Wednesday, February 3, 2010

EVENT REVIEW: Jonathan Blow at Firehouse Gallery

by Stephen Orloske

While the pressure of an ever connected culture presses leisure time into units of multitasked consumption, videogames use the tools which distract us (anything with a chipset) to become a medium so engrossing anything else that blinks or beeps gets shut out. Take a look at the portraits of Phillip Toledano’s Gamers and their bestial grins seem like defiant gestures against the languid stare multimedia surfing normally elicits (Check yourself in the webcam. Yep, that’s the face.). But there is an uneasiness when looking at these portraits, as though you’re standing too close to some primal zealot. Perhaps all that sneering, teeth sucking and tongue curling seems especially barbaric knowing it’s all been drawn out just by having thumbs on a virtual peashooter and that these people have been tricked into rapturous states (and out sixty bucks) by games that are no more than hyper-Pavlovian experiments. Just one zombie-alien slugfest or benumbing pachinko simulator after another. There isn’t much else, right? Well, the “else” is being played at the Firehouse Gallery.

Take another moment and play the ’93 shooter classic Doom (but come back). Seventeen years later and most videogames have yet to innovate from this basic run, gun and reward formula. Now go play something Burlington City Arts put up, like Jason Rohrer’s Passage (come on, download it). Still using mazes and treasure (and a princess), but with fewer pixels and one less spatial dimension, Passage compels the player to contemplate life, love and death within five minutes, while Doom and its clones belabor the reptilian wisdom of spawn, kill and score for hours (or even days). What raises a videogame above the libidinal horizon most aspire to is a neglected question. And one vocal game designer self-tasked (or masochistically cursed) with trying to define why videogames are a unique and vital art form recently spoke as part of the Game(life) exhibit and lecture series: Jonathan Blow.

Even before the critical and popular success of his game Braid, Jonathan Blow spoke up about the way videogames abuse their own potential (like the monotony of Warcraft). To summarize his lesson (I’ll be bold), get your head out of that Hollywood muck. Basically, they have yet to realize it’s the game which conveys meaning, not the cutscenes peppered along the way. A videogame may doll you up and call you a knight, but then you end up clobbering chickens for a dozen hours. Is that what knights do? Braid, for example, is all about memory and it conveys this by having you naturally rewind and reattempt each puzzle, always reassessing what you’ve done to figure out how you’ll progress. The potential of a videogame isn’t in words or images, like a book or a movie, it’s in the dynamic rules that tell the player how to participate. And videogames are unique because they can make physical what we understand only abstractly by creating relationships with things normally outside our perception, like time and ecology (or the economy).

When Jonathan Blow sat down in the Firehouse Gallery this past Saturday no one needed to be preached to. Most of the chairs were filled with students studying game design at Champlain College and they were obviously tired of morons making videogames (otherwise they’d be at a party). So after Blow displayed a few sketches of his next game he told them the challenge videogames face if they want to be respected as art. He started with cinema, which took decades to stop treating the screen like a stage. And while most movies still tell infantile stories dressed up in adult themes, there has always been a sliver of serious films that make cinema a vital part of our culture. But comic books, which also began a century ago, never got taken seriously. The industry was too busy scribbling dudes in tights to score kids’ lunch money to consider what potential those

brightly colored panels had. Even with some sterling exceptions (Didn’t Maus win a Pulitzer?) the public considered comics just an adolescent phase. Which is troublesome for videogames because they’ve been labeled “for kids” since the seventies. And the recent success convincing adults to play videogames on the (oh, so aptly named) Wii is by emphasizing how well they keep you occupied rather than, say, emotionally invested. As though videogames are not supposed to be life changing, just part of a distracted routine. (Isn't that routine just like a bad videogame?). And Blow pointed out, all this idiocy has videogames in a narrow box, might as well “push on the boarders and see what we can do.”

Don’t miss local videogame designer RANDY SMITH, Saturday 2/06 at the Firehouse Gallery, where the works of JASON ROHRER, JONATHAN BLOW, RANDY SMITH, PAOLO PEDERCINI, JENOVA CHEN, PETRI PURHO, JAKUB DVORSKY, HEATHER KELLEY, AURIEA HARVEY, MARK ESSEN and MICHAEL SAMYN are on display until February 13th.