Article of 2012

Video games are now one of the most profitable forms of entertainment in America, as well as one of the most adolescent, stupid and not "loading" the brain. Seriously? At least that's what Jonathan Blow thinks. He is the toughest critic of the gaming industry and its most valuable developer, who seeks to change our understanding of games and storytelling. With the next release, The Witness , Blow can strengthen his legacy or end his career. Can true art thrive in an industry with multi-billion dollar revenue from laser cannons and carnivorous aliens?

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Like many wealthy people, Jonathan Blow remembers the moment when he became rich. At that time, at the end of 2008, he was down $ 40,000 and lived in a modest apartment in San Francisco, carefully honing his video game for more than three years, Braid - in the genre platformer - puzzle with the ability to change the time scale. (as if Super Mario Bros. met Borges ) into which Blow poured another $ 200,000. Although Braid was released and advertised by the press, at the August’s Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day he sat in a cafe in the city’s Mission district.

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“I opened my web browser and, saints, now I am rich” , he recalls. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account” .

However, the similarity between Blow and the average millionaire ends there, because unlike most wealthy people, he seems to be slightly annoyed by the memory of how he got rich. When Blow told me during a typically metaphysical conversation in a park near his Berkeley office that his surprise was “absurd,” he didn’t mean it in a bizarre sense “Can you believe my luck?” he meant this in the philosophical, disappointed-bitter sense of the deeply ironic joke of Providence.

“It only brings us back to what fiction this money is,” said Blow, squinting from the off-season bright December sun. “One day I look at my bank account, and there is not that much money there, and the next day there is already a lot of money, and I'm rich. In both cases, it’s just a number on the computer screen, and the only reason I’m rich is because someone dialed that number in my bank account. ” For the world's most obsessed game developer, the seven-digit translation provided another opportunity to reflect on the nature of meanings in the universe.

Which, however, did not mean that Blow would give up his fortune. When Braid became a real phenomenon in its first year - it sold several hundred thousand copies, won many industry awards and became an example with a capital letter in the case of a video game (as with a legitimate creative tool) - Blow significantly improved his ascetic image of life. Instead of his old Honda, he now drives a scarlet Tesla Roadster, a low-rise and all-electric engine worth $ 150,000, which bursts like a bullet when Blow presses gas to the floor. And after a triumphant year, filled with lectures and laurels, he moved to a spacious apartment on the top of the hill, where the windows overlook the eastern part of the city and the sapphire-colored bay.

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And yet, besides his electric car - the virtues of which he extols with messianic zeal - Blow demonstrates complete indifference to the material fruits of wealth. His apartment is mostly empty; books on physics and eastern philosophy are heaped up with messy piles, as if he had only half-carried his things. His minimalist furniture collection is almost completely rented, including a springy beige sofa, which he bought just a few months ago, only to let several video game reporters with whom he made an appointment have a place to sit. "I never liked money," , Blow told me. "I’m not interested in having a lot of points in a bank account. I have a good car now, but I don’t have many things, and I don’t know what else I would spend money on. So for me, money is just a tool that I use to get things done. ” .

In particular, Blow decided to use his money - almost everything - to finance the most ambitious video game in history, which, he hopes, will radically expand the horizons of the video game world. Although video games have long reached full commercial maturity (for example, the adrenaline-saturated military shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 gained $ 400 million in the first 24 hours of sales in stores last fall), this form remains an artistic stagnation, suffering from cartoon killings and endless continuations that generate revenue. Blow intends to shake up this teenage reign with The Witness , a single-player puzzle game on a mysterious abandoned island. In an environment still awaiting its quantum leap, Blow seeks to make The Witness an innovative piece of interactive art - to create a kind of Citizen Kane in video games.

This is a characteristically daring plan for a person who has earned a reputation not only as the smartest developer of the video game industry, but also as his most insightful and polarizing domestic critic. For Blow, to be called the most intelligent man in video games is the same as being called the most chaste woman in a brothel: this is not exactly what mom and dad need. "I think the mass gaming industry is a fucking stash of mediocrity," , he told me. “ There are a few smart people who flounder there, but the environment impedes creativity, strength and rigor, so what you get is basically atrophy.” .

