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?

Putting aside for a moment Blow’s description of The Witness as being based on paying attention, it’s difficult to say exactly what the game is about. In the first incarnation of its story, Blow worked with Bissell to create a conventional narrative filled with complex characters and dramatic beats—an approach that Blow soon abandoned for being “too Hollywoodized.” (“Only in Jon Blow’s world would a hyper-compressed story based on snapshots from a tormented man’s consciousness be a ‘Hollywood’ script,” Bissell chuckled.) So Blow took over the writing duties and crafted a nonsequential fictional framework that stretches the very idea of narrative in an interactive medium. To solve the mystery of your purpose on the island, then, you must piece together answers from the sphinxlike narrator’s clues. But to return to the question at the beginning of this paragraph, The Witness is really about two things: it’s about Jon Blow, and it’s about the meaning of life.

Or, combining those two, it’s about the meaning of Jon Blow’s life.

The riddle of why someone so fiercely private would decide to publicly reveal his deepest secrets in The Witness is a thorny one—especially for Blow, the man who refuses on principle to explain the meaning of his games. Yet answering this question helps us tunnel to the very essence of what makes his games so transformative. For in The Witness, Blow aims to do justice to the video game as an artistic medium, fully independent from all of its predecessors.

Blow’s refusal to explain the meaning of his games, after all, stems from a profound respect for his art. Ever since modern technology first made sophisticated video games possible, developers have assumed that the artistic fate of the video game is to become “film with interactivity”—game-play interwoven with scenes based on the vernacular of movies. And not just any movies. “The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie,” Blow said during a conversation in Chris Hecker’s dining room one sunny afternoon. “You’re not trying to make a game like Citizen Kane; you’re trying to make Bad Boys 2.” But questions of movie taste notwithstanding, the notion that gaming would even attempt to ape film troubles Blow. As Hecker explained it: “Look, film didn’t get to be film by trying to be theater. First, they had to figure out the things they could do that theater couldn’t, like moving the camera around and editing out of sequence—and only then did film come into its own.” This was why Citizen Kane did so much to put filmmaking on the map: not simply because it was well made, but because it provided a rich experience that no other medium before it could have provided.

And so Blow, ever loyal to his code, feels it is his responsibility to defend his calling by not reducing video games to the terms we use in dissecting movies and books. This means, somewhat incredibly, that Blow doesn’t believe in even trying to communicate a game’s central message in words; the medium itself, he argues, is the message. “If games are just movies with interactivity, if they don’t have anything that’s their core competency, then you can’t really use them effectively,” he explained. “Now, one of those core competencies for games is a certain kind of nonverbal complex communication, right? You play a game for hours, and at the end of it, you hopefully have this somewhat sublime complex understanding of something that’s hard to verbalize, because you got it nonverbally.”

To Blow, the puzzles and environments of both Braid and The Witness function as a “long-form stream of nonverbal communication”—which is why he won’t bastardize them by expressing their messages in words. In one memorable exchange after a talk he gave at Rice University, a student pressed him to explain the opening imagery of Braid, and Blow replied with a definitive refusal. “As far as I’m concerned, the entirety of the communication of what is happening there is contained in the game, and that’s all that needs to happen,” he said. “And that’s why I make video games. So that’s why I don’t want to tell you.”

Blow’s decision to bare his soul in The Witness springs from this same drive to live up to the full potential of his artistic medium; a meaningful game, he believes, must be an honest one. The Witnesss narrator, he freely admits, is a thinly veiled version of his own psyche. When the narrator speaks of his guilt over spending millions to create an island filled with puzzles instead of using that money for worthier causes, this is Blow’s real spiritual dilemma. When the narrator reflects on his feelings of empty vanity, on his alienation from others, on his “yearning for truth and deep understanding,” these are Blow’s pains and desires.

“I don’t think it’s ultimately too important to humanity for me to communicate the issues of my personal life,” he explained. “I’m more interested in talking about the broader facts of existence that transcend individuals, but the way to get at that honestly and non-bullshittingly is through the personal part.” These revelations sting him, but Blow feels that his higher purpose in making The Witness justifies the discomfort. “If you can’t even deal with somebody knowing your personal soap-opera secrets about your girlfriend or how you felt when you were a kid or whatever, if you feel the need to keep those things hidden that are so tiny compared to the larger things we need to deal with, how could you ask someone else to go beyond that?” he asked. “It would be fake!”

This is what makes Blow’s games so remarkable: at great personal expense, in ways no other developer has even attempted, he struggles to communicate a deeply authentic vision of the meaning of human existence. With both of his games, Blow strives to use the unique language of video games to impart the wisdom he has gained the hard way in his life. In The Witness, he hopes to help players try to “step outside their human viewpoint and see what the world is.” And in Braid, he sought to communicate something more personal still.

