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April 2012

I got your smart games right here.


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… 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. --Atlantic Magazine profile of Jonathan Blow, May '12

It’s hard not to see Taylor Clark’s recent Atlantic essay as a sharp slap in the face to all of us who don’t believe all video games are “juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy” and aren’t peering at the horizon awaiting the “Citizen Kane of video games."

Clark, presumably channeling his subject’s well-known contempt for mindless derivative design, berates the entire medium, industry, and community of gamers with a cruel flick of his pen. Predictably, the Twitterverse and discussion forums erupted in outrage, with angry gamers accusing Clark of ignorance, elitism, condescension…and worse. Clark's critique has validity, but his sweeping generalizations and dismissive rhetoric undermine his assertions and obscure an otherwise fascinating portrait of an important designer.

So, how best to respond to such an inflammatory essay? I have one idea that I’ll pitch in a moment. But first a few thoughts about Clark's assertions.

Mainstream media is always “dumb.” It’s easy to point at a critical darling like Mad Men and say “See how smart TV can be?” Do you know how many people in the U.S. actually watch Mad Men? 2.5 million. That’s a decent number for cable, but a meager 2.5 million viewers would get Mad Men canceled if it ran on a major network.

Twice as many people watch reruns of Jersey Shore than watch first-run episodes of Mad Men. Three times as many watch Judge Judy. As I write this, the #1 movie in America is Think Like a Man, and the #1 book is “Guilty Wives.” We consume lots of pablum. We always have. Why should video games be any different? Clark's contention that games are even dumber than dumb movies makes no sense to me. Dumb is dumb.

Clark is looking at the wrong games. I hope Mr. Clark will attend IndieCade or Games for Change this year. I hope he will chat with other designers besides Jonathan Blow about their design philosophies, priorities, and aesthetic sensibilities. Don’t bother with the Sid Meiers or Will Wrights. We’ve heard their ideas. Try a young, emerging designer like Chris Bell. Listen to him describe the game he’s working on (a game called WAY, which I’ve played), and tell me what’s dumb about his project.

So many questions. Why no mention of Minecraft, Portal, SpaceChem, Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery, Bastion, or any strategy game? Why so fixated on narrative? Why no consideration for player-driven or emergent experiences? If “the form remains an artistic backwater,” exactly what form are we talking about? Discussing video games as a monolithic medium oversimplifies the wide (and still growing) variety of genres, play styles, mechanics, and interactive formats video games have adopted.

Maybe Clark is exhausted. I have a feeling this is the real story, and I'm sympathetic. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. We’ve played games from their infancy, and we thought they would matter more by now. We thought we would be long past the “art” question by now. We thought we would see more games for grown-ups by now. I watch the E3 press conferences, I walk into my local GameStop, I hear my students talk about games, and all I see are guns, guns, and more guns. It’s so easy to be disappointed. Clark quotes Chris Hecker’s lament, “It’s just adolescent nonsense.” Often I think he’s right.

But then Clark delivers another zinger, and I hear a gauntlet hit the ground:

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.

Really? Clark further contends that “gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles” - Flower and Braid - to counter Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that games are unworthy of aesthetic consideration.


Let's Build Something
I think we can do better than that. We can respond constructively. I propose that we collectively build an informal "Smart Game Catalog.” Nothing official. No effort to be comprehensive. Simply an invitation to pitch a game you consider “artistic or intellectually sophisticated” and explain why you think so. If you disagree with Clark's bleak assessment, counter with a helpful response.

Vilifying Clark or defensively rejecting his characterization of games serves no useful purpose. There is more than a kernel of truth in his view of games as "juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy." Too many games are "plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels." Clark's generalizations may undermine his argument, but as I wrote about Jon Blow in my previous post, an artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it. Clark strikes me as a critic motivated to do just that.

Pooling our collective expertise and building an informal catalog of smart games may encourage Clark and others to consider games in a more nuanced way than his Atlantic article models. If nothing else, such a catalog will make a handy resource for players seeking smart games, broadly defined, to play.

Here’s a simple format for the catalog:

  • Name of game
  • Developer and Release Year
  • Platform (PC, Sega Genesis, PS3, Multi, etc.)
  • A paragraph or two (keep it concise) explaining precisely why you consider the game “artistic or intellectually sophisticated.” Apply rigorous criteria. You have one game to recommend. Choose the best one you know.

If you agree or disagree with someone’s choice of a particular game, say so in the comments here. I’m not interested in flamewars, so be civil and respectful. I’ll moderate your entries to avoid spam, so please be patient if the game you choose doesn’t appear on the list immediately.

