Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Most Dangerous Gamer Has No Clothes

Photo courtesy of Jake Stangel of The Atlantic

This month's Atlantic features two fascinating articles about two very flawed geniuses trying to redefine their art form: hiphop's Kanye West and the video game world's esoteric genius Jonathan Blow.  The article on Kanye was interesting, albeit one that focuses primarily on the artist and little on the artist's relation to his medium rather than on his audience.  Taylor Clark's piece on the other hand is far more interesting,  a simultaneous mapping of a genius and the path of a new art form.  Much like other "geniuses," there is much brood intentionally being heaped upon Blow, borne out of the weight of the perceived responsibility of such a figure to understand the totality of humanity and the human condition along with the form of his craft.  Although such a portrait is generally a construct that stretches back to the romanticism of the artist in the 17th century, I was sucked into it nevertheless because it reminds one of the discussions still being conducted about the form and place of film as an art form.  

As compelling a figure Jonathan Blow is, there are nevertheless two points that stuck out as foul balls in an otherwise great mini-biography.  first, this quote:

 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.
What about DW Griffith or Soviet Avante Garde which forever set the basis of our understanding of the role of editing  in creating a cinematic reality?  The French Surrealists, who gave birth to the idea of cinema as not merely a replica of reality but as a creation of a new mode of consciousness?  Or the role of German Expressionism in pushing the idea of reality and realism as in itself a horrific thing to witness?  Influenced and informed by AFI, Clark, like the rest of the general American movie-going public views  cinema as the be-all and end-all Orson Welles' artistic expression.  According to him, before Welles cinema was still stuck in a singular plane, with movements running at 16 frames per second and narratives restricted by a single reel.  Maybe the trouble with video games is that it is searching too hard for a Citizen Kane and not understanding that Welles, like film itself, was a byproduct of a series of innovations and inventions that produced an environment that allowed for his genius to express itself.  They are looking for a turn-around point when what they need is an ever-widening field that allowed for the expanding possibilities provided by video games.

The other offending quote may be more suggestive of what I think may be the root of the problem of the video game's progress:

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.” 


He smiled. 

Well, I would say that I would not be frustrated at all with that interpretation.”
Really?   This complex man who wants to use the pain of growing up to guide his efforts to expand the universe of video games is satisfied with the explanation that the fruit of his efforts was a mere vehicle for further gloating about the pain of understanding others?  Blow was already a bit of an intolerable (pardon the pun) blowhard throughout the article, but you forgave him because you knew that the weight of his burden is huge and his efforts to shrug was real.  All the talk about transcendence and creating an expression of the human condition through this new art form was quickly whisked away with the suggestion--a suggestion Blow seemed to have approved--that maybe Blow's art was not meant to be transcendent, but as just yet another exercise in appeasing adolescent urges, anxieties and pain.   Braid may have been complex and cerebral, but it's a gut reaction like every other adolescent game to came before it, and that reaction came from the same gut all the same.  Clark wanted Blow to be that turn-around point for video game, but the reality is that he is not.  There are no geniuses in art, only people that lay the foundation for the changes to come after them.  Blow is no genius--just like Welles, he is a psyche wanting to free itself through a medium.  His genius does not come from reinventing the video game, but from his contributions to the ground work required for the evolution of the video game.  The video game does not need a Citizen Kane, as film did not need it to advance as an art form.

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