Pretentiousness! and other irritants

I have, on occassion, been accused of being a bit on the pretentious side. It’s an accusation I resent, because pretentiousness is something I abhor, and strive to avoid as much as I can. Pretentiousness is the death of art: that, if you want, is my most central objection to the likes of Harold Bloom and Theodor Adorno, and the reason I react so strongly to Tale of Tales’ pronouncements. I despise pretentiousness, and any time I am forced to employ anything that resembles pretentiousness (such as when selling a game), I get enormously unhappy. I understand the importance of showing people you want to do business with that you are a capable individual with a series of achievements behind you, but gloating does not become anyone.

What makes the situation more tricky, however, is that some people confuse pretentiousness with seriousness or sincerity. There’s a lot of people out there who are always getting enormously pissed off at anything they feel is an “art game.” And there’s a lot of developers who think that art is not a term that describes the nature of a medium/form, but a shorthand for obscurantism and inaccessibility. The resulting backlash and confusion are not helpful for anyone.

Here’s my personal understanding of the issue:

Pretentiousness is taking yourself seriously. Sincerity is taking your work seriously.

You might think that this is a bit precious coming from someone who actually put himself into two of his games, and who releases his games under his own name. But I had and have reasons for doing so.

The reason for releasing my games under my own name, and not under a real or fake company/team name, has always been a desire to emphasize that games are made by people, that there is a designer. It’s become normal now, but a decade ago some people thought I was pretty full of myself for doing so. That never made sense to me: does anyone complain when a book is credited to its author? In fact, what always struck me as weird is that people didn’t want to acknowledge that games are the result of the creative impulse to bring a certain vision to life, not just practical software developed to meet existing needs.

As for putting myself in my games, there are multiple reasons. With The Museum of Broken Memories, I wanted to explore the idea of an author caught up in his own work, and again to remind people that games really do have authors. But what a lot of people don’t get – even though it’s such a common idea in novels that it’s become rather boring – is that the Jonas Kyratzes of The Museum of Broken Memories is entirely fictional. The “designer’s notes” in that segment of the game are entirely fictional, created only for the purpose of gameplay.

Also, there’s a lot of satire in there – references to the lack of interactivity in my previous games, and the proliferation of password puzzles. I really hope people picked up on that.

In Desert Bridge, including a reference to myself was entirely necessary, since the central conceit (or truth) of the game is that it’s a portal to the house at Desert Bridge. Since I made the portal, I must have had some contact with Harold the Talking Picture Frame to set all of this up, and it only makes sense that he would refer to the fat, hairy man who helped him find the player. It’s not about me, it’s about about reinforcing the reality of the portal.

I won’t claim I haven’t had moments of ego. I’m only human, and sometimes things just get too much. But no matter how arrogant I’ve been, no matter how much I’ve desired for myself to be recognized, it never mattered more than the work. I do want recognition, but above all I want recognition of the work: if people are touched by my games or my stories but don’t remember my name, fine. “Fame” matters to me only in the sense that it allows me to do more work.

Edginess, darkness, “psychological realism,” unpleasantness, obscurantism, lack of game-like elements, contemporary settings: these things do not make art. Spaceships, monsters, magic, aliens, grandeur, philosophy: these things do not make non-art. It’s possible to make a deep, meaningful game about a ninja astronaut and a pretentious, superficial game about a depressed old lady. It’s also possible to do the opposite. It’s got nothing to do with how you present yourself, what pronouncements you make about your intentions or the quality of other people’s work, and everything to do with how seriously you take what you are doing. As for art, I’m sorry, but it’s going to be art no matter what you do or say, and we’re all going to have to live with that.

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9 Comments

  1. I like you. As “fluffy” as you talk (er, type), you still, uh, “keep it real”?

    Of all entities, Tale of Tales has been the most difficult for me to figure my take (even more than where the Hades the Kingdom Hearts series is doing*). Eventually determined to deliver monies upon them. Perhaps that could provide me with a comparison point for supporting the things I know I like, eh?