As a developer whose personal success freed him from the power of monolithic gaming corporations, Blow has the habit of lobbying rhetorical hand grenades in the industry. He branded the so-called social games, such as FarmVille, “evil” because their whole point is to maximize corporate profits by forcing players to obsessively register and buy useless in-game items. (In one of his speeches, Blow managed to compare FarmVille developers with robbers, alcoholics, Bernie Madoff, and ant parasites.) Once during an online discussion about the virtues of a short gaming experience, Bloe wrote: "Gamers seem to praise games for what they cause addiction, but doesn’t it look like Stockholm syndrome? ”

All his public behavior challenges the intellectual laziness of the genre. Blow is the only developer on the planet to give lectures with titles such as " Video Games and Human Status " , the only one who talks about the impact of Italo Calvino on his work, and the only one who stirs up water in the gamer community so much and who is perceived so pretentiously that the popular game blogger Kotaku referred to it in the main part of his post " When You Love the Game, but Not Its Creator. "

Nevertheless, although Blow may be harsh in his industry, he applies even more stringent standards to his own work. With The Witness, on which he spent about $ 2 million of his own money, he plans to do nothing more than turn a video game into a work of art - an environment that can create something richer and more meaningful than what is offered currently dead digital toys.

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Blow draws in her imagination the games of the future, which convey the same sharp and sublime impressions as those that can be found in literature and films, but expressed in ways characteristic of games. “If a video game is to be used for artistic purposes, then it must use its form in some way specific to this environment, right?” , he told me. “A film and a novel can simultaneously create narrative plots, but novels are very powerful in their internal mental machinations - in which films are sucked, and films are good at performing certain visual things. So the question is, where are the games on the same map? ” This is a question that Blow intends to answer.

I met John Blow in early 2011 when my friend Tom Bissell, a journalist and writer hired to write the script for The Witness , invited me to dinner one evening when Blow visited Portland, Oregon. Knowing the ambiguous reputation of Blow, I expected something like a fire-breathing techno Demon, seized by the fury of a nerd.
Instead, when I entered Bissell's apartment, I saw a very serious looking man slowly performing a series of Tai Chi movements in the living room.

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Jonathan Blow

His face, framed by a short hair line protruding in the center, and with clenched jaws, radiated a quiet equanimity. But Blow's most striking feature is his eyes, which sit under a constantly frowning forehead and seem to always ponder, examine, evaluate. His constant stone expression makes it extremely difficult to determine where Blow is on the spectrum between enjoying your company and contempt for everything you stand for.

I was surprised when, after a pleasant dinner, mostly spent mourning over the creative failures of the gaming industry, Blow invited me to play an early version of "The Witness" on his laptop. Game developers, as a rule, behave pathologically covertly, giving outsiders access to an unfinished game only under conditions of paranoid control, and take a blood oath that you will never tell you, say, a submachine gun also shoots with plasma grenades. Blow, on the other hand, connected the controller to his laptop, told me: “Have fun” , and left to play LittleBigPlanet 2 with Bissell.

At that time, the game was more like a three-dimensional digital sketchbook - without a story, built from outdated special graphics and filled with puzzle ideas at different stages of completion, but its basic mechanics were fully functional.

In The Witness , the player opens up various areas of a mysterious uninhabited island by solving a series of puzzles for drawing lines on blue panels. The first panels are quite simple, but later they become more inventive and more rigid. I spent as much as 30 minutes trying not to punch my laptop screen while working on one particularly difficult puzzle. At this time, Blow periodically looked at me with a kind of surprised expression with which they usually look at a domestic cat that chases the glowing red dot of a laser pointer. Only later did Blow admit that he decided that the particular puzzle was too complex to stay in the game.

Although such moments tend to confirm Blow's reputation as a misanthrope, in fact he is almost obsessively conscientious. He just does not have the patience to babysit or water shit.Many months later, at his Berkeley office, when I was playing a more sophisticated assembly "The Witness" , I turned to Blow at a nearby desk and asked if I had missed any clue to solve a particular puzzle. He stared at me with a look that could drive a nail into the wall. "The key to the solution is that you are doing it wrong," he said. In other words: don't ask me to think for you.

Even the friends of Blow choose words such as difficult and scratchy, when they describe it. “You have to approach John on John’s terms," ​​ , said Chris Hecker, his closest friend in the gaming industry, behind the empanadas with Blow in a spacious cafe in Auckland. "This is not" Let's go and have some fun. " It is more like “Let's discuss this topic” or “Let's work on our games.” You don’t ask John about the parties because he just asks: “Why?”

Friendship with Blow requires patience with his tough, often cryptic personal codes. He loves to talk, but does not tolerate empty talk, and especially about the personal. He goes dancing a few nights a week, but the offer to visit the same club for a beer will cause a long anti-bar diatribe. "You're poisoning yourself with alcohol," , Blow breathed as Hecker smiled knowingly next to him. "You are kind of talking, but loud music prevents you from actually communicating. It’s all set up to help people who don’t feel comfortable enough to honestly say why they are there. It pisses me off. Just understand what you are doing and do it ” .

