The Iconoclasts

The Iconoclasts
Jonathan Blow's Shifting Intention

Allen Varney | 19 Aug 2008 12:10
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On his website, Blow has posted several early game prototypes, such as Oracle Billiards, that experiment with shifts in time - or, more precisely, in player intention. Blow uses the term "somatics," by which he means "shifts in player intention and proxied embodiment." Your cursor or avatar in a game becomes a proxy for your self, in the same way your car becomes your body's proxy when you drive. Braid employs the same idea in a more sophisticated and intricate way.

Designed and programmed by Blow with art by David Hellman, Braid is a 2-D puzzle platformer that lets the player "rewind" time. It's like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, but far more powerful. When you can rewind back to the beginning of any level, standard platform deaths become irrelevant. Instead, Braid's gameplay offers a series of time-based tools, such as alternate-timeline "ghosts" of yourself that remain onscreen even after you rewind.

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Each level's puzzles require a different solution, a different way of thinking about the fundamental gameplay idea. You're always exploring. Blow says he's "trying to model enlightenment."

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Should we view Braid as a testbed for Blow's ideas, and judge their merit based on the game's success?

Another way to ask this is, "Does a critic have to ship product to be credible?" Here the answer is clearly "no." Many of history's most highly regarded critics, though they profoundly shaped the aesthetic of their field, were themselves indifferent creators. (When did you last read a poem by Matthew Arnold?)

Then, too, a pundit's creative efforts can become misadventures that undermine, rather than foster, credibility. Chris Crawford's "Storytron" interactive storytelling project has so far taken nearly twice as long as NASA needed to reach the Moon. With Braid, Blow has at least dodged that fate.

But among the things that make art interesting is the quality, the applicability of the creator's thoughts and emotions. Blow's lectures reveal little about this, because they aren't really personal. In fact, his advocacy for art games, though exciting, is practically generic. The primacy of personal expression is a persistent current in the history of art from William Wordsworth to punk rock. It always needs to be said, and Blow says it well, but it's already been repeated many, many times. Only with Braid can we start to assess his individual artistry.

Still, Blow's own design process on Braid has shaped his philosophy. So - and here we rewind to the start - to the extent Braid has prompted him to make good speeches and get creators thinking, it has already succeeded.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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