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.
“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.
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?