Text by Mandi Keighran
To those who haven’t played The Witness, the recent release from San Francisco-based video-game designer Jonathan Blow, the idea of ranking it alongside Thomas Pynchon’s epic, postmodern masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow might seem odd. While the former is a 3D-puzzle game set on an uninhabited island, the latter is considered one of the most complex literary works of the century.
So, was it egotistical of Blow to make the comparison during interviews prior to the game’s launch earlier this year? Not according to critics, who are effusive in their praise of what might just be the first great work of video-game culture. In the UK, The Guardian, for example, called it “more Finnegans Wake than Grand Theft Auto V”.
So what elevates a video game to high art? According to Blow, the key lies in exploring themes without worrying if the reader, or in this case player, is following. “Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t holding your hand the whole way through to make sure you understood every paragraph,” he said. “If you can keep up, great. If you can’t, come back to it in a few years and see it from a different perspective.”
This attitude represents a departure for most game designers, who focus on optimising user experience. It’s typical of Blow, whose background is in indie games, which are created by individuals or small teams, generally without the financial support of large publishers. However, while most of these games have a niche following and take in less than US$500, Blow’s 2008 hit Braid – a postmodern take on Super Mario Bros that made Blow’s name – brought in US$6million (NOK4.9m) by 2015.
Most of these profits were reportedly spent developing The Witness. A team of 15 developers, artists and even architects was hired to realise Blow’s vision, while the soundtrack was provided by Wabi Sabi Sound, who recorded ambient sounds while walking around Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Eight years on, The Witness has finally been released, selling over 100,000 copies in its first week and grossing US$5million to date. Time will tell if the video-game industry has got its first proper classic.
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