Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
06 September 2010
Are "heady" games just another niche?
From Jonathan Blow's blog for his next project, The Witness:

For all three days of PAX 2010, The Witness was publicly playable by anyone who came by the booth. However, it was unmarked and unattended, so it was easy to miss (as many people did).
I had several reasons for wanting to show the game this way. Firstly: At a show full of companies trying to capture your attention and sell you things, I wanted to do something that is subtle, and a surprise — if you notice it, and decide to investigate, you find something unexpected.

This weekend, I played and finished Braid, Blow's exceptionally impressive platformer of a few years back. It was the first game that forced me to finish it since, well, ignoring something in the Civ series, since, if I remember correctly, Metal Gear Solid. That it only took about seven hours to finish didn't hurt...

What I find myself wondering, though, after reading of a "stunt" like the one he describes, above, (stunt if only in its being unconventional, though combining it with a blog post questions the unconventionality a bit), is if gaming is so large now that there's simply a market for thoughtfully designed games. That is, is Blow creating the new, I don't know, "free-range video game," with all the cachet that implies?

I think Braid hit the nail squarely on the head. It was thoughtful, buoyed by an engaging, if not particularly deep plot (at least in a conventional sense of narrative; more poetic than having great narrative depth), and, dang it, the puzzles were just challenging enough to be fun without being anything close to impossible. I also wonder what sort of mind is needed to make the puzzles as easy as they were -- excepting. admittedly, the stars; I only had the vaguest notion of their existence on two of the levels that contained them. That is, would your typical 12 year-old SMB player have done as well as I did? Better? Or does the ability to play with time qua logic in these puzzles work in part b/c of Blow's [and my] programmatic mind, training, and skills? That is, I worked as a database admin for years and still program on the side while I'm teaching a 400-level course on games. Why wouldn't I like Blow's games? Something similar must go for those who review games. Blow's made a game that appeals to the finer sensibilities found within that/my subset of gamers.

Take, for instance, the number of people who say not to use online FAQs and cheats when playing Braid. If anything, Braid is not tougher than your average game. It's much, much easier. It's played by those who normally DO depend on walk-throughs and hints. As a friend of mine said in high school after cheating on a chemistry test, "I didn't cheat on the whole test. I took it first, and only cheated on the ones I missed." I wonder if that's usually enough for most gamers; we only cheat on those puzzles we can't quickly solve. Braid was special because we could solve it (in part because we, as a community, parroting Blow on his site, told each other we could), we knew we were watching something thoughtful and different [and like us?] as we did so, and we ultimately didn't want to ruin its relatively quaint intentions. A wine to savor rather than two liters of Coke to blast through. [Or, less appropriately, a keg to keg stand and funnel through.]

Ultimately, I'm not sure if Blow has created the equivalent of video gaming literature that stands out of the pulp, or if his "movement" with Braid and now The Witness is something that captures our shared moment better than the sea of alternatives. In fact, I'm still tempted to give Rockstar's and Hideo Kojima's games the leg up as true masterpieces of the medium. Blow seems to have done a better job building the sorts of games Ian Bogost would like to believe he's been building, ones that force a few of us to take a new look at our decisions and society, but, even with the attention Braid's gotten, I still wonder if its press isn't because it's, perhaps unwittingly, still doing no more than shooting for a very specialized sub-market.

Another, "I'm thinking while I type" post, brought to you by...

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--ruffin at 16:00
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