Jonathan Blow, Rob Bell, and the Mind of Christ (Part 1)

Jonathan Blow

The problem with articles like this and the “artgame” crowd, which encompasses Jonathan Blow, Jason Rohrer, etc… is their limited conceptions of art — they are unable to conceive of art beyond the elements of aesthetics (i.e. graphics, sound) and story and even here only a certain style of presentation, one that offers the pretense of deep, existential truths via obfuscation, qualifies as “art”. Thus, they ignore the mechanical aspect of a videogame as irrelevant to the artistic merit of a game (or worse, praise simplistic mechanics as a requirement for artistic greatness).

– Some random quote from a comments section on an article about Jonathan Blow

Something sat wrong with me ever since the “indie games” movement came to the forefront. No, I’m not talking about stuff like Super Meat Boy or Spelunky; I mean games like Braid, Bastion, and their story-based, visually interesting, aesthetically pleasing ilk. I believe this quote tells you exactly why. Yet, that particular phenomenon isn’t limited to just video games – it is indicative of everything that is wrong with modern culture.

Let us take the particular example of Jonathan Blow for our purposes. I haven’t played Braid, nor am I interested in playing/finishing it.

According to the magical historical knowledge of the Internet, Jonathan Blow came from a divided home. His mother, an overly righteous ex-nun, spoke continually about the coming of Jesus and disowned Blow’s older sister who came out as a lesbian. His father, after working all day, shut himself up in his home. As Blow would say “Early on, I detected that there weren’t good examples at home, so I kind of had to figure things out on my own…I had to adopt a paradigm of self-sufficiency.” Clearly, Blow did not share the same benefits of a Christian household as myself; his experience appears to turn him off to a Christian perspective, but not a spiritual one. His interest in Eastern spirituality and philosophy, then, probably stem from this background – Authentic spiritual self-reliance, as the Altantic article calls it.

Games, for Blow, do not pioneer; they regurgitate. They take established genres and simply add things to them. In a phrase: games are stupid. We can make them smart, interesting, long, and meaningful for adults and not just manchildren. Blow’s “no BS” philosophy may explain his frequent criticisms of the mainstream gaming industry – his games are smart, and their games are dumb. I’m sure this, by any measure, becomes something I can objectively qualify I guess that goes for just about any video game and its inherent creation of absurdist worlds for the purpose of play. Eating meat off the ground, or finding a pizza in a trash can, doesn’t quite cut it contextually for the gaming audience anymore. I understand this; Western culture developed to the point where we all identify “plot holes” and find ourselves paying attention to the complex details of serialized television. Blow, and his indie brethen, want games to exude that same cultural and life-giving relevance – not merely to wrap you into addiction or mess around with fun “gameplay” system (Blow likened World of WarCraft and Farmville to immoral exercises in manipulation; I don’t much appreciate the former). Blow’s friend has this to say:

“People think games will arrive when people start taking them seriously,” [Chris] Hecker said, agitation edging his voice. “No! Games aren’t taken seriously because the stuff that comes out is sh*t. Why would anyone care about any of this? It’s just adolescent nonsense.”

I suppose that’s a general criticism from all indie game developers (whether or not it’s true), but what do they offer in return? Blow wishes to expand upon the emotional connection people feel between themselves and the game itself. Straightforward enough, right? Many call him “pretentious” which, in our society that values authenticity beyond anything else, labels for the purpose of dismissing, demeaning, or insulting the Other. Taking after his success, other developers latched onto the “meaning”-based game (without the disagreeable public persona) to great success and acclaim.That this meaning comes from a particular cultural context with a particular moral viewpoint doesn’t some to dissuade them from making said games – after all, if we’re all in agreement, then we will all accept this!

