There’s something about good games that makes people say dumb things.
Actually, no, scratch that.
I’ve just remembered Bioshock Infinite where I think even I succumbed to it in the desperate hope that I hadn’t just thrown fourteen hours into a hole on something that purported to want to say something grand but failed in just about every respect.
There’s something about games that makes folks say dumb things.
Actually, no again. That’s not fair. For the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of videogames analysed by incredibly smart people, very smartly. The rise of thoughtful criticism in the videogames space is one of the most wonderful things. Even if we do, as a general rule, fail to provide a lot of the folks doing it with cash to keep going. (Cue a load of freelancers going “yeah, well, about making a living in videogames” and fair enough, fair enough. But still)
What I’m reaching for is that there’s something about what games folks want to see as Capital A Authentic that makes people say dumb things. We want to find the Authentic white guys behind them who care more, are more real, are smarter. We find them. Even if it means bending the world to make it more real.
It makes me quite sad.
I mean, it makes me sad that maybe writing this now will be seen as me somehow having a dig at Jon rather than the system surrounding him and the way we talk about people in games. I have no real gripes with Jon in the main. He’s helped me personally and I’ve found his advice on surviving in games around big companies invaluable, he’s supported my friends, whatever. I don’t always agree with his design decisions or ideas of how videogames should be approached but that should hardly be considered a special case. Part of being a human in videogames is that you bring your own This Is The Way and the simple truth is we do not all pull in the same direction. We are not all in this together in that respect.
It makes me sad that maybe folks might instinctively flinch against the white guy tag I added in there too but well, look, I’ll change that when you find someone who isn’t white in games to elevate as The Authentic Voice In Games.
I’m also fairly sure that videogames don’t make for a special case here. You see it in books where Stuff For Women is given lesser status, you could write a magnum opus in romance but it will rarely (if it’s not incredibly old and already viewed as a classic) find the same plaudits as a book about A Man Contemplates Life. You see it in films, you see it in television. I’m sure if I paid enough attention to radio and on.
The search for the Capital A Authentic is ever-present in how we talk about things. The ones who are more real and we make them appear to be capable of superhuman feats of genius when most of the time we just sort of like the honking sounds they make, the games they throw into the world or whatever. It’s never not saddening to watch someone fall all in.
I like the music comparison though because thanks to the beautiful Pete Wylie, we have a name for it. It’s Rockism. It’s the “one of these things is more authentic than the other because we maintain the appearance of a status quo even when the world around us has changed”. Facts blur to make it so. It is the guitar as superior to the synthesizer, the Bob Dylan above the Kanye. The maudlin white dude with a guitar over The KLF. It is Game A is more real than Game B. I dunno, like maybe The Talos Principle isn’t as real as something else or something.
And so it is to this piece on The Witness and the most incredibly blatant example of what I’m talking about in a long time. A piece that seems to entirely ignore reality in favour of the Capital A Authentic belief in One Man Is The Most Authentic, a belief that flies in the face of what it takes to make a game and more importantly, reduces the parts that every single member of Jon’s team played in the creation of The Witness in favour of the overwhelming belief in Jon as Superhuman. Man alive, do we have to go through this?
Before we do, one last note.
The Witness is a game I’ll maybe play sometime. I think it’s important to lay my cards on the table here. I don’t have thirty quid to spend on a game and I’m generally just not very good with puzzle games so it sounds like the exact sort of game I won’t get on with. I have no beef with the game itself because of this, it is what it is and I’m happy folks enjoy it. I wish Jon and his team nothing but success, just what the game plays like is no real concern to me right now.
Okay. That was a lot of front loading. Let’s move along before I feel the need to add another clarification.
There is a common thread throughout the piece that hinges on the (no doubt sincere) belief that Jon is special and Jon’s work is constructed in special ways. Not in a healthy “this is dead good and I love the way the team has put this thing together” way. Not even in a “this totally speaks to me so this is cool, more please!” way.
From the beginning, it’s seeded that Jon is maybe better than you, The Witness is for superior beings unlike that tat over there and those people probably wouldn’t understand like I do. The article is riddled with the sort of stuff I’d recommend a good course of The Beginner’s Guide or The Magic Circle to try and deal with. Or 40 minutes in the company of The White Room. Whatever works best. White Room, probably.
Talking shit about how videogames are made is a disease and maybe they’re some way towards the cure.
Like, look at this terribleness:
“it’s a puzzle game for the mega-brainy and super-cerebral, a puzzle game for gaming’s high-brow”
“A player of reasonable intelligence can expect a roughly 80-hour investment to finish them”
This is awful.
The conflating of the ability to solve puzzles, to have the patience to sit through a videogame learning to solve whatever a designer throws at you, conflating that with intelligence is as bizarre as it is self-serving. Sure, you might be pondering how to raise people out of poverty but can you draw a line on this flat screen? Yeah, yeah, I know being a surgeon takes smarts but have you seen this rock that looks like a woman, mate? And fuck you if you happen to be colour blind or deaf, you thicky. You wouldn’t understand anyway. Maybe someone just doesn’t enjoy or want to play *this* kind of puzzle.
Not only that, it’s an idea that seems to fly squarely in the face of the game’s design from everything I know of it. Everything I’ve read implies that The Witness is a game that teaches you to play The Witness, a game that wants you to learn the rules and have a thousand epiphanies. Why bother with that if it’s just for the super mega brains, right? Just leave them stumbling in the dark, they’re smart, they can sort it.
There is of course absolutely no correlation between how intelligent you are and how fast you’ll get through The Witness any more than there is you getting through Destiny or Bloodborne because you can tie your shoelaces or put a kettle on. You certainly won’t finish it faster or slower depending on how intelligent you are but here we are with this idea seeded throughout the piece. And it is, of course, accompanied by the idea of Jon as godlike genius performing impossible feats as only he can.
