The Most Dangerous Gamer:In a multibillion-dollar industry addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens, can true art finally flourish?
Like many wealthy people, Jonathan Blow vividly remembers the moment he became rich. At the time, in late 2008, he was $40,000 in debt and living in a modest San Francisco apartment, having just spent more than three years meticulously refining his video game, Braid—an innovative time-warping platformer (think Super Mario Bros. meets Borges), whose $200,000 development Blow funded himself. Although Braid had been released, to lavish praise from the video-game press, on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service that August, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day when he sat down at a café in the city’s Mission district. “I opened up my Web browser and Holy fuck, I’m rich now,” he recalled. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account.” […]
Blow has decided to use his money—nearly all of it—to finance what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history, one that he hopes will radically expand the limitations of his chosen field. Although video games long ago blossomed into full commercial maturity (the adrenaline-soaked military shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, for example, racked up $400 million in sales during its first 24 hours in stores last fall), the form remains an artistic backwater, plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels. Blow intends to shake up this juvenile hegemony with The Witness, a single-player exploration-puzzle game set on a mysterious abandoned island. In a medium still awaiting its quantum intellectual leap, Blow aims to make The Witness a groundbreaking piece of interactive art—a sort of Citizen Kane of video games.
It’s a characteristically audacious plan for a man who has earned a reputation not just as the video-game industry’s most cerebral developer, but also as its most incisive and polarizing internal critic. To Blow, being labeled the most intellectual man in video games is a little like being called the most chaste woman in a brothel: not exactly something to crow about to Mom and Dad. “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity,” he told me. “There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”
Braid is so, so great. Do yourself a favor and try it.