Except that, many times, we don’t quite know what that meaning IS. You play the game and subtle hints, both visual, textual, and audible, come into your brain. Then, through this process, you must make the pieces fit. There’s your meaning. From what I can tell, Blow seems very much mired in the notion of authorial intent. For example, Braid apparently works as a metaphor for the creation of the nuclear bomb…or maybe not. Although there IS an answer, Blow will not lay it out for the audience – he only corrects them if they got it wrong. Truly, that’s the best example of intentional obfuscation I can imagine! He even fell into a state of depression (according to Indie Game: The Movie) because of this.

Yet, this is exactly the way we’re taught to think of art, meaning etc. If you’ve ever heard a person say they are “very spiritual” or that “God is a mystery too big for our minds to comprehend”, that train of thought works directly into this line. That God might say, for example in John 3:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he whopractices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

seems too straightforward. Too clear. Too easy. I find that the zeitgeist of our day tends to characterize the world as a complicated mess, a series of stumbling to greater truth and a larger series of obfuscation (wow, do I love this new word). Rather, I see it (and any Christian who sees rightly) sees the shallow nature of said complication. There are easy answers, but only if you’re willing to seek them and then accept them. Life is deep and simple all at the same time.

Why, then, do games such as Braid appeal to so many, other than the appeal of hipsterism or, say, “meaning”? Because they show us that necessity to over complicate from its very outset. What is meaningful isn’t a precise and clear dialogue about human nature; what is meaningful comes from a series of attention-grabbing, engaging, dynamic, and most of all, unclear set of images, words, and sounds. There’s a difference between shallowness and simplicity, in-born cultural assumptions and real truth.

Rob Bell and Johnathan Blow, then, are more alike than you would imagine. Bell’s “clear” language isn’t clear; it’s a series of anecdotes designed to make you feel a particular way, and then buy into a message. It’s a long series of “questions”, mostly rhetorical; they all SOUND like they mean something, but do they mean anything? Everything’s just vague enough to derive meaning related to YOU, but not enough to turn you off to the idea of “questioning” long-held beliefs. To question does not mean to hold one truth about others, but to merely play around with certain ideas and feelings. That they may never coalesce into a full painting, merely brushstrokes akin to a piece of modern art, does not concern us.

Part Two Tomorrow!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • I’m gonna contend a few notions here. One, Braid’s thematic concept is completely intertwined in the gameplay. The game is fundamentally about learning how to game a mechanic to right one’s wrongs. Yeah, there’s a lot of text at some points. But the most central points are carried-through the systematics themselves. Plus, the puzzles are legit hard.

    As for Blow himself, I think he just needs more love from people who authentically represent Christ. Also, I find a lot of substance to his game design philosophy. This interview is highly recommended: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRIEj-QN81o

    • Obviously I need to play it if, in fact, I’m to comment further, but I’m just describing the circumstances and issues surrounding the game’s critical acclaim, design, and release. That’s another article for another day.

      And as for his views on game design, I do not like the fact that he seems to be missing a large chunk of its history by making dismissive comments the whole time (again, Phil Fish-style posturing). It’s not particularly helpful, if I do say, and he could learn alot from those things he dismisses.

  • andrew

    “I haven’t played Braid, nor am I interested in playing/finishing it.” This may be a good idea before writing the article in my opinion, otherwise you are reacting to second hand information.

    There is also a big difference between obfuscation and trying to avoid a verbal reduction of a work. If you believe that any idea worth experiencing can be completely summed up using a verbal description then I think your criticism is correct.

    However this is clearly not true. Art is about taking advantage of it’s particular form to express something in a way that can’t be expressed any other way.

    I would suggest playing the game and for each world try reading the text, looking at the puzzle pictures and thinking about the game mechanics and then you may start to feel what the game is about. And what you feel could not be delivered to you via a nice concise paragraph. It would be nice if it could.

    • I think you’re mistaking my criticism of Braid for a request of a verbal reduction. Far from it; poetry can only be conveyed through poetry, as video games require conveyance through the unique part of video games – namely, playing the actual game. I just don’t think text and visuals alone represent that meaning, more complementary than anything else.

