The Atlantic's recent, widely-circulated profile on Braid and The Witness creator Jonathan Blow caused a bit of a stir in gamer circles, as is to be expected when major publications turn their "outsider" eye toward our space.
While many on social media generally agreed it was a compelling profile of "flinty"-eyed Blow and his oblique, unsettling persona, they didn't care for the Atlantic writer's universal dismissal of games as "juvenile, silly and intellectually lazy."
Obviously games wouldn't have the economic weight they do today if a majority of their fans agreed with that assessment. We can probably forgive that the article lacks the context of the commercial industry's necessarily risk-averse, mass-market nature and how designers like Blow must double down on independence, on personal message, must eschew the visible system, in order to act as innovators in this environment of products that outsiders find dumb.
We can forgive it because mainstream publications and their audiences have just recently begun to understand what "we" have known for years: that it's possible for games to be personal expression, media capable of experiences unique to games alone. This is a big huge revelation for them, so we might even be able to forgive that "Citizen Kane" thing. Oh man.
I don't think "games" as a medium need to be, as the Atlantic puts it, "addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens", else I wouldn't be doing the work I do. But if you can't see how someone from the outside looking in might have gotten that impression of our world, you're in denial.
Is the Atlantic right? Are games dumb? Do they need to be art? Does honoring game developers as creative personalities confer some legitimacy upon them that didn't exist before? This is a really, really tired discussion, the whole "games as art" thing. Can't answer it; don't want to, don't care. Some games are objectively meaningful to many in spite of being "stupid," as the New York Times found when it likened an Angry Birds habit to rosary prayer.
But there is one thing that makes me excited as regards the Atlantic article that would persist even if it had levied even a weightier doom sentence on this medium we work in and love.
Okay, so the piece incorrectly paints Blow as a lone noble, "the only one" standing against a tide of moronic commercialism. I like to think that Blow himself wouldn't absolutely agree with this characterization. Yet the Atlantic article does entertain a lavish fascination with the game developer as simultaneously an architect and a storyteller, the designer of an experience that -- here, this is important -- can also be personal self-expression.
Most importantly, it demonstrates that none of these are mutually-exclusive, that the player can own a story that is also an intended expression of the creator.
It demonstrates, to an audience potentially widely unfamiliar with games, that games can provide an experience for players that might invite them into a stranger's mind and let them make their own sense of it. My favorite bits of the article are the ones that make the connection between Blow's distinctive, crooked widow's peak and some of the narratives written into The Witness, which the author found himself surprised to be invited to play in its unfinished state. I was touched by that strange connection between open-minded, curious journalist and unapologetic creator.
Discussions about 'auteur theory' in games tend to hinge on the same debates: Should a game developer "tell a story" or "allow the player to create his or her own story?" This binary argument seems increasingly silly in an environment where reports on the human experience, whether they come from what we call journalism or from an individual's personal thoughts on Twitter, exist on an increasingly-broad spectrum. We participate in others' stories and we write our own every day.
Look at the way the Atlantic's writer views and interprets Blow, and notice that there are all kinds of ranges in between; the writer found himself creating his own narrative from being exposed to Blow's abstract and mysterious -- yet doubtless personal -- approach to creating player experience.
The question of how much we ("we" being "games critics," fans, developers, players, whatever) should consider the identity and personality of a game's creator has been on the minds of many since the release of Fez, Phil Fish and Renaud Bedard's Independent Games Festival grand prize winner five years in the making.
Whether he intended it or otherwise, Fez originator Fish hasn't been shy about struggling with himself and his relationship to his magnum opus in the public forum, rapidly developing a reputation as a challenging personality who often puts his foot in his mouth. Obviously Fez was no solo project, yet it's become Fish's bete noire, uniquely -- or perhaps vice-versa, for the good or ill of all involved.
That Fez has received incredibly high acclaim from fans and reviewers since its high-pressure launch hasn't made it any easier for game fans to work out the degree to which they should associate the creator with his creation (as of press time Fezenjoys a high 90 Metacritic rank, but a middling 6.5 rank by user vote).
But that they ask the question, that they debate it amongst themselves on social media and in fan forums, speaks to an interesting age for games. The field has hesitated strongly to christen the age of the auteur, since historically the idea of "authored experience" has been so deeply fraught, bringing with it the presumption of scripting, of overbearing intention that might quash, gate and limit the player's sense of freedom and self-expression. Long has the argument of extremes -- are game developers narrators or theme park designers? -- raged.
But it's the work of game development's standout personalities that seem to be the most interesting to followers of game culture. It's actually always been this way: Look how quickly the most outspoken showmen in even mainstream rank-and-file AAA development teams develop cult followings, become victims of media pull-quote behavior, become icons to be swarmed at events.
It's only now that increased attention to and interest in indie designers, who often work solo or on small teams, has shined a spotlight on the fact that audiences have a deep and abiding appetite for conversation with creators. There is hunger for games that feel like tangible reflections of an actual human being. It seems "author" could mean something different in interactive media than it does in other spaces -- and maybe it isn't such a bad word.
More simply, that the Atlantic was more fascinated with Blow than with video games, and that fans are often ready to scrutinize Fish more closely than they do his game, illustrates opportunities now for a wider definition of "auteur" in games. More importantly, it shows why audiences want and need strong-voiced creators. The medium lets us join others in their relationships with themselves. We learn more about ourselves that way.
This is what lets me continue to love games: the idea that, okay, most of them will be entertainment products that I might like or I might not. But some of them will be dialogues with visionaries, unflinchingly honest interaction in the way that only games can offer.