The Most Dangerous Gamer

Never mind that they’re now among the most lucrative forms of entertainment in America, video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy. At least that’s what Jonathan Blow thinks. But the game industry’s harshest critic is also its most cerebral developer, a maverick bent on changing the way we think about games and storytelling. With his next release, The Witness, Blow may cement his legacy—or end his career. In a multibillion-dollar industry addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens, can true art finally flourish?
Jake Stangel

Like many wealthy people, Jonathan Blow vividly remembers the moment he became rich. At the time, in late 2008, he was $40,000 in debt and living in a modest San Francisco apartment, having just spent more than three years meticulously refining his video game, Braid—an innovative time-warping platformer (think Super Mario Bros. meets Borges), whose $200,000 development Blow funded himself. Although Braid had been released, to lavish praise from the video-game press, on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service that August, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day when he sat down at a café in the city’s Mission district. “I opened up my Web browser and Holy fuck, I’m rich now,” he recalled. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account.”

Blow’s similarities to the average millionaire end right there, however, because unlike most wealthy people, he seems faintly irritated by his memory of striking it rich. When Blow told me, during a typically metaphysical conversation in a park near his Berkeley office, that his windfall was “absurd,” he didn’t mean it in the whimsical “Can you believe my luck?” sense; he meant it in the philosophical, Camus-puffing-a-cigarette sense of a deeply ridiculous cosmic joke. “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.” For the world’s most existentially obsessed game developer, coming into seven figures just provided another opportunity to ponder the nature of meaning in the universe.

Which is not to say that Blow has forsaken his wealth. As Braid grew into a bona fide phenomenon in its first year—selling several hundred thousand copies, winning armloads of industry awards, and becoming Exhibit A in the case for the video game as a legitimate artistic medium—Blow made several upgrades to his austere lifestyle. In place of his old Honda, he now drives a $150,000 crimson Tesla Roadster, a low-slung all-electric automotive dynamo that offers a highly realistic simulation of being shot out of a cannon whenever Blow clamps down on the accelerator. And after a yearlong victory lap filled with lectures and laurels, he moved into a spacious hilltop condo that overlooks the eastern half of the city as it slopes down to the sapphire-colored bay.

Yet aside from his electric car—the virtues of which he extols with messianic zeal—Blow displays total indifference toward the material fruits of wealth. His apartment stands mostly empty; books on physics and Eastern philosophy lie in haphazard piles, as though he has only half finished carting his belongings in from a moving truck outside. His minimal collection of furniture is almost all rented, including the springy beige sofa he got just a few months ago, after he arranged to have several video-game journalists over and realized he had nowhere for them to sit. “I’ve never liked money, really,” Blow told me. “Having a big high score in my bank account is not interesting to me. I have a nice car now, but I don’t really own that many objects, and I don’t know what else I would spend money on. So for me, money is just a tool I can use to get things done.”

More specifically, Blow has decided to use his money—nearly all of it—to finance what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history, one that he hopes will radically expand the limitations of his chosen field. Although video games long ago blossomed into full commercial maturity (the adrenaline-soaked military shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, for example, racked up $400 million in sales during its first 24 hours in stores last fall), the form remains an artistic backwater, plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels. Blow intends to shake up this juvenile hegemony with The Witness, 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 Witness a groundbreaking piece of interactive art—a sort of Citizen Kane of video games.

Video: Taylor Clark shows how radically Jonathan Blow’s games challenge the mainstream.

It’s a characteristically audacious plan for a man who has earned a reputation not just as the video-game industry’s most cerebral developer, but also as its most incisive and polarizing internal critic. To Blow, being labeled the most intellectual man in video games is a little like being called the most chaste woman in a brothel: not exactly something to crow about to Mom and Dad. “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity,” he told me. “There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”

As a developer whose independent success has emancipated him from the grip of the monolithic game corporations, Blow makes a habit of lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at the industry. He has famously branded so-called social games like FarmVille “evil” because their whole raison d’être is to maximize corporate profits by getting players to check in obsessively and buy useless in-game items. (In one talk, Blow managed to compare FarmVille’s developers to muggers, alcoholic-enablers, Bernie Madoff, and brain-colonizing ant parasites.) Once, during an online discussion about the virtues of short game-playing experiences, Blow wrote, “Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome?” His entire public demeanor forms a challenge to the genre’s intellectual laziness. Blow is the only developer on the planet who gives lectures with titles like “Video Games and the Human Condition,” the only one who speaks of Italo Calvino’s influence on his work, and the only one to so rile up the gamer community with his perceived pretentiousness that the popular gamer blog Kotaku used him as the centerpiece of a post titled “When You Love the Game But Not Its Creator.”

