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?

There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. In games, brick-shaped men yell catchphrases like “Suck pavement!” and wield giant rifles that double as chain saws, while back-breakingly buxom women rush into combat wearing outfits that would make a Victoria’s Secret photographer blush. In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding.

Even the industry’s staunchest defenders acknowledge the chronic dumbness of contemporary video games, usually with a helpless shrug—because, hey, the most ridiculous games can also be the most fun. (After all, the fact that the Super Mario games are about a pudgy plumber with a thick Italian accent who jumps on sinister bipedal mushrooms doesn’t make them less enjoyable to play.) But this situation puts video-game advocates in a bind. It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.

When I first met Blow’s friend Chris Hecker, at his Oakland bungalow, he rushed to his desk in a pair of duct-taped slippers to show me his favorite demonstration of this discouraging reality. “Watch this—it never fails,” he said, bending over his computer keyboard. On one of his twin monitors, Hecker pulled up the movie-trailers section of Apple.com; on the other, he loaded the upcoming-releases page of GameSpot.com. The movies, Hecker pointed out, encompassed a huge diversity of topics and approaches, from buddy comedies to period dramas to esoteric art films. The video games, on the other hand, were almost all variations on a single theme: outlandishly attired men armed with gigantic weapons, shooting things.

“People think games will arrive when people start taking them seriously,” Hecker said, agitation edging his voice. “No! Games aren’t taken seriously because the stuff that comes out is shit. Why would anyone care about any of this? It’s just adolescent nonsense.” In fact, when Roger Ebert famously declared in a long (and poorly researched) essay that video games can never be art, gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles that might refute his claim. One was the soothing PlayStation 3 game Flower, in which the player takes the role of the wind and swoops across bucolic landscapes pollinating plants and righting environmental wrongs; it’s a wonderful game, but it’s about as artistic as a Thomas Kinkade painting. The other, more apt suggestion, was Blow’s game, Braid.

When Braid debuted, in August 2008, no one had ever seen a video game quite like it. Its aesthetics alone would have been enough to win Blow awards. Whereas most games begin with thundering music and splashy cinematics, Braid opens with a dark, painterly canvas of a city at night, its buildings engulfed in flames. Your character, Tim, stands in shadow in the foreground; as you move him across the screen, a sparse and mournful soundtrack eases in, and you suddenly see that this painting is the game. Soon, Tim emerges into view on a lamp-lit street, clad in a schoolboy suit and tie, a pensive expression on his face. When he enters his house and then opens the only available door, Tim finds himself in a room made of gently percolating clouds, and the game begins.

On the surface, Braid is a simple side-scrolling, two-dimensional platformer (a game in which the character spends a lot of time jumping between platforms) that follows the most timeworn setup in gaming. “Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess,” reads the first book Tim finds among the clouds, multicolored spangles radiating off its pages. “She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.” But Braid is about rescuing a princess to the same extent that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about being a bug. Through the books Tim finds, Blow reveals that Tim “made a mistake” and hopes to rectify it, which ties into Braid’s central game-play mechanism: Tim’s unique time-rewinding ability. As Tim seeks to undo his past, he must also solve puzzles that revolve around his control over the flow of time. Inspired by the alternate realities presented in Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, Blow created five main realms where time behaves in distinctly different ways. In one world, some objects aren’t affected by Tim’s rewinding ability; in another, his merely moving left and right will cause the world’s inhabitants to travel backward and forward in time.

Yet perhaps Braid’s most startling feature is that it feels, far more than any other game, like a fully authored text—as rich with meaning and emotion as any well-crafted short story. Tim encounters many clue-stuffed books on his journey, and before long, we begin to suspect that his quest to rescue the princess is not what it initially seemed. In some parts, the princess feels corporeal, and we learn of Tim’s remoteness from her, about how “she never understood the impulses that drove him.” But at other times, the princess becomes mysteriously abstract: “If she exists—she must!—she will transform him, and everyone.” Over time, Blow sketches a portrait of a man run ragged by his pursuit of something spiritually larger than himself, a man whose uncompromising intellectual seriousness has left him isolated from a “world that flows contrariwise.” A man, in short, much like Jon Blow.

This feeling of authorship was no accident, because Blow’s primary goal in Braid was to communicate a message, one that he has said is “important enough to me that I spent three and a half years of my life trying to express it.” Remarkably, the basic game-play programming occupied very little of that time. When Blow first set out to bring his time-rewinding game idea to life, in December 2004, he was on vacation with a friend in Thailand. “I was feeling pretty motivated,” Blow recalled in his apartment one evening. “So I said, ‘Why don’t I spend this week hanging out in the cafés of Chiang Mai and do this idea?’ And within that first week, I had the kernel of a playable game.”

