Jon Blow and the need for genius 8

Everyone has a favorite genius. Mine is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the early 20th-century Austrian philoso­pher who restruc­tured entire dis­ci­plines of phi­los­o­phy despite the fact that he only pub­lished one book dur­ing his life­time. That book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is a small yet impos­si­bly dense text writ­ten in the struc­ture of a math­e­mat­i­cal proof. Its first line (after a gen­er­ous and famously inac­cu­rate intro­duc­tion by Bertrand Russell) is “1. The world is all that is the case,” no setup, no intro, no noth­ing, just pure hyper-analytic, con­fus­ing def­i­n­i­tions. In his life­time, Wittgenstein: fought in the First World War, where he vol­un­teered for the most dan­ger­ous jobs; designed a house; lived like a her­mit in Norway; and taught phi­los­o­phy at Cambridge. After he died, his friend (and impor­tant philoso­pher in her own right) Elizabeth Anscombe trans­lated and pub­lished his note­books under the title The Philosophical Investigations, and Wittgenstein restruc­tured whole dis­ci­plines of phi­los­o­phy again while simul­ta­ne­ously refut­ing nearly every­thing he’d writ­ten the first time.

There are a mil­lion great sto­ries about Wittgenstein, and I like to think I know all of them. There are a lot of peo­ple who inspire sim­i­lar devo­tion: fans of Albert Einstein know all about the weird things he said to his wife and the rudi­men­tary infor­ma­tion he refused to mem­o­rize. Devotees of clas­si­cal music know that the last thing Ludwig van Beethoven did before he died was shake his fist defi­antly at a thun­der­storm. And so it is with a mil­lion brilliant-yet-troubled artists, musi­cians, thinkers and inven­tors that are hailed as “geniuses.” People talk this way about Steve Jobs, Orson Welles, David Foster Wallace, Vincent Van Gogh, Nikola Tesla, John Nash, James Joyce, &c &c &c.

If you’re a tech writer for a general-focus pub­li­ca­tion, your favorite genius is likely to be Jon Blow, the name behind 2008’s Braid and 2016’s The Witness, released ear­lier this week. Blow has had a great deal of pop­u­lar atten­tion, but I want to draw spe­cial atten­tion to two arti­cles: first, Taylor Clark’s 2012 exal­ta­tion for The Atlantic, called “The Most Dangerous Gamer,” and sec­ond, Calum Marsh’s piece for The Guardian from just a few days ago. Both of these pieces are less focused on Blow’s work and more on Blow him­self, and are glow­ing reviews of Blow-as-genius aimed at the non-game-playing crowd.

You see, Blow (at least as described by Marsh and Clark), checks all the “genius” boxes. He makes respected art (Braid won basi­cally every award in 2008, and The Witness has been gar­ner­ing ecsta­tic reviews). He is eccen­tric to the point of being acer­bic (Clark cites Blow’s friends call­ing him “dif­fi­cult” and “spiky,” and show­cases sev­eral such inter­ac­tions in his piece). His art is “dif­fi­cult,” and thus not read­ily acces­si­ble to the aver­age per­son (Braid and The Witness are both puz­zle games, and reviews of The Witness boast about its 80-hour play time, most of which is spent star­ing in con­fu­sion at your screen). He is point­edly at-odds with the estab­lish­ment (Blow spends a lot of time pub­licly lam­bast­ing the games indus­try, say­ing in the Marsh inter­view that he tries to “talk to other design­ers and […] feel[s] like [he’s] talk­ing to aliens”). He is obses­sively ded­i­cated to his craft to the point where he will ignore ordi­nary human activ­i­ties to work on it (About a week ago, Blow tweeted a pic­ture of what appeared to be a home­made catheter, say­ing that the whatever-it-was helped him fin­ish The Witness). He does most of his art as an auteur, not as part of some big team or cre­ative group. (To be fair to him, he did fre­quently tweet to remind jour­nal­ists that The Witness has other peo­ple on the team who were very impor­tant.) Also, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, he’s a white guy, which seems to help with pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of geniuses.

