Games and the Future of Awe

published by Eric Mill on

Since I'm in Portland for XOXO, I got up extra early to see Jonathan Blow speak at Creative Mornings at the Hollywood Theater. The organizers said it was the first time he'd given a talk in two years. I loved it -- Blow is an engaging speaker with strong opinions delivered in an unflinching but non-cruel manner. His talk was about the junk food, fake drama nature of "free to play" (F2P) games like Farmville and Candy Crush, and he started by showing an amazingly terrible, overwrought clip from The Bionic Man.

Later, he read aloud a long and beautiful quote (which I can't find anywhere online, and I forget its origin, but I'll just assume it's legit) about the unmatched power of awe, and the artist's ultimate aspiration of evoking it in others. The way he sees it, F2P games are basically incompatible with awe, because of what they do:

Untitled by tylersticka, on Flickr

I find it difficult to argue with this. My closest brushes with awe — the kind of experiences that have turned me into their creators' permanent evangelists — have all come from artists who worked extremely hard to create an uninterrupted space where I would experience something new and transcendent, and asked for money up front. Braid is also among them, and Jonathan Blow is working hard on another.

Still, I couldn't help wondering — what might artists aspiring towards awe be missing by so aggressively dismissing such a hugely popular sector of the game industry?

I asked Blow this during the Q&A, citing the joyful popularity of Candy Box and the fact that of the many masterpiece indie games he cited and others that I've enjoyed, only Journey (pictured above) used the Internet, and the people on it, during play.

His reply was basically that Candy Box's real magic was less from the F2P-style treadmill than in making the player feel like they had no idea what would happen next (which is fair but incomplete), and that in general he couldn't think of a single thing he admired about F2P games.

I'm all for forcefully sounding the Farmville alarm. But I do hope that the indie game scene, which Blow represents in a big way — not just as a successful artist but also an increasingly prominent funder — doesn't become so militarized about the advance of free-to-play games that it discourages experimentation with the Internet, social media, and even alternative business models.

It's almost certainly an unwarranted concern! The Humble Bundle is obviously a successful new model for funding games and subverting piracy. Little Inferno is a wonderful dichotomy of satirizing and embracing F2P-style dopaminesque mechanics. I also suspect that the main reason independent games rarely employ network interaction ChatChat excepted. is the same reason they skew towards 2D: it's a lot less work!

What I think is certain is that wherever game developers take us over the next 10 years, and whatever market constraints they face — awe will find a way.

  1. Casey

    I'm surprised that Blow bothered criticizing the Farmvilles of the world. Seems like a waste of time to call out trashy games as trash, and like you said, they're no threat to Braid-style games. This is the friggin golden age of Braid-style games.

    I like that you challenged him on the F2P model. And that you brought up Candy Box. Gould came to me about a week after I put that game in my gmail status to reveal that he'd amassed a candy empire.

  2. Eric

    I've drifted far away from the large releases over the last several years, Bioshock Infinite being the closest thing to an exception (though I'd still say I got more emotion out of playing The Swapper).

    I should do a brief rundown of my most awe-inspiring games. There's a number of great ones out there, and not all of them have gotten the attention level they deserve.

  3. Avelino

    I haven't been gaming lately. I can't put my finger on it, on the why. I don't think it's the money I used to plug into new releases so I could Co-Op with my pals. And F2P wasn't ever a pursuit we were going to take.

    I think this gets at it to a certain degree. The last game to really grip me was Minecraft. Maybe I've been looking in the wrong places, but a lot of the big releases and stuff were, simply, boring: in scope, in character development, mechanics, setting. Technically, there've been marvelous games, marvelous environments rendered in breathtaking engines. But lacking soul.

    Maybe it was after reading this blog post:

    I'll have to check out FEZ and FTL, and keep an eye out for any other recommendations I see you making. Glad you got to see the speaker, though, and grateful for sharing your thoughts. Makes me want to fire up the Windows install on my laptop.