What consumed the next three and a half years of Blow’s life, then—as well as a lot of his money—was the refinement of his vision. By the end of 2005, Braid’s puzzles were finished, but Blow refused to release the game before he felt it was ready. “Jon was never stressed about time or a budget—the game always came first,” said David Hellman, the artist who created Braid’s painterly visuals. “I’d give Jon a bunch of ideas, and choosing quickly was not a top priority for him. Even when we got down to tiny details, he’d still be looking to change a single line if it looked a little thin.” Blow packed Braid’s world with small visual hints about the deeper story. And rather than pay a game-music composer to craft the soundtrack, Blow took the unusual step of licensing existing music. “The people who made those songs legitimately cared about the music they were making,” he explained. “That was rule number zero, the most important thing.”

Because of the flood of deep thought that Blow poured into every frame, the video-game community at first didn’t quite know what to make of Braid. Many of the game’s players showered it with praise, but very few could tell you what it meant—a conundrum best embodied by Braid’s ingenious ending sequence, which has become one of the most famous scenes in video-game history.

After traversing Braid’s five main realms, Tim finally reaches the world that holds his princess—a place where time flows continually in reverse. As the soundtrack rolls backward, we see her sliding down a vine in the clutches of the roaring, barrel-chested knight who snatched her, then slipping away from him and screaming for help. A long horizontal barrier stands between Tim and the princess. As a wall of fire closes in on them from the left, the two race back toward the point in time when they were last united, dodging enemies and springing each other from traps. Yet when Tim finally reaches the princess, there is no tender scene of lovers reuniting; instead, his arrival triggers an ominous flash. We see the princess sleeping inside a cottage. Tim stands helplessly outside.

And then time begins rewinding (which makes events unfold in their “proper” sequence), allowing us to see the truth: all this time, the princess hasn’t been waiting for Tim to rescue her; she’s been fleeing him. While she appeared to be removing obstacles for Tim before, she was frantically tossing them in his path. The burly knight who carried her off was actually her savior. The “horrible and evil monster,” we realize, is Tim. Cue the whooshing sound of several hundred thousand gamers’ minds being blown.

From here, things get—even by non-game standards—extraordinarily esoteric. Tim finds new books with cryptic messages: a vignette about Tim outside a candy store, unable to get in; a quotation from the moments after the legendary Trinity atomic bomb test; a description of how Tim “implanted tungsten posts into the skulls of water-starved monkeys.”

Braid, savvy players suddenly realize, is an allegory of the development of the atomic bomb. And that interpretation seems to be only the beginning. Like any other work of art, Braid is dense with possible interpretations. As Tom Bissell told me, “Braid is a game about jumping on shit—and that Jon was audacious enough to take the platformer and make that into a grand statement about human existence is incredible.”

To Blow’s unending consternation, however, the mainstream video-game community has proved uninterested in exploring Braid’s hidden depths. Most frequently, people assume the game is about a breakup, which Blow fervently denies; he has even left contentious comments on Internet message boards to correct misinterpretations. “Something that’s even more widespread is that people play the final level with the princess and then latch onto the interpretation that it’s like an M. Night Shyamalan surprise ending,” Blow said, with the air of one by now accustomed to bottling his rage. “Like, ‘Oh, shit—Tim was a stalker the whole time!’ But that doesn’t even make sense.”

Not that Blow would ever actually say outright what Braid is about. Every time he’s been asked, he’s given a version of the same reply, which is that the answer is in the game, if only you’re willing to look.

In other words: don’t ask me to do your thinking for you.

Despite his cool and collected demeanor, Jon Blow is hardly the most patient man in the greater San Francisco area. Faced with any kind of delay, he tends to drum arrhythmically on whatever surface is nearby, or slip into a tai chi sequence. Without ever exuding the frenzied, smartphone-dependent aura of the modern businessman, Blow is a zealous maximizer of his time. He loathes watching sports, because they yield few tangible returns on the hours you invest in them. If the electric razor and the billowy tufts scattered around his bathroom sink are any indication, he appears to cut his own hair in a dozen quick swipes whenever necessary. And to make the half-hour commute from his apartment to Berkeley more constructive, Blow listens to audiobooks of literary classics in his Tesla. When I visited, he had just jettisoned Anna Karenina for being “too much like a soap opera.” Now he was listening to Walden.

Throughout my visit, every time I contorted myself into his Roadster, we would immediately hear an actor doing his best Thoreau impression, declaiming in stentorian tones about the furry beasts in their burrows. This had a certain jarring quality. One day, however, after a long talk about Blow’s vision for The Witness, Shockingly Loud Thoreau seemed almost clairvoyant. “With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits,” he proclaimed, “all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike.”

Blow clicked off the stereo and turned to me. “I honestly didn’t plan that,” he said.

In so many words, Loud Thoreau had just described Blow’s central idea for The Witness. Whereas so many contemporary games are built on a foundation of shooting or jumping or, let’s say, the creative use of mining equipment to disembowel space zombies, Blow wants the point of The Witness to be the act of noticing, of paying attention to one’s surroundings. Speaking about it, he begins to sound almost like a Zen master. “Things are pared down to the basic acts of movement and observation until those senses become refined,” he told me. “The further you go into the game, the more it’s not even about the thinking mind anymore—it becomes about the intuitive mind.”