Like I say, this is far from unique to videogames. Maybe you think of it when you think of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds, maybe it’s when you think of Bowie and ignore his tradition of surrounding himself with amazing collaborators. Maybe it’s your Kubrick, your Scorsese, your Tarantino or your Alan Moore. Wherever, however, it makes things weird.
Once you’re looking at games through that lens, innocuous comments to most people in games become grand statements of intent, or of miraculous fortitude and genius and it paints as much an odd a view of games as it does the subject of the adulation. Idle exhausted chatter becomes imbued with so much more meaning and profundity. Everything becomes distorted.
A comment on dealing with publishers and them not understanding someone approaching them who has their own fortune, this fuses with an ignorance of how games get made to produce the idea that publishers would not be able to contend with a game that takes so long to make. Publishers who routinely deal with games that take three, four, five or more years to come to fruition.
The reality of game development, that it does take time and money on the regular, is swept away. Along with it the hard work and dedication of those who work within the machine and those that work outside it. Games take time to make. That is how it is. Seven years is not glacial, it is the time it takes.
“Genius needs time. They’d rather get whatever they’re working on out the door”. The throwaway pop record argument, it’s not real music, they don’t care. Capital A Authenticity because how could you care from inside the machine? And we have to conveniently forget other people outside the machine exist too, folks with different philosophies on how to approach games, no less committed, no less glorious.
Commenting on wanting to push out videogames in one particular direction where it’s seemingly ignored leads to all manner of comparisons with classical literature, with symphonies. With Acknowledged Authentic Art, Capital A Authenticity. And as the comparisons come, so do the ‘not like that lot over there’ and oh, man. Oh man.
Look, none of this, not one single word I write is intended to take away from the time, the effort, the work and the dedication that Thekla put into the game. And yes, I’m using Thekla there with intent. Whilst the handiwork of Jonathan Blow is all over The Witness so is the handiwork of every single person on the team. The Witness is what it is because they brought their talent to bear on it, all of them. Reducing the work to being entirely Jon’s erases their efforts.
This is the big problem when you reach for Capital A Authentic, when you reach for your auteurs in games. Every time someone describes Bioshock in terms of Kevin Levine, the work of the hundreds of people who sat and contributed to that work is lost, years worth of work and hundreds of contributions. Whether we work inside or outside the machine, whether it’s Levine with Bioshock, Jon Blow with The Witness or little old me and my little games, we collaborate, we work with others to make our work more than it would be if we worked alone.
Yes, if you play little old Death Ray Manta it’s my vision! It’s my vision filtered through Ste’s wonderful cover art, Mike’s incredible music, Andy’s ideas of how things can be tweaked, his movement, and whatever else. Everybody who contributed guided its direction.
You might well believe (or want to believe) that the hand of your hero can be found in every nook and cranny of a work but it’s rare that’s the case. It’s often just a matter of scale. And money. There are folks who do this stuff single-handedly but with the best will in the world, they’d struggle to make something like The Witness alone at all, never mind across 7 years.
Jon Blow is not the closest things videogames have to an auteur, not really. He’s the closest thing videogames have to someone whose work is held up as Capital A Authentic. You want to see people invest themselves in their work? There are thousands doing that just now. You want to see people take time, care and consideration with their designs? Thousands again, big and small. Again, this is not to take away from the effort him and his team have expended upon their game, the opposite — The Witness is a massive undertaking. But what they’ve built shouldn’t be used to take away from the work of others either.
And, I might add, because Thekla’s vision is of a multimillion dollar costing design of a dense island packed with puzzles, that’s not innately better, more real, more authentic a vision, y’know? It’s a route. It’s a route I’m glad they could afford to take. I’m glad the conditions fell into place for them to do that. It’s also a route to do what Matt Verran is doing with his thoughtful shooters and arcade works, Anna Anthropy and her work with games for empathy and enjoyment, Liz Ryerson’s unsettling Problem Attic, Michael Brough’s work, the small things Merrit Kopas made before she walked from games, the team behind Joylancer, my personal (and perennial) favourite game, Minter’s Space Giraffe and so many others who won’t spring to mind because they’re not fronting a game that you’ll be downloading to your PS4 this month.
There’s a line there in the piece that in videogames most people aren’t afforded the ability to express themselves as artists. There’s many ideas I might call bullshit on but none as much as that. There are so many amazing works being made right now, intimate, obsessively crafted, artistic. The reality is more that most people in games cannot afford to spend seven years on a videogame as densely packed as Thekla’s world is, this applies wherever on the scale folks find themselves. Maybe it’s financial or maybe it’s health, maybe it’s a thousand reasons inbetween. Sometimes you just have to draw a line and put it out into the world. Taking more time, spending more money does not increase the value of an art anyway, right? It’s just different.
I’m glad that Thekla could do what they did but it does not reduce the efforts of others. It does not reduce the importance, the influence, the expression, of others who don’t have that luxury. If anything, it impresses me more the work everyone creates under the strain. Being in videogames must sometimes seem like magic and ponies from the outside, to those of us inside, even at our most enjoyably creative, it’s graft still.
When we’re discussing videogames in terms of what they are, it benefits us all to not discuss them at the expense of others. It benefits us to try to understand them not in terms of how we imagine an artist’s life to be but of how it is, how the work fits in with the work folks are doing elsewhere in and around this space. To pay some fucking attention to the world around us. To know what parts really are special and to know what parts are the normal.
And it helps to understand that no man single-handedly builds their island. Not in videogames anyway.