The nar­ra­tive is thus: games are juve­nile non­sense, but here comes Jon Blow, the TRUE ARTISTE, descend­ing from the heav­ens on his char­iot to res­cue us from medi­oc­rity. Clark says that “video games, with very few excep­tions, are dumb,” and that “in games, nuance and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment sim­ply do not exist.” This was an amaz­ingly silly thing to say, even in 2012. People have been mak­ing intel­li­gent, com­pli­cated, and nuanced videogames since about five min­utes after peo­ple started mak­ing videogames. Hell, Blow’s The Witness absolutely would not exist with­out Myst, which came out twenty-three years ago. Marsh, anal­o­gously, says that “devel­op­ers seem more inter­ested in machine guns and rocket ships than in emo­tional nuance and psy­cho­log­i­cal shad­ing,” as if there were some­thing mutu­ally exclu­sive about rocket ships and emo­tional nuance.

Yes, many videogames are dumb, par­tic­u­larly AAA videogames. But con­sid­er­ing that the last twenty years have also given us True Blood, the Transformers movies, Marvel’s Civil War sto­ry­line, the Fantastic Four movies, The Bachelor, Twilight, and the work of Iggy Azalea, I don’t think it makes any sense to say videogames are uniquely dumb. Sturgeon’s Law applies to videogames just as it applies to every other medium. There is cool art in lit­er­ally every videogame scene, from games made in dorm rooms for neg­a­tive money to mid-range indie stuff like Braid all the way up to stuff that costs almost as much as send­ing a man to the moon. There always has been, and say­ing oth­er­wise makes you will­fully igno­rant.

Regardless, the argu­ment goes, Braid and now The Witness are True Art, the vision of the Solitary Man of Genius, sit­ting alone in his stu­dio as he ignores the world around him to pur­sue his artis­tic vision at the cost of his rela­tion­ships and his own per­sonal health. So, why do so many of us do this? I think we exalt Jon Blow because we think we need a genius in order to be taken seri­ously.

Videogames as a medium aren’t taken as seri­ously as more estab­lished art forms like film or lit­er­ary fic­tion. No one knows this more than I do: if you don’t believe me, try explain­ing to seri­ous law firms why your expe­ri­ence curat­ing a videogame blog makes you an attrac­tive can­di­date some­day. And the sort of peo­ple that write tech columns for The Guardian and the Atlantic would really like to be taken seri­ously by the peo­ple who read those pub­li­ca­tions. So, what’s an easy angle to intro­duce the con­cept of videogames as an art form? Introduce the non-game-playing pub­lic to a genius game devel­oper, a man who fits the same mold as the Van Goghs and DFWs of the world, and hope they are suit­ably impressed.

The sil­li­est (and most Twitter-mocked) line in the Marsh inter­view is when Blow says he wants “to make games for peo­ple who read Gravity’s Rainbow.” It’s no acci­dent that Blow chose a 40-year-old novel writ­ten by a reclu­sive eccen­tric that has become syn­ony­mous with difficult-yet-intellectually-rewarding fic­tion. Gravity’s Rainbow is a main­stay of the estab­lished, main­stream intel­li­gentsia: it’s obscure enough that the plebes haven’t heard of it but famous enough that many col­lege grad­u­ates have; weird enough to make read­ing it feel like an accom­plish­ment; respected enough by the main­stream to gar­ner the National Book Award, but with enough scan­dal (it didn’t win the Pulitzer because it offended some pan­elists, after all) to still make you feel a lit­tle rock-and-roll. Gravity’s Rainbow is one of those books that peo­ple like me intend to “get around to some­day.” Most of the peo­ple who read Gravity’s Rainbow now are English majors.

Blow could have cho­sen any of a dozen ref­er­ents if all he was try­ing to say was that he wants to make games for peo­ple who read com­pli­cated fic­tion. But he chose Gravity’s Rainbow. I’d wager that the over­lap between “peo­ple who have read Gravity’s Rainbow” and “peo­ple who habit­u­ally play videogames” is rel­a­tively small. By say­ing he wants to make games for the Pynchon crowd, he really means he wants to make games for the estab­lished intel­li­gentsia. He wants to make games that are dis­cussed at Yale cock­tail par­ties, games that Serious People feel guilty for not hav­ing played yet.

It isn’t really fair of me to pick this much on Jon Blow for what was prob­a­bly a one-off com­ment made to his 15th inter­viewer of the week. Blow makes it super tempt­ing to make fun of him, though: in his inter­view with Clark, Blow talks about “how fic­tional money is,” and how “the only rea­son that [he’s] rich is because some­body typed a num­ber into [his] account,” which is the sort of silly thing a fresh­man phi­los­o­phy major says in between bong hits. But I can’t really blame Jon Blow for let­ting peo­ple paint him as a bril­liant eccen­tric. If some­one came to my house and vol­un­teered to write a lengthy exal­ta­tion of me that cast all my flaws as the quirks of trou­bled genius, I’m pretty sure I’d let them, too.