Let’s see if we can prove - with specific titles as our evidence - that games can be more than “brain-dead digital toys.”

NOTE: After 365 submissions, I'm no longer accepting entries to the catalog. Thanks for your help!!

View the catalog.

View the catalog in spreadsheet mode (Choose View | List to sort and filter)

Dissident designer

DissidentThe 8000-word profile of Jonathan Blow that appears in this month’s Atlantic Magazine reveals a game designer behaving as dissident artists have behaved for centuries: defiantly rejecting popular paradigms, brashly challenging his contemporaries, thoroughly consumed with exploring the nature and function of his art.

The article’s author, Taylor Clark, portrays Blow as a “difficult and spiky“ man absorbed in his self-expressive work, with ”no patience for coddling or bullshit," committed to producing something better, richer, deeper…and worthy of him.

Principled violence
For many, it’s a bit much. Artists like Blow are regarded as arrogant or overbearing because they’re spurred, at least partially, by contempt for the prevailing mediocrity they see around them - ‘mediocrity’ produced by lots of hard-working, talented people.

Dissident artists can seem bloated with certainty, dismissing opposing views as propping up the status quo. They come off as uncompromising reformists or, worse, self-absorbed zealots. Creators like Blow point at something on the distant horizon and warn us that if we don’t head in that direction, something we care about will die. Actually, it’s probably dead already. And good riddance.

Predictably, some find Blow’s truculence off-putting, but there is a bright and galvanizing upside. Vexed artists are vital to the evolution of art, and they always have been. The apostate doesn’t merely dismiss; he renounces. There is principled violence in this act. It is unavoidable.

Artist as bushwhacker
The Société des Artistes Indépendants’ motto “No jury, no awards!” was a middle finger thrust at the staid Royal Academy painters. Astruc’s ‘direct cinéma’ denounced the “tyranny of the narrative.” The Clash’s “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” was a manifesto decree that the old must be destroyed for the new to emerge. Artist as insurgent. Artist as bushwhacker. Outrage pricks the side of intent.

A few months ago I interviewed Jon Blow on my podcast and found him to be thoughtful, personable, and refreshingly self-critical. He didn’t shy away from sharing his opinions, positive or negative, but he was reluctant to paint in broad general strokes. We spoke longer than the length of the podcast indicates, and I found it a thoroughly positive experience.

I don’t know Jon Blow well enough to draw conclusions about his motivations, so I’m hesitant to do it. But I’ve worked in the arts nearly all my life, writing and staging theater, and teaching film and dramatic literature. I’ve closely observed, first-hand, the work of uncompromising creators like Andrei Serban, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Sam Shepard. I’m a working artist myself, and I believe I understand a few true things about how and why many artists behave as they do.

Jon Blow expresses contempt for mainstream games and the industry producing them (“The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie…”), because reinforcing torpid conventions is antithetical to his existence. When Blow says, ”I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity," he feels it as much as he thinks it, and the resultant indignation fuels his drive to make something better.

That’s what progressive artists do. They get worked up. They express outrage. They see great untapped potential suffocating in a toxic cloud of derivative convention. Their determination to move the art/medium/industry forward carries with it a kind of messianic zeal that some perceive as presumptuous. But it comes from a principled fervent place. An artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it.

Feeling it
It’s a cliche to say artists feel more than the rest of us, but they do often respond more forcefully because every creative idea they encounter is a new shred of evidence verifying or challenging their own hard-wrought aesthetic claims. For an artist driven to innovate, it’s a war of ideas and methodologies out there, and you can’t enter that fray indifferent or semi-motivated. Jon Blow is all in because he doesn’t know any other way to be.

Do video games need to be saved? Why should a guy like Jon Blow take it upon himself to do the job? If he hates games so much, why doesn’t he do something else? These are the wrong questions. Are Blow’s assertions about the current state of games valid? What can we learn from the work he produces? These are questions worth pursuing.

Blow is a theorist, but only to a point. Ultimately, he is a builder. Whatever else we might say about him, he is fully invested, literally and figuratively, in creating a game that embodies his ideas and aesthetic principles. Nobody needs to tell Jon Blow to put up or shut up. He’s on it. Let’s let him do his thing.

I have more to say about the Atlantic piece and its author’s characterization of games as “brain-dead digital toys” in my next post. I hope you’ll stick around.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 36

TotiloThe Brainy Gamer podcast is back!

In this edition I talk with Stephen Totilo, editor-in-chief of Kotaku, one of the most influential blogs websites devoted to video games in the world.

