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Games: They’re not Films

Braid screenshot - developer Jon Blow points out that games need to emphasise what's unique about the medium

It’s funny how things often tie themselves up in satisfying little bundles. One week after posting a long rambling piece on how we can go about forging a style of criticism unique to games, I came across this interview with Jon Blow. Now I’d never heard of indie developer Jon Blow before, or even either of his games Braid or the upcoming The Witness but it made fascinating reading nevertheless, which tied in nicely with the whole games-as-art thing that I’d been thinking about. Here’s a man who’s not just echoing what so many of us are saying about the one-dimensional nature of modern video games but doing something about it too.

It’s a long piece although entirely worthwhile. But just in case you don’t have time to read it I’ll go straight for what I thought was the money shot, toward the end of the article:

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.

This is one of those times where I was forcibly struck by the fact that this was screamingly obvious once stated, but that I’d never heard it stated before. Games are not films, and to become the unique artistic medium they can be, they need to concentrate on what it is that they can do uniquely.

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And the tie-back to the criticism piece? Well, if this message is true of the medium, it’s true of the criticism as well. As writers we need to be thinking about this, about what makes games unique and focussing on that when we de-construct and analyse things. And not only that, we need to be thinking about what makes writing about games unique, and using that as the basis to forge our new art.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

27 thoughts to “Games: They’re not Films”

    1. Yeah, how is that possible? Braid must be among the most often discussed indie projects of the last several years. I would have expected anyone even tangentially involved in the game industry would have encountered the game by now, if only because its popularity has given Jonathan Blow license to share every single opinion that occurs to him.

      He’s rather like a Kardashian, only instead of celebrity trysts and sex tapes, Jonathan Blow’s stock and trade is making sure everyone on the planet hears about what a profound thinker Jonathan Blow is. Talented? Oh, we’ll get around to that someday.

    2. Haha, I think the rest of the comments are going to be about the disbelief that Matt has never heard of Braid and Blow.

      I really do think that figures like Blow are important in an industry(note how we use industry, rather than other words like, say, art form) as screwed up like this one. You don’t have to personally like him to think that though.
      That interview is really interesting, and long, so I will finish reading it later today, but I really liked this snippet:
      “Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome?”

      1. I was struck by that quote too. Another article for another time.

        The reason I haven’t heard of Jon Blow is because basically I have highly selective knowledge of what happened in the game industry between 2006 and 2010. The former was the year my first child was born, and the latter was the year I actually got an updated game platform and started to get back into things.

      2. I actually completely agree with you, even though I don’t like Blow. If we are going to view games as art, then it is important that we have auteurs and creators that are effectively a part of their work and identity.

        As much as I don’t like Blow (or Fish, or Team Meat), it’s definitely a positive to have individuals identified as authors rather than faceless “dev teams”.

        1. It makes me wonder if the idea of having a film-like director position would be a good thing in a big studio. There are, of course, the likes of Hideo Kojimas and Ken Levine that seem to hold that position, but generally the big studios seem to avoid having such a person. I mean, I have no clue who the person in charge of Mass Effect was. It could simply be that game design is a more democratic process than film, where a lot more of the decisions are spread and delegated over the whole team, so shining the light on just one person would be less fair.
          If that is true, is it at all possible in gaming to ever have a Kubrick like figure – someone who just does interesting shit with a huge budget.

          @Matt
          Just to make clear why people would be surprised that you haven’t heard of it: When Braid came out everyone was talking about it endlessly. It was horrible. I thought it was overrated and bs (and I didn’t really get the oh so intricate story).

        2. Team Meat – The Developers who left a cleartext Master SQL password in their code for Super Meat Boy, and then wondered why when it was found and they failed to -do- anything about it, got exploited.

          In the race between idiotproof design and and inventiveness of idiots, the idiots are winning.

    1. Phil Fish is giving him a run for the money, Blow better bring his A+ pretentious dick game to support the witness.

      Just what games-as-art needed, jackasses who think they’re mavericks…by making jumped-up NES games.

      1. Bearing in mind I haven’t played Braid so I can’t comment on its content, what is it that qualifies Journey to be game-as-art while Braid is pretentious? Sure it’s a platformer but the art bit is in the story it tells, rather than the gameplay, right?

        Of course that would rather disqualify it for properly differentiating itself from a film of course, since if the art is in the story … well, films and books probably do that better.

        1. Braid probably is close to art, at least as much as Journey is. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. 😉

          It’s not terrible, it has some interesting concepts but ultimately it is a puzzle platformer with an overlay of thematic concepts, keyed chiefly to a time reversal mechanic. Unfortunately, it’s saddled with that peculiar brand of indie nostalgia, so it references Super Mario Brothers constantly. It didn’t need to.

          I don’t know if it matters if the “art” is in the story…all mediums are capable of storytelling- sculpture, collage, music, dance, whatever. I don’t think that’s where we find art in games. I think we find art in games when the specific qualities of the medium- interaction, agency, immersion, and so forth- are leveraged along with storytelling and principles from other disciplines to arrive at something that goes beyond base “fun” or mechanics and gets at expression, psychology, and representation.

          Journey absolutely does this, and really the “game” parts of it are almost in retreat. As a video game, Braid might actually be more successful in balancing those impulses but it’s also not as experimental or tied to the player’s ego.

          As far as pretentiousness goes, the makers of Journey are hardly as outspoken as Blow…Blow, like a couple of other loudmouth indie developers, has made a career out of making strident statements and expressing a malicious snobbery toward certain kinds of games, gamers, and game makers. I’m all for being up front, honest, and I _like_ rock n’ roll attitudes but when what you’ve got to show for yourself is a puzzle platformer and hardly a game-changing work of immortal art…you’d better have a little humility.

