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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