As such, The Witness’s game-world exudes a monastic sense of quiet and calm that only magnifies the great mystery at its heart. When the game begins, you find yourself in a pitch-dark hallway, your vision centered on a distant patch of light. After trekking forward (The Witness, unlike Braid, is rendered in 3-D), you emerge into what appears to be a World War II bunker as reenvisioned by IKEA, equipped with sparse modernist furniture, sunlight streaming in through the windows. Soon you discover that you are stranded in a strange complex on a small island (a setup inspired by the classic game Myst), whose lush grounds have been sculpted and maintained with Buckingham Palace–level care. The only clues you receive about why you’re there come from a series of audiotapes strewn around the island, narrated by an enigmatic man who claims he wants to help you. “The buildings are all locked—you’ll have to figure out how to get inside,” he says, alluding to the hundreds of blue puzzle panels scattered about. But, he adds, “you have time; you’re not in any danger—no more than I am, anyway.”

From here, the game is simplicity itself (aside from the occasionally mind-destroying puzzles, of course). The player can wander freely about the island, taking on challenges in any desired order. The learning curve is nonexistent; all one does in The Witness is move around, interact with puzzles, and notice things. This asceticism follows a core precept in Blow’s game-design philosophy. “What I’m doing now is seeing how much you can do and how deep you can go with very minimal control elements,” he told me. “Anytime you pick up a game that has a lot of controls, you have that process of hitting the wrong buttons and wondering, What does X do, again? That is not the game-play experience I want.” Rather than make you fiddle with 15 buttons, Blow wants you paying attention to … well, paying attention. And he’s packing The Witness with enough environmental details to make mindfulness worthwhile.

The first day I spent at his small, open-plan Berkeley office, Blow surveyed the carefully crafted new game-world with an architectural designer named Deanna Van Buren, whom he’d hired to design the island’s buildings. Though Blow and Van Buren had been working on The Witness’s architecture for more than a year, the purpose of her visit that day was to gather screenshots of the buildings for a design publication. The island was in disarray, however. Blow and his team of 3-D artists had been aggressively upgrading visuals since the last time I’d seen the game, nearly a year earlier, so while the colors now popped and the water shimmered gorgeously, things had been shuffled haphazardly in the process; trees floated 20 feet above the ground in places, and glitchy patches of grass looked like broken windows into another dimension.

None of this posed a problem for Blow, who not only knew the island’s every quirk but had also coded the game’s level-editing program himself. For the first snapshots, Blow piloted himself to “The Keep,” a ruined gray tower situated among hedge mazes and fluffy autumnal trees of red, orange, and yellow. His fingers flew over the keyboard, adding and subtracting visual elements. “Oh, I love that,” Van Buren said when he locked onto a view of a staircase spiraling up inside the tower. “That really tells the story of this place.” Later, Blow sped over to “The Factory,” a spacious red-roofed building that happened to be floating over a rippling expanse of ocean. Blow’s brow furrowed. “Let’s put that on some land,” he said, summoning up a grassy plain.

“The vernacular for the island is adaptively reused buildings,” Van Buren told me helpfully as we waited. Because I hadn’t the slightest idea what this meant, I asked whether this was the first video game she’d worked on. “Pfft. For sure. You’re not going to find a lot of architects who have done anything like this.” And how did she like designing for a virtual world? She smiled. “It’s a lot more fun than obeying building codes.”

Once Van Buren left, Blow set me loose at his own terminal and flopped onto a couch with a laptop to answer some e-mails. Being left to roam filled me with the giddy feeling I had as a kid in the deserted halls of the public-radio station where my dad worked on Sunday mornings; with no supervision, I could plumb the place’s untold secrets. After clicking an editing key, I zoomed through walls and hillsides in search of clue-laden audiotapes from the game’s mysterious narrator.

Yet to my surprise, I found few of the trappings of conventional narrative in those tapes—very little backstory or dramatic plotting. Instead, I encountered a series of intensely personal vignettes. In one, the narrator speaks of his lonely childhood in 1970s California; he recalls that every recess, he played alone on a tire swing, closing his eyes and fantasizing that “someday, Just the Right Girl would see me there, eyes still closed; she would walk out there to the tire swing, saying nothing, and she would kiss me lightly … I waited, but this never happened.” In another log, he describes the emotional pain he felt upon beginning to go bald at age 20, and how today “a peninsula of hair juts outward, angled toward the left side of my face.” Perhaps the most striking entry begins like this: “I could have done anything with my life, but somehow I ended up designing puzzles, not least of which are these, here on this island.”

I pivoted away from the monitor to look at the man on the sofa—face bathed in the glow of his laptop, widow’s peak veering slightly to the left—and realized with a start that I was wandering around inside Blow’s own mind.

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