I should also be clear that I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, and I haven’t played The Witness. I’m not likely to do either of those things in the near future, because I am in law school, and a game of “seem­ingly end­less per­plex­ing puz­zles” describes a week or two of my class sched­ule about as well as it describes The Witness. And I’ve never met Jon Blow, who may be a per­fectly won­der­ful per­son, when you actu­ally talk to him. We’ve all said silly things on the Internet before.

The real prob­lem is, well, let me try to illus­trate by way of anal­ogy. My favorite genius, Wittgenstein, came from a fam­ily of geniuses: pianists, entre­pre­neurs, and philoso­phers. All of his eight sib­lings were pre­pos­ter­ously gifted, many of them left last­ing marks on the world, and a third of them killed them­selves.

Geniuses tend to be either lousy peo­ple, very unhealthy, or some com­bi­na­tion of the two. When Wittgenstein taught at Cambridge, he was woe­fully unhelp­ful, meet­ing stu­dents in his paja­mas and stop­ping mid-sentence to stare idly into space for hours at a time. Einstein cheated (a bunch!) on both of his wives. Steve Jobs believed, for a time, that if he only ate fruit he wouldn’t have to shower any­more. Gauguin aban­doned his wife and his five chil­dren to have sex with 13-year-olds in Tahiti. Jimi Hendrix did so many drugs that he died.

But we tol­er­ate all of that, telling sto­ries of their ter­ri­ble­ness or deep men­tal health prob­lems, because they con­tributed some­thing cool to the art form or indus­try. We call this stuff the Price of Genius, despite the fact that many peo­ple who weren’t either ass­holes or deeply men­tally ill have con­tributed a world of things art and sci­ence.

If Jon Blow is really using a makeshift catheter instead of just stop­ping for twenty sec­onds to go to the restroom, he needs to either sort out his pri­or­i­ties or, and I’m not being snide about this, go seek some treat­ment for some­thing. Mental ill­ness is a seri­ous thing, and by glo­ri­fy­ing symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness as signs of genius, we dis­cour­age peo­ple from seek­ing treat­ment or oth­er­wise deal­ing with it. “I’m not sick,” I think, “I’m inter­est­ing.” As for being an ass­hole, well, many if not most of the world’s prob­lems can be traced to peo­ple think­ing that what­ever they’re doing over­rides the require­ment for basic human decency.

But we need a genius to feel respectable at par­ties, so we draft Jon Blow to be that genius, even though there are oodles of other cool peo­ple mak­ing videogames, many of whom pre­date Blow. There are even plenty of other peo­ple who would qual­ify as “geniuses” with the eccen­tric­ity that demands. I don’t really care for Metal Gear Solid, but if any one per­son has to be her­alded as the First Great Artist of Videogames, I’d prefer it be Hideo Kojima over Jon Blow.

But what we really ought to do is quit wor­ry­ing what the Ivy League cock­tail party crew is think­ing and just talk about cool videogames and the cool peo­ple who make them. Jon Blow is one of these cool peo­ple: Braid isn’t my favorite thing ever, but it’s full of great ideas. It uses ideas from both Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to do some legit­i­mately excel­lent things. I haven’t played The Witness yet, but a lot of very smart peo­ple I respect seem to think it’s a really note­wor­thy piece of art, and I have no rea­son to dis­be­lieve them.

But by exalt­ing Blow as the “genius,” and tout­ing him as the only game devel­oper mak­ing art in a sea of mediocre, cor­po­rate sell­outs, we do both him and the art form a dis­ser­vice. We turn him into a fig­ure­head instead of a per­son, and we dis­count the efforts of the hun­dreds if not thou­sands of other game devel­op­ers, from indie to AAA, that are try­ing and suc­ceed­ing to make cool art. And worst of all? I don’t think the intel­lec­tual estab­lish­ment is impressed by our floun­der­ing.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • Andrei Filote

    I feel like the idea of Blow’s sup­posed genius now prop­a­gates memet­i­cally. It sure doesn’t hurt that, like you pointed out, he’s eas­ier to sell than the rel­a­tively quiet and well adjusted minds behind Proteus, Antichamber, etc.