“Wait a minute ," I objected. “Do you think that people in bars should just approach each other and say:“ I would like to have sexual intercourse with you ”?”

“I think that we could live much closer to the truth, and we would all be better” , ”he replied.

Blow's merciless pursuit of a deeper truth began at an early age. According to Blow, who was born in 1971 in a middle-class family from Southern California, emotionally distant from his parents, he began to "discharge" from his family (from which he is still estranged) in elementary school. His mother was a devout former nun who constantly reminded her science-minded young son of the imminent return of Jesus. (When the older sister, Blou, admitted that she was a lesbian in the mid-80s, their mother disowned her.) Blou's father worked for the TRW defense contractor all day, then returned home and spent every possible moment alone in his den, where the children were not happy. "Very early I discovered that there were no good examples at home, so I kind of had to figure it out myself ," Blow told me. “I had to accept the paradigm of self-sufficiency.”

Blow's strict personal codes reached their peak when he was a child. True spiritual self-confidence became his obsession, escapism and superstition for his main enemies. “I didn’t want to hide from things, and I didn’t want to believe in convenient things just because they were good,” , "he told me. "To avoid this, you must be prepared to stand in the cold and neglect comfort, and not make your personal happiness and well-being the purpose of existence" .

For Blow, this rule entailed countless acts of self-improvement, such as a refusal to offer to go home from school by car during a rainfall. He also showed obsessive secrecy, constantly lying to other children to hide what he really thought. “If you are going to outwit them, they should not know about it” , ”he told me. No wonder he made a few friends with this approach.

Instead of an emotional connection with his family or other children, young Blow developed a deep attachment for computers. When he first encountered the Commodore VIC-20 in a computer class in his fifth year of study, Blow intuitively understood this; he saw exhilarating purity in the logic of his internal systems. And soon he felt a jerk of his calling.

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“The first thing I did in this class was a game” , he recalls. “It was like a slot machine where you had to press a button at the right time to match the number on the screen, but I made the screen blink in different colors and added sound effects. In fact, polishing shit, as they say, which, in fact, was a good development for the modern game development industry. ”

Even as a teenager, Blow tried to improve the inferior games that were on the market. On the clumsy TRS-80 home computer, he developed an Indiana Jones-style adventure game based on ASCII text graphics in which the player dodged arrows and avoided traps.

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On Commodore 64, Blow made another game that was "objectively better than Pac-Man in many ways" , namely because it had a wide variety of cards.

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But only in the mid-2000s, Blow began to develop games. After five years of study at the University of Berkeley, where he studied computer science and writing, but did not have time to finish one academic semester, Blow dodged several years of boring technical work in the Bay Area.

At 24, he took $ 24,000 in his savings and with a friend from Berkeley created his own game design studio - a business that stubbornly refused to flourish. Despite the fact that they released the finished game ("three-dimensional multiplayer sci-fi game about the war with the Hovertanks" ). This tiny company started just at the time the era of small studios ended and the dominance of multimillion-dollar game development corporations began. Business collapsed after four years, debt amounted to $ 100,000.

By the early 2000s, Blow was in serious danger of becoming a failed game developer. He made a living consulting for technology companies and gaming studios, but tried his best to support any enthusiasm for this. “I have a terrible work ethic when I do things that don’t bother me,” , he told me. “I cannot motivate myself to do something if this is something that is not the most important thing for me. So, I would do a bad job ” .

For many years, he conducted an experimental gameplay workshop at the annual conference of game developers and wrote a monthly programming column for the Game Developer magazine (in which his works bore headlines like “Scalar Quantization” and “My Friend, Covariance body ”), at the same time he was fumbling with secret gaming projects, which he soon abandoned.

Then, at the end of 2004, Blow came up with the idea of ​​ Braid , and everything changed forever.
There is no good way to say this, but it should be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they are not just stupid, in that joyful, winking way, like the big Hollywood movie; they are stupid in their frivolity, painfully seriously stupid, like an adult in silicone elven ears, telling an epic poem about Gandalf. In addition to a few truly smart games, ranked ones like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops are usually so simple and poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like The Godfather.

In games, brick-like men shout out catchy phrases such as "Suck pavement!" , and hold giant rifles in their hands that look like a two-handed saw, while incredibly busty women rush into battle in clothes, which will even make Victoria's Secret photographer blush. The nuances and character development in games simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue from which an average sophomore who suffers from ADHD starts to itch their brains is crossed out, and then, ideally, is replaced by a cutscene for something big exploding.