Stephen and I discuss video game journalism, the changes he's implementing at Kotaku, why "you can't escape the numbers," why Rock Paper Shotgun rocks, and why we actually need 24/7 games news....among many other topics.

Thanks for your patience while I took some time off from the show, and, as always, thanks for listening!

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast RSS feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

Journey as Flow


Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Go until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.
       -Stephen Sondheim, "Finishing the Hat" 

In my previous post I tried to explain why I see thatgamecompany’s Journey as rooted in the Seven Principles of Enlightenment. This type of comparative analysis is inviting because it allows a critic like me to interrogate his experience with a game and account for why it resonates.

But it’s possible to see an imaginative game like Journey through other analytical lenses, and in this post I contend that the seeds for Journey were planted in 2006 when Creative Director Jenova Chen submitted his Master’s thesis at USC. To understand how and why Journey succeeds as game design, it’s useful to examine how it functions as an expression of Flow.*

What is Flow?
Flow is often equated with the catch-all “immersion,” but that term fails to account for the specificity Chen applies to the experience he wants to provoke. A better way to describe Flow is a feeling of deep, energized focus on a task, delivering a high degree of pleasure and fulfillment.1  Gamers know this feeling of being “in the zone,” thoroughly wrapped up in the experience of play.

Games that strike a perfect dynamic balance between their challenges and the abilities of the player are most likely to evoke the sensation of Flow. In his thesis, Chen argues this requires three core design elements:

  1. As a premise, the game is intrinsically rewarding, and the player is up to play the game. 
  2. The game offers right amount of challenges to match with the player’s ability, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
  3. The player needs to feel a sense of personal control over the game activity.

To keep a player in this pleasurable state, a game’s systems must maintain a “flow state” that rewards players of various skill levels. According to Chen, “To expand a game’s Flow Zone coverage, the design needs to offer a wide variety of gameplay experiences. From extremely simple tasks to complex problem solving, different players should always be able to find the right amount of challenges to engage during the Flow experience."

Flow, Not Flow
So how does Journey deliver on these design aspirations? Interestingly, Chen acknowledges in his thesis that “Game Content” is “the soul of a video game,” but he focuses nearly all his efforts on “Game System,” or what he calls “the “body of a video game” - mechanics, interactions, puzzles, the stuff we generally call “gameplay.”

Journey’s systems beautifully convey a sense of kinetic flow, textured by the game’s natural elements. Wind, sand, and snow each alter the player’s movements, and the game’s keen sense of verticality keeps the player looking up. Journey builds on Flower’s subtle pathfinding system, offering visual clues that gently suggest, without insisting, where to go. You quickly learn what must be done. Simple things. Reach a high plateau. Liberate the magic carpets thingies. Follow the light. On a systems level, Journey makes it easy to do necessary things and more difficult do optional things - a design approach Mario has understood for years.

But Chen’s thesis suggests he may not have properly understood the overwhelming power of place, ambience, and atmosphere in 2006. Tracking the evolution of his work from Flow (a game design demonstration of Flow theory) through Flower to Journey, one can easily see environment grow in significance, communicating meaning through a subtle composite of lush visual texture, landscape design, and abstraction.

Thatgamecompany’s games grow exponentially as visual landscapes for exploration as they remain purposefully simple to play. I like Ian Bogost’s characterization of the studio’s signature: “Its games are about the feeling of being somewhere, not about the feeling of solving something.”

Journey certainly gives the player more things to do - and the addition of co-op play adds an essential dimension to the experience - but even more than in its previous games, thatgamecompany builds an enthralling place for us to be, and, surprisingly, that’s enough.

Reversing the formula
So is Journey a demonstration of Flow theory? I say yes, but not because of its dynamic challenge system. Journey’s “flow zone” accommodates all of us, not because it flexes to various skill levels, but because it essentially ignores the question of “skill.”

Journey presents a vibrant world in which mechanics serve aesthetics. Most “artsy” games (e.g. Limbo or Bastion) succeed by reversing that formula. Journey is very much a game, but it moves much further than Flow or Flower in the direction of “interactive experience,” with a significantly more cinematic visual style.

It’s always fun to watch artists evolve, adapt, and incorporate new ideas. Jenova Chen’s trek from Masters thesis to Journey suggests an expanding creative mind and a refining aesthetic. Regardless of one’s reaction to his work, we can praise an industry and a community of gamers that values unconventional work and embraces artists who give us more to see.

* The concept of Flow was first theorized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, whom Chen amply credits in his thesis.