    *Yeah, this mismatch is sorta how I feel about it, in word forme.

  2. At least of the the ToT people did retweet this: http://twitter.com/#!/jennyholzer/status/29205788183
    …which at least leads me to hope for more of (or less not-of) a tone o’ openness toward criticism; IIRC, in some forum posts of late, there’s been some of that tone.

    And a last thing: I’m still avoiding Avatar. I get the feeling that, at least by now, I’d feel uneasy even setting myself to watching it. THANKS, JAMES*, FOR MAKING ME LEERY OF SCI-FINTASY CGI.

    *Okay, non-James people, but whatevz. Internets aren’t for correctitudositiness.

  3. I like what you wrote and have similar feelings about Tale of Tales’ unnecessary manifestos.

    I think being pretentious means actually “taking yourself TOO seriously”, not just seriously. A healthy dose of seriousness is required to stand up for yourself, your thoughts, your actions, and your work (you and your work are bound together). But as it is sometimes difficult to tell what should be the limit of this, you can unknowingly cross the line and become pretentious in all sorts of situations.

  4. I think being pretentious means actually “taking yourself TOO seriously”, not just seriously. A healthy dose of seriousness is required to stand up for yourself, your thoughts, your actions, and your work (you and your work are bound together).

    Absolutely. Taking yourself seriously to some degree is quite important – you just still have to be able to laugh at yourself, too. (Then again, I’ve always believed that taking things seriously is necessary for humour to occur.)

  5. This is a wonderful and valid topic, but you need to write about role playing. And about a buhmillion other topics you said needed to be written about in the past, like Shyamalan, amateur theater, music, the games are art argument, the story of The Great Machine: A Nightmare, et cetera…

    Don’t ask me why I’m suddenly bringing this up. Also, in case you get curious, I was looking back in your archives for a bit. There, no excuse for you to ask me why I’m suddenly bringing this up.

  6. I know. So much to do, so little time.

  7. byth

     /  November 5, 2010

    I agree with what you said about being fine with people only remembering the art and not the artist. Recognition is nice, but somehow I think I’d be more fulfilled if I overheard or read something like “I played this game, [game], and it was great. It really spoke to me.” as opposed to “You make great games, keep it up!” It just seems more sincere.

  8. Recognition is nice, but somehow I think I’d be more fulfilled if I overheard or read something like “I played this game, [game], and it was great. It really spoke to me.” as opposed to “You make great games, keep it up!” It just seems more sincere.

    Definitely.

  9. Doreibo

     /  November 20, 2010

    I liked this article, how frank it was and straight to the point(And however “Fluffy” the speech is, I somehow always talk on the internet in this manner too). I can not, however, find anybody I have ever met as pretentious, much less some one whom I have only just stumbled across their works. I have always found that there is a reason, or a justification for some one being proud or serious about their work or achievements. Though I can imagine a “pretentious figure”, where by my view of it would be a person who talks up a certain subject in an unnecessary manner. But that is just it, what would limit the speech or method to it being unnecessary? (cue ontological argument and questioning of “relativity”)

    I can sympathise with a resentment towards being labelled as “pretentious”. For me it means having everything that I have done or said as being invalidated, making it all seem as if it is a superficial performance or throw out, when in reality it is what I intend it to be, not mere words but meaning.(Once again questioning relativity here)Although, my stand point almost definitely differs from your own Jonas, and we could be talking about differing “pretentiousness”. (I did think of using sincerity in my post but that led me to question your intention behind commenting upon people confusing seriousness and sincerity, and also my lack of understanding in that >.<)

    By the way, I'm posting this after having played Infinite Ocean, and posting there. (Don't know why I am saying this)So thank you again for presenting such interesting questions and thoughts to me through not only that game, but also this article.

    It's always nice to think.