  • I really agree with the penul­ti­mate para­graph. The exal­ta­tion of geniuses feels most of all like a bluff for cul­tural cap­i­tal, born out of inse­cu­rity about the worth of ones tastes. I think, ‘as an indus­try’ — or rather, as peo­ple enjoy­ing and work­ing with videogames — we should be past that stage. And if we do need to jus­tify the worth of the medium, why not argue elo­quently about actual works, rather than use the neb­u­lous con­cept of the genius as short­hand?

  • Mattt

    I don’t under­stand the con­ver­sa­tion around the sup­posed catheter. Blow posted a pic­ture of a bot­tle with some sort of yel­low­ish liq­uid and said that it helped him com­plete the Witness. Am I miss­ing some­thing else he said? Otherwise it seems ridicu­lous to assume it was part of a catheter. We don’t know if he was being seri­ous with that post. Extraordinary claims should require extra­or­di­nary proof.

    • I’m not sure myself. I’m not famil­iar with what catheters look like. And even then it’s prob­a­bly just apple juice.

      It does illus­trate how the per­cep­tion of genius or extra­or­di­nar­i­ness turns what might have been a lit­tle joke into a huge con­ver­sa­tion.

      That said, if it is real, we could have a chat regard­ing healthy work­ing con­di­tions, as Bill said, and if he expects the same of his staff, we might also have a chat about labour rights.

    • Bill Coberly

      Well, we don’t, of course, know if it was part of a home­made catheter or not, and it may well have been a joke. But it’s a tes­ta­ment to the myth sur­round­ing Jon Blow that so many peo­ple think it may have been a catheter.

      But it’s a weird thing to joke about, right? “haha­haha, I’m so ded­i­cated I’m pee­ing in a jar” feeds back into this nar­ra­tive of the Genius that I think is kind of dam­ag­ing. So whether it’s a joke or not, I don’t care for it very much. I used it as an exam­ple just because it had only hap­pened a few days before my post went up, so it was hope­fully fresh in everyone’s mind.

    • Don J. Quixote

      Consider this, Mattt.

      Jon Blow either:

      A) Pretended to piss in a jug 


      B) Pissed in a jug

      There’s a pic­ture of it on his Twitter. What do you think it was meant to imply?

  • Shawn Dorey

    First of all! Thank you for this arti­cle. It really helped me sort through all this rhetoric. Blow kinda fell off my radar, so sud­denly see­ing all this rhetoric around him was pretty per­plex­ing.

    I pretty much agree whole-heartedly with your final analy­sis. I also like the men­tal­ity of front load­ing most of the blame onto games-media’s spin­ning of sto­ries about him instead of Blow’s own self-presentation.

  • Dukes

    It’s been inter­est­ing to see people’s reac­tion to the “make games for peo­ple who read Gravity’s Rainbow” quote. My first reac­tion was to think he wanted to make games that evoked sim­i­lar feel­ings or ideas as the novel. Maybe it’s actu­ally a sig­nal to the intel­li­gentsia but does that mean it isn’t sin­cere?

    I feel the same way about some other media as well. Making a game that could evoke some of the same feel­ings I get from The Mars Volta would be amaz­ing. There’s an inter­view of the band and they men­tion that for some of their music they’re just try­ing to recre­ate the feel­ings they get from movies. So, it didn’t really sur­prise me to see some­one men­tion some­thing they liked and how they want to make some­thing inspired by it. 

    But that Guardian arti­cle was just ter­ri­ble.

    “A puz­zle game for the mega-brainy and super-cerebral, a puz­zle game for gaming’s high-brow”

    What makes you want to write garbage like that? I’m sure it plays into what you’re talk­ing about here, that it’s all sta­tus and image.

    That wasn’t my expe­ri­ence at all while play­ing the game. I felt like the game was a teacher that’s patiently explain­ing how things work if you just lis­ten. At no point did it make me feel smart or clever, just that I finally started lis­ten­ing to what it was try­ing to tell me.

    The whole fake catheter thing was really dumb and your insight here helped me to under­stand why it became a big deal. I fol­low him on twit­ter and didn’t think any­thing of it when I saw it. He had been post­ing other props and tools he was using to fin­ish The Witness so I didn’t think much of it beyond, “I won­der what that was for”.