Yet as harsh as Blow can be toward his industry, he applies even stricter standards to his own work. With The Witness, produced with about $2 million of his own money, he plans to do nothing less than establish the video game as an art form—a medium capable of producing something far richer and more meaningful than the brain-dead digital toys currently on offer. Blow envisions future games that deliver experiences as poignant and sublime as those found through literature and film, but expressed in ways distinctive to games. “If the video game is going to be used for art purposes, then it has to take advantage of its form in some way particular to that medium, right?” he told me. “A film and a novel can both do linear storytelling, but novels are very strong at internal mental machinations—which movies suck at—and movies are great at doing certain visual things. So the question is: Where are games on that same map?” It’s a question Blow intends to answer.

I met Jon Blow in early 2011, when my friend Tom Bissell—a journalist and author hired to help write the script for The Witness—invited me along to dinner one night when Blow was visiting Portland, Oregon. Knowing Blow’s outspoken reputation, I expected a sort of fire-breathing techie-Limbaugh, wreathed in nerd rage. Instead, when I entered Bissell’s condo, I saw an intensely serious-looking man performing a slow tai chi sequence in the living room. His face, bounded by a closely cropped widow’s peak on top and a clenched jaw on the bottom, radiated quiet imperturbability. But Blow’s most striking feature is his eyes, which sit under a perpetually half-furrowed brow and seem always to be evaluating, probing, assessing. His unchangingly flinty expression makes it extraordinarily difficult to gauge where Blow is on the spectrum between enjoying your company and despising everything you stand for.

I was surprised, then, when after a pleasant dinner mostly spent bemoaning the game industry’s artistic failings, Blow offered to let me play an early version of The Witness on his laptop. Game developers tend to be pathologically secretive, allowing outsiders access to an unfinished game only under paranoically controlled conditions, having extracted a blood oath never to reveal that, say, the submachine gun also fires plasma grenades. Blow, by contrast, plugged a controller into his laptop, told me to knock myself out, and walked away to play LittleBigPlanet 2 with Bissell.

At that point, the game was more of a three-dimensional digital sketchbook—storyless, built from antiquated ad hoc graphics, and stuffed with puzzle ideas in various stages of completion—but its core mechanics were fully functional. In The Witness, the player unlocks different areas of the enigmatic deserted island by solving a series of line-drawing puzzles on blue panels. The first panels are simple enough, but later ones become increasingly inventive and increasingly fiendish. I spent a full 30 minutes struggling not to put my fist through the laptop screen while working on one especially tough puzzle, as Blow periodically looked over at me with the sort of amused expression usually reserved for a house cat chasing after the glowing red dot of a laser pointer. Only later did Blow disclose that he’d decided that particular puzzle was too difficult to stay in the game.

While moments like this tend to confirm Blow’s reputation as a misanthrope, he is in fact almost obsessively conscientious. It’s just that he has no patience for coddling or bullshit. At his Berkeley office many months later, as I was playing a more polished build of The Witness, I turned to Blow at the next desk and asked if I was missing some clue for a specific puzzle. He fixed me with a stare that could hammer a nail into a wall. “The clue is, you’re doing it wrong,” he said. In other words: don’t ask me to do your thinking for you.

Even Blow’s friends choose words like difficult and spiky when describing him. “You have to approach Jon on Jon’s terms,” said Chris Hecker, his closest game-industry friend, over empanadas with Blow at an airy Oakland café. “It’s not ‘Let’s go out and have fun.’ It’s more like ‘Let’s discuss this topic,’ or ‘Let’s work on our games.’ You don’t ask Jon to hang out, because he’ll just say ‘Why?’”

