I had a chat with my friend James Hawkins about The Atlantic’s article on Jonathan Blow that has been getting a fair bit of attention lately. Blow seems to take his games very seriously as a medium to convey a message, and looks with disdain on the many mainstream games that aim for entertainment instead. As a result he’s seen as a bit pretentious to some (not much of an insult in gaming as Chris Remo points out) or even arrogant, but I think he recognizes gaming’s potential and feels frustration at being the lone (loud) voice on the topic.
A creation in any medium can be entertaining or artistic or some measure of both. Gaming is really good at the former, and there are examples of the latter, but perhaps because of its interactive nature it’s difficult for games to offer some kind of artistic insight while still handing the reins to the player. With a player in control of the flow and direction of a game, successfully communicating themes or messages from the author can be difficult.
Unfortunately it’s a poorly explored territory and I respect Blow for pushing the boundaries here, especially in an occasionally hostile environment. Clark, the author of the article, notes ‘the mainstream video-game community has proved uninterested in exploring Braid’s hidden depths’, which Blow talked about briefly in Indie Game: The Movie. We’re in an unfortunate chicken-and-egg situation: Most gamers expect entertainment-heavy games, so that’s what developers make (and publishers finance). This is probably best illustrated in pretty much any video game review site you find on the internet, which will judge a game by pretty graphics and how addicting it is.
The best part of Braid is that, though it was clearly a complex and layered game thematically it was also a very entertaining game, especially for exploring the dynamics of the time-manipulation mechanics. If the taste of the average gamer is to be extended past Call of Duty, it’ll be games strong in both entertainment and artistic value like Braid that will do it.