Even the industry’s most staunch defenders admit the chronic dullness of modern video games, usually with a helpless shrug, because, hey, the most ridiculous games can also be the most fun.(In the end, the fact that Super Mario games are talking about a plump plumber with a thick Italian accent that jumps on ominous biped mushrooms does not make the games less enjoyable to play.) But this situation baffles video game advocates. It is difficult to demand respect for the creative environment, when you need to try to name at least something that can be called artistic or highly intellectual from what has been created in this environment over the past 30 years.

When I first met Blau's friend Chris Hecker at his bungalow in Auckland, he rushed to his table in slippers with duct tape to show me his favorite demonstration of this discouraging reality. "Look at this - it never fails," , he said, bending over the computer keyboard. On one of his twin monitors, Hecker opened the movie trailers section on; on the other hand, he has uploaded the upcoming release page.

The films, Hecker pointed out, cover a huge variety of topics and approaches: from stupid comedies to historical dramas and highly-featured films. On the other hand, video games represented almost all variations on the same theme: fantastically dressed people, armed with giant weapons, shooting everything in a row.

"People think that games will appear when people begin to take them seriously," , "said Hecker, raising his voice excitedly. "No! Games are not taken seriously, because the material that comes out is shit. Why does anyone care? It's just teenage bullshit. "

In fact, when Roger Ebert famously stated in his long (and poorly studied) essay that video games could never be art, the gaming community’s intellectual elite could only point out two popular names that could refute his claim.

One of them is a soothing game for the PlayStation 3 Flower, in which the player takes on the role of the wind and penetrates bucolic landscapes, pollinating plants and correcting environmental errors. This is a great game, as artistic as the paintings by Thomas Kinkade .

Another, more appropriate suggestion was the game Blow Braid .

When Braid debuted in August 2008, no one had ever seen a video game like it. Her aesthetics alone would be enough for Blow to win the award.

While most games begin with thundering music and stunning cinematography, Braid opens with a dark, picturesque canvas of the city at night, whose buildings are engulfed in fire. Your character Tim stands in the foreground in the shade; as it moves across the screen, rare and sad soundtracks calm, and you suddenly see that this picture is a game. Soon Tim appears on a lamp-lit street in a school suit and tie with a thoughtful expression on his face. When he enters his house and then opens the only available door, Tim finds himself in a room made of gently flowing clouds, and the game begins.

At the first look, Braid is a simple two-dimensional platformer with side scrolling (a game in which a character spends a lot of time jumping between platforms), which logically follows from outdated games. "Tim goes on a quest to save the princess," , Tim reads in the first book, among the clouds and colorful sparkles glistening on her pages. "She was captured by a terrible and evil monster" . But Braid is as much about saving the princess as Metamorphosis Kafka about an insect.

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Through the books Tim finds, Blow reveals that Tim "made a mistake" and hopes to fix it, with which the main game mechanism is connected: Tim's unique ability to rewind time. As Tim tries to ruin his past, he must also solve puzzles that revolve around his control over time.

Inspired by alternative realities presented in Invisible Cities " Italo Calvino and " Dreams of Einstein » Alan Lightman, Blow created five main areas in which time behaves in completely different ways. In one world, some objects are not subject to rewinding by Tim; in another, his simple movement to the left and right will force the inhabitants of the world to travel back and forth in time.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Braid is that it is much larger than any other game, it feels like a completely authorial text - it is also rich in meaning and emotions, like any well-thought out story.

Tim meets many books filled with clues in his travels, and soon we begin to suspect that his desire to save the princess is not what it originally seemed. In some places, the princess feels material, and we learn how far from her Tim is that "she never understood the motive that motivated him" . But sometimes the princess becomes mysteriously abstract: "If she exists, she must! She will transform him and everyone else ” .

Over time, Blow makes a portrait sketch of a man running with all his might in pursuit of something spiritually greater than himself, a man whose uncompromising intellectual seriousness isolated him from the “world that flows the other way around . All in all, a man very similar to John Blow.

This sense of authorship was not an accident, because Blow’s primary goal in Braid was to convey a message that, as he put it, “is important enough for me to spend three and a half years of my life, trying to express it ” . Surprisingly, basic game programming took quite a bit of time. When in December 2004, Blow first decided to realize his idea of ​​rewinding time, he was on vacation with a friend in Thailand.

"I felt pretty motivated," , Blow recalled in his apartment one evening. “So, I said:“ Why don't I spend this week in a cafe in Chiang Mai and take up this idea? ” And this week I already had the working basis of the game ” .

What required the next three and a half years of Blow's life, as well as a lot of money, was to perfect his vision.