          1. 1) “Film didn’t get to be film by aping theater.” False. That’s EXACTLY what it did. A bunch of great movies before Citizen Kane are adaptations of stage plays, right down to the five-minute takes where one camera pans back and forth in the place of the audience member’s head.

            Citizen Kane made film into its own genre, yes. No question. But the preceding infancy was necessary.

            Every art has one – and even has a phase where the critics of the previous forms declare that the new thing “is not art”. I’d have to look up some references, but I’m pretty sure the Chronological Order of Art Disdain is sculpture, then painting, then theater, then writing, then film, and now games. And oh, look! The “not art” argument generally seems to pop up when serious examples of that art first become widely available to not-rich or not-fanatic people.

            2) Reference is necessary to art, and that’s why infancy and aping are necessary. The Barnes is absolutely right about Braid being a Mario clone – in Blow’s prototype videos, he shows that he actually used the original video objects from Donkey Kong to design his level puzzles.

            In being so strident about originality, Blow creates the opportunity for Barnes to throw irony egg in his face on this. But personally, I don’t think it’s wrong for any of these indie games to reference Mario. Mario is a work of the Great Masters. The sin lies in making a reference without bringing something else to the table.

            3) Speaking of that something else, Mister Barnes likes to dismiss the originality of Braid and focus on what he hates – which is that good man’s prerogative, to be sure. I have to say I’m on the fence. Blow’s objective – get you to figure out what Braid is about by exploring – succeeds. And it’s an effort that no one else is making, which is why Braid remains one of my favorite games.

            But Blow’s main failing, in my mind, is the failing most of us have when we’re wearing our Superior Hats: Because Most of Thing Type X sucks, I must abandon all use of Thing Type X.

            Specifically, Blow made some decisions about the non-linear text that conveys the game’s meaning. These decisions were clearly made to make the game more obscure *for the sake of obscurity*. This is bad writing, bad theater, and bad film, and there’s no reason that this would somehow become good gaming.

            90% of everything sucks. The way to properly incorporate film techniques into gaming is to *incorporate* them, not abandon them. But that’s much harder than looking down our nose at the unworthy, innit?

            And one last bizarro-related parting shot: Nickelback’s “The State” is mostly a great album. Yep. I said it. Silver Side Up being too popular and All the Right Reasons being drunken garbage don’t change that. I was around ten years before, when we did the same sh*t to Weezer (who dared to make the Blue album excellent on their first try).

          2. Sigh. Every music era must have its lepers. I also have fond memories of jamming to Stone Temple Pilots songs while everyone else was saying they sounded too much like Pearl Jam. Wanna hate on me for that, too? I can take it.

          3. Haha, while I’m not necessarily a fan of either, I’ll take STP over Pearl Jam any day of the week.

          4. You have to be able to recite the actual lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter” before you can come in on Pearl Jam’s side. They’ve been dead to me since Yield.

  1. Btw. I thought this was a really interesting TV program and it is relevant because it has Chris Crawford (and Jason Rohrer) in it who was always very critical of the state of the industry. What makes this interesting is that it gives an insight into how these people think and what they are looking for, even if they really don’t seem to have a proper answer to the issues they are trying to address.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXf8EZVr_Po

  2. I read that whole interview and came away with several things.

    1) Blow is really a self-sated little prick
    2) The interviewer had a very narrow, ignorant, and disparaging view if games. Willing to believe the lie to stroke Blow’s ego (or make their piece seem more important by building Blow up)
    3) They firmly believe in a single authorial hand guiding what makes art, but ignore the fact that movies are just as much a collective art as games.
    4) I do agree about needing to stop aping film. That’s why I love Bastion, it tells it’s story in a way unique to games. The gameplay informs the narrative, which seems to be a big point for Blow.

  3. It would also be good to explore how a genre of games does not always equate to someone loving a particular game, even if they were a fan of that genre. Take for example Michael Barnes and his hatred of retro 2d pixel art. You can’t put an expectation of presentation on a genre. Something to think about maybe.

    1. I don’t hate pixel art, I just think it’s overused and a lazy way to establish some kind of alternative clout. I don’t get how making your game look like Pitfall or Dig Dug is innovative or modern.

      There is great pixel art- Sword & Sworcery and Bit.Trip come to mind I like it postmodern, highly stylized, or starkly minimalist.

  4. Did Blow really talk about his money as just a fictional figure that someone put in his bank account? I think we’d all love for our banks to put some fictional zeros behind our fictional dollars. And he wasn’t just referencing Citizen Kane as an example of ultimate film making, but hopes his game will be the Citizen Kane of gaming. I’m not reading the rest of it because people have already wasted too much ink on this guy. I mean, I did not just spend two years studying cultural industries to believe that the creative genius is at the core of art instead of the collaborative effort of an art world. Blow can disparage the Call of Duty all he wants, but he wouldn’t be anywhere without Xbox, which was built largely on Halo.

    1. What is the current “official” take on the angry lone genius in creativity? Part of a broader continuum? Or almost completely fictional?

      I’ve been absorbing a lot of creativity studies lately, but I can’t say I’ve majored in it.

      1. It basically boils down to that it is a construction that is not true to how art is made. There’s plenty of different theories on it, but the most important thing to know is that successful artists aren’t tortured loners, but entrepreneurs with networking skills and all that.

  5. I feel like a lot of the best games have had their stories written around the established gameplay mechanics, or around ideas about what mechanics the devs want in the game. Take Bastion for example, large parts of the story were written around mechanics in the game. The floor appearing from underneath the player was written into the story as the aftermath of the calamity.

    Trying to wrap gameplay around an established story is probably easier from a dev perspective, but you often end up with a boring, predictable game. Perfect examples would be recent Bioware games like the Dragon Age and Mess Effect series.

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