      Rather, it’s obvious from Blow’s statements that the work MEANS something, and has a MESSAGE to tell, one that doesn’t have room for interpretive meaning. Yet he responds as if it could be conveyed in text to other people, which is confusing. I have the feeling that Braid’s “message” does not convey something unique about reality because it’s constrained to teach me a message (which Blow obviously thinks), rendering it a bit anemic.

      I hate to compare it to Shakespeare, but I find the plain meaning of the Bard much more clear that intentional obfuscation WITHOUT any reduction of the work, words, and sequence in question.

  • Andrew

    Jon Blow himself has been pretty clear on how the text and visuals are reflecting the meaning in a different way. Take the idea of sadness, it can be expressed through visuals music writing etc, however each of those expressions are different but are born from the same thing.

    He has also been very explicit that he is not trying to convey a message the way there is a moral to a story. But rather he is using the medium to point at something that he himself doesn’t quite understand but has a feeling about. Not trying to make things crisp and easy to digest is not the same as intentional obfuscation. Also not trying to put those words in your mouth.

    Since it doesn’t sound like you played through it is hard to even phrase this but I’ll try. You not understanding the meaning of a work of art is not the failure of the artist. In fact if you assume the intent of the artist is not to bullshit you, then a failure to understand what they were trying to express reflect the fact that the artist created space where you could fail. This is also true of the puzzles. Please play the game and give the artist the benefit of the doubt and you may understand some proportion of what he wanted to express.

    • You confuse my meaning of “message” as a moral thing; that isn’t necessarily the case. When I say message, it’s more in the vein of “what does the author(s) want me to think”, at least as much as is possible in that vein?

      Blow is definitely not operating under that model if this interview’s (http://www.avclub.com/articles/game-designer-jonathan-blow-what-we-all-missed-abo,8626/) any indication. Rather, he wants to state a fundamental truth of the universe, to show us reality AS IT IS and not as how HE THINKS IT IS (in other words, a message).

      And, as far as specificity goes, he seems to have a specific meaning behind the things he puts in:

      “Because in fact, I do have a very specific meaning behind everything in the game. Everything has a purpose, not just in the levels, but in every word. Like to give an example – a lot of people start out reading the game, and they’re like, “Oh, this prose is terrible, it reads like a 12-year-old wrote it.” But it’s actually – and I’m not going to say that my writing is necessarily awesome – but maybe it’s for reasons that they don’t necessarily get yet. One of the first sentences is, “The princess has been kidnapped by a horrible and evil monster.” Which sounds like twelfth-grader prose because one aspect of bad prose is that you have repetitive adjectives and adverbs, to try to reinforce a point and amp up the magnitude. But the point being made in that sentence is actually that “horrible” and “evil” are two different things, and that that’s why both of those words are required. And especially in the context of the ending, something can be horrible and not evil, right? Or evil and not horrible.”

      I think we are having a problem of terms more than a failure of communication. That said, I definitely should play the game (and will do so) based on the concerns you’ve brought up. It looks like I can be easily misunderstood, depending. Please check out http://theologygaming.com/video-games-art-and-objective-standards-defining-the-video-game/ for more on my opinions (more to come!)

      • Andrew

        Oh sure I do agree he has a specific meaning. Just not one that can be serialized. I’m curious what is a game you have played that conveys a meaningful idea to you through it’s mechanics. I’ve rarely seen this and most game slap a cheesy story on top of somewhat trite mechanics. Games like Far Cry 2 are the exception in my opinion because the story and shooter mechanics and environmental story telling are very cohesive.

        Anyway, it is my strong opinion that if the medium of games is going to progress they need to get better and juxtaposing mechanics and aesthetics to have some kind of emergent meaning that you don’t see in some top down down design like Bioshock. I think although Braid is not a perfect work of art it pushes the ball way downfield in this regard.

        • See “The List” above. They’re not perfect, but then again, what is? Of course, my opinion on what constitutes “art” doesn’t necessarily need a story in the traditional narrative sense, if you get my meaning (haha!)