By the end of 2005, the puzzles from Braid had been completed, but Blow refused to release the game before he felt it was ready. "John wasn’t bothered by time or budget, the game itself was always in the first place," said David Hellman, the artist who created the pictures for Braid . “I gave John a bunch of ideas, and quick choice was not his top priority. Even when we started to the smallest details, he was still looking for what to change in one line, if that would make it thinner. ”

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David Hellman

Blow packed the world of Braid with small visual hints of a deeper story. And instead of paying the game music composer to create the soundtrack, Blow took an unusual step in licensing existing music. “The people who created these songs legitimately took care of the music they created” , "he explained. “It was rule number zero, the most important” .

Due to the stream of deep thoughts that Blow filled every frame, the video game community at first did not know what to do with Braid . Many gamers showered the game with praise, but very few could tell you what its meaning was - a riddle best embodied in the brilliant ending Braid , which became one of the most famous episodes in the history of video games.

After passing through the five main kingdoms in Braid , Tim finally reaches the world that holds her princess - a place where time is constantly flowing the other way around. When the soundtrack rolls back, we see the pot-bellied knight descending on the vine, and in his paws there is a princess who breaks away from him and calls for help. There is a long horizontal barrier between Tim and the princess.As the wall of fire approaches them on their left, they rush back to the point in time when they were last united, dodging enemies and helping each other get out of the traps. However, when Tim finally reaches the princess, there is no tender scene of the lovers reuniting; instead, his arrival causes an ominous flash. We see the princess sleeping in the cottage. Tim stands helplessly outside.

And then time begins to rewind (which causes events to unfold in their “correct” sequence), allowing us to see the truth: all this time the princess did not wait for Tim to save her; she fled from him. The time when it seemed she was removing obstacles for Tim, in fact, she was desperately throwing them in his path. The strong knight who dragged her was actually her savior. We understand that the "terrible and evil monster" is Tim. This is followed by the sounds of brain explosions of several hundred thousand players.

From here everything becomes - even by non-game standards - unusually mysterious. Tim finds new books with mysterious messages: a vignette with Tim near the pastry shop, into which it is impossible to enter; quote from moments after the legendary Trinity atomic bomb test; a description of how Tim “implanted tungsten pillars in the skulls of monkeys hungry for water.”

Experienced players suddenly realize that Braid is an allegory of the development of the atomic bomb. And this interpretation seems only the beginning. Like any other work of art, Braid is full of all kinds of interpretations. As Tom Bissell told me: “Braid is a game about jumping on shit, and the fact that John had the audacity to take a platformer and turn it into a grand statement about human existence is simply unbelievable” .

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Tom Bissell

However, to the infinite horror of Blow, the mainstream video game community was not interested in exploring the hidden depths of Braid . More often than not, people assume the game is about breaking up, which Blow ardently denies; he even left angry comments on online bulletin boards to correct misinterpretations. "What is even more common is that people go through the final level with the princess, and then begin to think that it looks like an unexpected ending M. Night Shyamalana » , said Blow, when he got a little cold, and was able to restrain his rage. “As if you said,“ Oh shit, Tim has been a stalker all this time! ” But that doesn't even make sense. ”

Not that Blow ever really spoke bluntly about what Braid was about. Every time he is asked, he gives some version of the same answer, which is that the answer is in the game, if only you want to look.

In other words: don't ask me to think for you.

Despite his composure, restrained manner of behavior, John Blow is hardly the most patient person in San Francisco. Faced with any delay, he has the habit of nervously drumming on the nearest surface or slipping into a tai chi sequence.

Without even exuding the frenzied, smartphone-dependent aura of a modern businessman, Blow is a zealous maximizer of his time. He despises watching sports because their real returns on the hours invested in them are too small. If an electric razor and wavy tufts of hair scattered around his sink in the bathroom are proof, he seems to cut his hair with dozens of quick movements when necessary. And to make half-hour trips from his apartment in Berkeley more constructive, Blow listens to audio books of literary classics in his Tesla. When I came to visit, he had just dropped “ Anna Karenina” because the novel was “too much like a soap opera" .Now he listened to Walden .

Throughout my visit, every time I climbed into his Roadster, we immediately heard the actor make his best impression of Thoreau, stating in stentorian tones about the furry animals in their burrows. It had a certain sharp quality. However, once, after a long conversation about Blou's vision of The Witness , shockingly loudly, Toro seemed almost clairvoyant. “With a slightly more deliberate choice of their occupations,” he said, “all people will probably become students and observers, since their character and destiny are undoubtedly interesting for everyone.”

Blow turned off the stereo and turned to me. “Honestly, I didn’t plan this, ," he said.