Friendship with Blow requires patience for his rigid, often puzzling personal codes. He enjoys talking, but abhors idle conversation and is intensely private. He goes out dancing several nights a week, yet the suggestion of visiting the same club for a beer will elicit a lengthy anti-bar diatribe. “You’re poisoning yourself with alcohol,” Blow vented, as Hecker smiled knowingly beside him. “You’re kind of socializing, but the loud music prevents you from actually communicating. It’s all set up to help people socialize who don’t feel comfortable being honest about why they’re there. It freaks me out. Just understand what you’re doing, and do it.”

“Hold on,” I objected. “Are you saying people at bars should just walk up to each other and say, ‘I would like to have sexual intercourse with you’?”

“I think we could live a lot closer to a truthful existence and we’d all be better off,” he replied.

Blow’s relentless pursuit of deeper truth began at an early age. Born in 1971 to middle-class, emotionally distant Southern California parents, Blow says he started to “check out” from his family (from whom he remains estranged) while still in elementary school. His mother was a devout ex-nun who constantly reminded her scientifically inclined young son about the imminent return of Jesus. (When Blow’s older sister came out as a lesbian in the mid-’80s, their mother disowned her.) Blow’s father worked all day for the defense contractor TRW, then came home and spent every possible moment alone in his den, where the children were not welcome. “Early on, I detected that there weren’t good examples at home, so I kind of had to figure things out on my own,” Blow told me. “I had to adopt a paradigm of self-sufficiency.”

Blow’s rigorous personal codes reached their peak severity when he was a child. Authentic spiritual self-reliance became his fixation, escapism and superstition his greatest enemies. “I didn’t want to hide from things, and I didn’t want to believe convenient things just because they felt good,” he told me. “To avoid that, you have to be willing to go stand out in the cold and not be comforted, and not take your own personal happiness and well-being as the goal of existence.” For Blow, this edict entailed countless acts of self-denial, like turning down offers for a ride home from school during a rainstorm. He also showed a compulsive secrecy, routinely lying to other children to hide what he was really thinking. “If you’re going to outsmart them, they have to not know,” he told me. Unsurprisingly, this approach won him few friends.

Instead of bonding emotionally with his family or with other kids, the young Blow developed a profound affinity for computers. When he first encountered a Commodore VIC-20, in a fifth-grade computer class, Blow intuitively understood it; he saw an exhilarating purity in the logic of its internal systems. And before long, he felt the tug of his calling. “The first thing I made in that class was a game,” he recalled. “It was like a slot machine where you had to press a button at the right time to match a number on the screen, but I made the screen flash different colors and added sound effects. Really polishing the turd, so to speak—which, really, was a good education for the modern game-development industry.”

Even as a teenager, Blow was looking to improve the embryonic games that were then on the market. On a clunky TRS-80 home computer, he designed an Indiana Jones–inspired adventure game from text-based ASCII graphics, in which the player dodged arrows and circumvented traps. On a Commodore 64, Blow made another game that was “objectively better than Pac-Man in a number of ways,” namely because it had a greater diversity of maps.

But it wasn’t until his mid-20s that Blow took up game development as an occupation. After a five-year stint as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, where he studied computer science and creative writing but dropped out one semester short of graduating, Blow bounced between uninspiring Bay Area tech jobs for a few years. At 24, he took $24,000 he’d saved and, with a friend from Berkeley, started his own game-design company—a business that stubbornly refused to thrive. Though it produced a finished game (a “software-rendered 3-D team-on-team multiplayer-only sci-fi hovertank war game”), the tiny firm launched just as the era of small studios was ending and the dominance of multimillion-dollar corporate game projects was beginning. The business folded after four years, $100,000 in debt.

By the early 2000s, Blow was in grave danger of becoming a failed game developer. He made a good living consulting for tech companies and game studios, but he struggled to maintain any enthusiasm for it. “I have a terrible work ethic when I’m doing things I don’t really care about,” he told me. “I can’t motivate myself to do stuff if it’s not the most important thing for me to do. So I’d do a bad job.” For years, he ran an experimental game-play workshop at the annual Game Developers Conference and wrote a monthly programming column for Game Developer magazine (in which his pieces bore headlines like “Scalar Quantization” and “My Friend, the Covariance Body”), while discontentedly tinkering with esoteric game projects that he’d abandon before long.

Then, in late 2004, Blow had the idea for Braid, and all of that changed forever.

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Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.

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