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.