In so many words, Loud Toro has just described Blow's central idea for The Witness . While many modern games are based on shooting or jumping, or, say, creatively using mining equipment to destroy space zombies, Blow wants The Witness to be an act of observation paying attention to the environment. Talking about it, it starts to sound almost like Zen Master . “Things are reduced to basic acts of movement and observation until these feelings are refined,” , ”he told me. “The further you get into the game, the more it’s not even a thinking mind, but an intuitive mind” .

Thus, the game world The Witness exudes a monastic sense of peace and quiet, which only strengthens the great mystery in his heart. When the game begins, you find yourself in a gloomy corridor, your eyes are focused on a distant stretch of light. After moving forward ( The Witness , unlike Braid , presented in 3D), you find yourself in what seems like a bunker from the Second World War, as if IKEA invented it equipped with rare modernist furniture, sunlight penetrates through the windows. Soon you will find yourself stuck in a strange complex on a small island (installation inspired by the classic Myst game), whose lush gardens were created and surrounded by care at the level of Buckingham Palace. The only clue why you get there is a series of audio tapes scattered throughout the island, told by a mysterious person who claims to want to help you. “All the buildings are locked - you have to figure out how to get inside,” he says, referring to hundreds of puzzles scattered around the blue panels. But he adds: “You have time; you are not in any danger - no more than me, anyway. "

Hence the game - simplicity itself (except, of course, from time to time puzzles exploding the brain). The player is free to roam the island, taking challenges in any desired order. Learning curve does not exist; all you do at The Witness, is to move around, solve puzzles and notice things. This asceticism follows the basic principles of Blow's game design philosophy. “What I'm doing now is how much you can do and how far you can go with minimal controls,” he told me. “Each time you select a game that has many controls, you start to click on the wrong buttons and again ask yourself:" What does X do? " This is not the gameplay that I need. " Instead of forcing you to play with 15 buttons, Blow wants you to pay attention to... in general, that you pay attention. And he packs The Witness with a minimal and sufficient amount of environmental detail to make awareness useful.
The first day I spent in his small open office in Berkeley, Blow explored a carefully thought-out new game world with an architect-designer named Dinn Van Buren, whom he hired to design the island's buildings. Although Blow and Van Buren have been working on The Witness architecture for more than a year, the purpose of her visit that day was to collect screenshots of buildings to publish the design. However, the island was in a mess.Blow and his team of 3D artists have been actively updating visual effects since the last time I saw the game, almost a year ago, so now that the colors were striking and the water flickered perfectly, everything was randomly mixed in the process; the trees hovered in places 20 feet above the ground, and the shining patches of grass looked like broken windows in another dimension.

None of this created a problem for Blow, who not only knew every quirk of the island, but also wrote a game-level editing program. For the first shots, Blow piloted himself in the "Fortress", a ruined gray tower located among hedges and fluffy autumn trees of red, orange and yellow colors. His fingers flew over the keyboard, adding and subtracting visual elements. “Oh, I like it,” Van Buren said when his eyes went down the stairs inside the tower leading up. “It actually conveys the history of this place.” Blow later accelerated to the Factory, a spacious building with a red roof, which, as it turned out, was floating in the ripples of the ocean. Blow's eyebrows frowned. “Let's put it on some kind of land,” he said, invoking the grassy plain.

“Adaptively reusable buildings are the local language for the island,” Van Buren told me while we waited. Since I had no idea what this meant, I asked if this was the first video game she was working on. "Pffff. Be sure. You will not find many architects who would do something like this . " And could she like to design for the virtual world? She smiled: “It's a lot more fun than following building codes” .

When Van Buren left, Blow released me from his terminal and plopped down on a sofa with a laptop to answer a few letters. The fact that they left me wandering filled me with the dizzying feeling that I experienced as a child in the abandoned halls of a public radio station where my father worked on Sundays in the morning; unattended, I could reveal the innumerable secrets of this place. By clicking on the edit button, I moved through the walls and hillsides in search of audio cassettes filled with clues from the mysterious narrator of the game.

And yet, to my surprise, I found only a few attributes of the traditional narrative in these tapes - very little background or dramatic plots. Instead, I came across a series of very personal vignettes. In one, the narrator talks about his lonely childhood in California in the 1970s; he recalls that at each break he played alone on a swing, closing his eyes and fantasizing that “someday the very same girl will just see me here, my eyes will still be closed; she will come up without saying anything, and gently kiss me... I was waiting, but this did not happen. " In another entry, he describes the emotional pain he experienced when he began to go bald at age 20, and how today "the peninsula protrudes from the hair outward at an angle to the left side of my face." Perhaps the most startling record begins like this: “I could do something with my life, but somehow I finished creating puzzles, not the last of them are here on this island.”

