison.)

      • Czach

        Correction: you can drop your stuff to engage the world in Myst – but you can’t ‘explore’ the same way that you can in The Witness. In Myst it would be searching for logs & stuff. In The Witness it is literal engagement with the environment due to that ‘analysis binge’ that Blow pulled off.

        • Lee

          It’s a Myst clone the way all fighting games from the past 25 years are Street Fighter II clones. Regardless of improvements made (and The Witness is in fact a better game than Myst, for the reasons you stated and more) but it would never exist the way it is without its predecessor. I know that adventure games go back to Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976 at least, but almost everything after Myst took definite inspiration from it. But you do make a reasonable argument that The Witness is different enough to defy comparison, and I was perhaps being too harsh based on my dislike of the creator.

          There’s no excuse for the 50 minute long unskippable video, though.

  13. ClassyTom

    I don’t think blow ever claimed to be an innovator. All of his work is a genuine effort to improve the medium.
    I read somewhere that the first few years of film was mindless entertainment and it was only when “pretentious” people like Akira Kurosawa came along that films became so much more.

    • Lee

      He could improve the medium by designing games and not writing the scripts. Have you looked at the unskippable videos in The Witness? Awful stuff.

      Also odd that you admit Blow is not an innovator yet you compare him to Kurosawa, who is.

  14. Robin

    I do like puzzle games and was looking forward to The Witness. Then I found out it was a Blow game. I bought Braid, but I just could not stand all the pretentious written content. I don’t know if The Witness lacks this, but I’m not willing to shell out $40 to find out.

  15. Jerry

    Lee,
    I was interested in your article but a lot of you became to ridiculous to continue. You’re making fun of the fact that he wants people to see games can be deep like other media. You’re not being constructive, you’re just being toxic towards someone brave enough to try and cause some positive change compared to your pathetic mockery.

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