One night in his apartment, with the lights of San Francisco twinkling for miles outside his windows, I warned Blow that I was about to do something that might aggravate him: I was going to tell him what I thought Braid was about, and he could do with that whatever he wanted.

“Okay,” he replied with a half smirk, leaning back in his chair.

“So obviously there’s the theme of the creation of the atomic bomb,” I began.

“I think you can make a very strong case that that is an unambiguous reference,” he replied, which I interpreted as the Blovian equivalent of Yes.

“But I think what has frustrated you about people’s interpretations of Braid is that the atom bomb itself is a metaphor for a certain kind of knowledge,” I continued. “You’ve been chasing some deep form of understanding all your life, and what I think you’ve found is that questing after that knowledge brings alienation with it. The further you’ve gone down that road, the further it’s taken you from other people. So the knowledge is ultimately destructive to your life, just like the atom bomb was—it’s a kind of truth that has a cataclysmic impact. You thought chasing that knowledge would make you happy, but like Tim, part of you eventually wished you could turn back time and do things over again.”

Blow remained silent.

“Does that make sense?,” I asked.

“Yep, yep.”

“So?”

He smiled.

“Well, I would say that I would not be frustrated at all with that interpretation.”

The happiest I ever saw Blow was when we met his friend Marc ten Bosch one night at the Oakland branch of a legendarily artery-obstructing local chain called Zachary’s Chicago Pizza. Ten Bosch is a tall, serious independent developer whose grave reticence provided an entertaining counterpoint to Blow’s philosophical expansiveness. When ten Bosch mentioned that he had worked briefly at Electronic Arts on the team that developed the real-time strategy game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, I asked whether he’d found the project interesting. Ten Bosch reflected on this for a moment with the solemn intensity of a man testifying before a Senate subcommittee.

“There were some cool water effects,” he finally said.

“Ooh!,” Blow chimed in. “That’s the ultimate diss!”

It was when ten Bosch began explaining his current game project to me that Blow seemed most in his element. Actually, I should amend that to attempting toexplain, because in the 20 minutes that ten Bosch spent describing his game, Miegakure, pretty much everything he said slid off my brain like raindrops off Gore-Tex. Miegakure, he said, is a puzzle-based platformer that takes place in four dimensions—four spatial dimensions.

“But there aren’t four spatial dimensions,” I protested.

“Well,” ten Bosch countered, “this is what it would be like if there were.” And that was about the last thing he said that I understood for quite a while, as he and Blow chatted avidly about extruding surfaces and imagining flat planes as tubes. In Miegakure, two spatial dimensions are constant, and the player solves puzzles by swapping between the two others with the press of a button. Even as Blow and ten Bosch grew more animated and their explanations more inventive, their words continued to bounce off my forehead like so many tennis balls. Finally, ten Bosch pulled out his iPhone and loaded a sample video of Miegakure’s game-play, which featured a tiny redheaded character walking over a floating island. At the player’s cue, the fabric of the game-world suddenly warped and shifted so that the landmass seemed to be refabricating itself from the inside out. The effect was spellbinding.

“That’s the fourth dimension,” ten Bosch said.

Jaw hanging open, I looked over at Blow, who simply grinned at me.

To Blow, a project like Miegakure epitomizes what makes the video game a unique and exciting artistic medium. Just as he has worked to communicate something verbally inexpressible about the human condition in Braid and in The Witness, ten Bosch, in his game, gives players a new perspective on the world in a way that only a game can. “It’s a valuable contribution to human experience, right?,” Blow said later. “The games I like are ones that have shown me something I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, and Marc’s creating an experience that would not have been possible to have, had he not made it. And that’s pretty interesting.”

Blow is well aware that reaching for this lofty goal through The Witness may make him go broke. He’d like to see the game sell well when it’s released, potentially later this year, but his primary concern is that it fit the artistic parameters he has set for it. “I can always go back to being an independent developer,” he shrugged. “Even if I have zero dollars, I’d be able to do what I did in 2005, but better. If I can just save enough for a year or two of low-budget living, that’s all I need.” Despite his wealth, Blow still thinks like a monk.

Which, in a sense, is just what he is—a spiritual seeker, questing after truth in an as-yet-uncharted realm. These are the terms in which he sees his art. “People like us who are doing something a little different from the mainstream have each picked one direction that we strike out in into the desert, but we’re still not very far from camp,” he told me. “There’s just a huge amount of territory to explore out there—and until you have a map of that, nobody can say what games can do.”

Presented by

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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