I turned away from the monitor and looked at the man on the couch - his face bathed in the light of his laptop, the V-shaped hairline leaned slightly to the left - and I realized that from the very beginning I wandered inside Blow's mind.

Putting aside the description of Blow The Witness as a game based on attention, it’s hard to say exactly what the game is about . In the first incarnation of his story, Blow worked with Bissell to create a traditional narrative filled with complex characters and dramatic rhythms - an approach that Blow soon rejected as he was "too Hollywood." ( "Only in John Blow's world a super-condensed story based on pictures from the mind of a tortured person will become a" Hollywood "script" , - Bissell grinned) Thus, Blow assumed the responsibility of writing and created inconsistent fictional structure that extends the very idea of ​​storytelling in an interactive environment. To unravel the mystery of your goal on the island, you must put together answers from clues similar to the sphinxes. But back to the question at the beginning of this paragraph, The Witness is actually about two things: about John Blow and the meaning of life.

Or, combining these two points, we are talking about the meaning of life of John Blow.

The mystery of why someone so secretive decided to publicly reveal their deepest secrets in The Witness, is not easy, especially when talking about Blow, a man who basically refuses to explain the meaning of his games. However, the answer to this question helps us understand the very essence of what makes his games so transformative. In The Witness , Blow seeks to pay tribute to the video game as an artistic medium completely independent of all its predecessors.

Blow's refusal to explain the meaning of his games, after all, stems from deep respect for his art. Since modern technology first made it possible to create complex video games, developers have suggested that the artistic fate of a video game is to become a “movie with interactivity,” a game interwoven with scenes based on the language of the movie. And not just any films. “In fact, the benchmark for video games is a crappy action movie,” , Blow said during a conversation in the dining room with Chris Hacker one sunny day. “You are not trying to create a game like Citizen Kane ; you're trying to make Bad Boys 2 . " But even though the questions about the taste of the film don't matter, the idea that the games would even try to avoid the trouble associated with the Blow movie. As Hecker explained: “ Look, the film did not turn into a film, trying to be a theater. First, they had to figure out what they could do and what the theater couldn’t do, for example, move the camera and edit episodes - and only then the film became itself . " That is why Citizen Kane has done so much to put filmmaking on the map: not just because it was well done, but because it gave rich experience that no other medium could have provided before.

And therefore, Blow, always loyal to his code, feels that he is obliged to defend his calling, not reducing video games to the terms that we use when analyzing films and books. This means that it is somewhat unbelievable that Blow does not even believe in trying to convey the main message of the game with words ; the carrier itself, he claims, is a message. “ If games are just films with interactivity, if they have nothing that is their core competency, then you cannot use them effectively ," he explained. “ Now, one of these key competencies for games is a certain kind of non-verbal complex communication, right? You play the game for hours, and in the end, I hope you will have a somewhat sublime and complex understanding of what is hard to put into words because you understood it nonverbally . ”
To hell with puzzles and environments, both Braid and and The Witness function as a “long stream of non-verbal communication” —that is why he will not kill them by expressing their messages in words. In a memorable conversation after the conversation he gave at Rice University, the student insisted on explaining the initial images of Braid , and Blow refused categorically. “ As far as I understand, all the information about what happens there is contained in the game, and that’s all that should happen ," he said. “ And that’s why I make video games. That's why I don’t want to tell you . ”

Blow's decision to reveal his soul in The Witness stems from the same desire to fully realize the potential of his artistic creativity; he believes that meaningful play should be fair. He freely admits that the narrator of The Witness is a finely veiled version of his own psyche. When a narrator talks about his guilt for spending millions creating an island filled with puzzles instead of using that money for more important things, this is a true spiritual dilemma of Blow. When a narrator reflects on his feelings of empty vanity, on estrangement from others, on his “ desire for truth and deep understanding ”, these are the pains and desires of Blow.

I do not think that it is ultimately too important for humanity that I report on the problems of my personal life ," he explained. “ I am more interested in talking about broader facts of existence that go beyond individuals, but the path to this honestly and without a hitch lies through personal . These revelations burn him, but Blow feels that his ultimate goal in creating The Witness justifies the discomfort.

If you can't even deal with someone who knows the personal secrets of the soap opera about your girlfriend or how you felt when you were a kid, or something like that, if you feel the need to hide those things that are so tiny compared to the Really-Important that we have to deal with, how could you ask someone else to go further? "he asked. " That would be a fake! "

This is what makes Blow's games so wonderful: for a lot of personal money, in ways that no other developer has even tried, he is struggling to convey a deeply authentic vision of the meaning of human existence. In both games, Blow seeks to use the unique video game language to convey the wisdom he has acquired in his life. At The Witness , he hopes to help players try to “ go beyond their human perspective and see what the world is .” And at Braid he sought to tell something more personal.

One night in his apartment, when the lights of San Francisco flickered outside his windows for miles, I warned Blow that I was going to do something that could annoy him: I was going to tell him what I thought about Braid and he could do whatever he wanted with it.

" Good ," he answered with a half smile, leaning back in his chair.
Obviously, there is the topic of creating an atomic bomb ,” I began.
I think you can make very good arguments that this is an unambiguous reference ,” he replied, which I interpreted as the equivalent of “ Yes” in Blow language.

“But I think you’re disappointed that people interpret Braid as creating a atomic bomb, since it itself is a metaphor for a certain kind of knowledge,” I continued. “ You have pursued some deep form of understanding of your whole life, and I think that you have found that the quest after this knowledge brings alienation with him. The further you go along this path, the further it leads you away from other people. Thus, knowledge is ultimately destructive to your life, just like an atomic bomb is a kind of truth that has a catastrophic effect. You thought that the pursuit of this knowledge would make you happy, but, like Tim, part of you would eventually want you to turn back the clock and do it all over again . ”
Blow was silent.

Does that make sense? ” I asked.
" Yes, yes ."
" So? "
" Well, I would say that I will not be disappointed with such an interpretation " - he smiled.

The biggest luck I’ve ever seen was when we met his friend Mark Ten Bosch one night at the Oakland branch of the legendary local chain called Chicago Zachary Pizza. Ten Bosch is a tall, serious, independent developer whose serious restraint has given the entertaining counterpoint to the philosophical expansion of Blow. When Ten Bosch mentioned that he worked for Electronic Arts for some time on the team that developed the real-time strategy game Command & amp; Conquer: Red Alert 3 , I asked if he found the project interesting. Ten Bosch thought about it for a moment with the solemn power of a man testifying before a Senate subcommittee.

" m ," he finally said.
" Oooh !" - intervened Blow. " This is an absolute diss! "
It was when Ten Bosch began to explain to me his current game project, Blow seemed most in his element. Actually, I have to change this in order to try to explain , because in the 20 minutes that Bosch spent ten to describe his game, Miegakure , almost everything he said it slid off my brain like raindrops from Gore-Tex. He said that Miegakure is a puzzle-based platformer that unfolds in four dimensions - four spatial dimensions.

But there are no four spatial dimensions ,” I protested.
" Well ," Ten Bosch objected, " this is what would be if they were ."

And that was the last thing he said, and I realized that for quite some time, while he and Blow eagerly chatted about extruded surfaces and imagining a pipe-like plane.In Miegakure , two spatial dimensions are constant, and the player solves the puzzles by switching between the other two with the click of a button. Even as Blow and Ten Bosch became more lively and their explanations more inventive, their words continued to bounce off my forehead like tennis balls. Finally, Ten Bosch pulled out his iPhone and downloaded Miegakure, including a sample video of a gameplay in which a tiny red-haired character walked across a floating island. At the prompt of the player, the fabric of the game world suddenly deformed and shifted so that the ground mass seemed to recreate itself from the inside. The effect was bewitching.

This is the fourth dimension ,” said Ten Bosch.
Jaw dropped, I looked at Blow, who just smiled at me.

For Blow, a project like Miegakure embodies what makes a video game a unique and exciting art environment. Just as he worked to convey something untold to a person about a person’s condition in Braid and The Witness , Ten Bosch in his game gives players a new perspective on the world as only a game can do. “ This is a valuable contribution to human experience, right? ,” Blow later said. “ I like games that showed me something that I would not have otherwise seen, and Mark creates an experience that would not have been possible if he had not done so. And it's pretty interesting . "

Blow knows well that achieving this lofty goal through The Witness can make him go bankrupt. He would like the game to sell well when it comes out, perhaps at the end of this year, but his main concern is that it matches the artistic parameters that he set for it. “ I can always go back to becoming an independent developer ,” he shrugged. “ Even if I have zero dollars, I can do the same as in 2005, but better. If I can just save a year or two on a low-budget life, that's all I need . " Despite her wealth, Blow still thinks as an ascetic.

Which, in a sense, he is - a spiritual seeker, striving for truth in an unexplored world. These are the conditions in which he sees his art. " People like us, who are doing something a little different from the main direction, each chose one direction that we go into the desert, but we are still not very far from the camp ," he said to me. “ There’s just a huge amount of territory to explore - and as long as you don’t have a map of it, no one can say what games are capable of ."


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