We’re going to begin with some definitions today. First off is the word pretentious and its derivatives, like pretentiousness. Google defines pretentious as “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.” I agree and we’ll use this, but I also want to drive home the point by providing an example.
Think of the most snobbish, insufferable, piece of shit guy you’ve ever met. This is the guy who grunts and says “Actually…” at almost everything you say. He’s always got to say something and he’s always got something to say, and everything he says seems to be calculated to maximise how smart he is and how stupid you are, regardless of the topic at hand. Knowing smirk may or may not be present physically but you know – oh, you know – he’s smirking deep down and thinking you oughtta kiss his feet for showing you the light of his intellectualism. What makes this worse is that he’s not always right. When you bring it up with your truly intellectual colleague, he’ll laugh his ass off and say how Mr. Actually’s shit has no bearing on the conversation, or is off the mark somehow – or worse, straight up wrong. This makes it worse. You just suffered through indignation of being called stupid by a fucking moron spouting pseudo intellectual slash philosophical bullshit. This is a pretentious person, to me.
Now that that’s out of the way – I believe a lot of older indie games are super fucking pretentious.
For some reason, when indie game devs used to make games, they’ve got to put in some kind of lesson, some kind of point they’re trying to make with their game. This is usually highlighted in the game’s story if it has any or with in-game finds like audio logs or clues or what have you. So in between shooting stuff up you’d be treated to five minute long audio logs about why you have to be humble because your body is made up of atoms of the stars or some stupid bullshit like that or that your soul doesn’t exist because fuck religion. This is unwelcome, to me. This turns your work which is supposed to be a piece of entertainment into a tract – a vehicle whose only merit is in the message you are trying to convey and nothing else. Granted, a lot of indie games also have interesting and fun game loops, but once THE MESSAGE is delivered, all criticism of what we normally critique in games goes out the fucking window, and its fans just argue either YOU JUST DON’T GET IT or WHY ARE YOU AGAINST THE MESSAGE?
In this way, we not only get pretentious game devs and pretentious games, we get pretentious fans and fandoms as well.
Thankfully, this is getting less and less common. Most indie games released today have like, no message at all. A game about shooting stuff is just a game about shooting stuff. A game about being chased by ghosts is just a game about being chased by ghosts. In fact, witness Two Star’s QnA video about his upcoming game Choo Choo Charles. He is certainly not pretentious. In fact, I appreciate that he tells us his motivations for making the game:
Money. Fat Stacks o’ Cash.Two Star, re: his motivation for making his game. 3:32 in the video linked below.
Hey, at least he’s honest. And Choo Choo Charles looks hella fun. I have it wishlisted.
The reason I am ranting about pretentiousness is because that is my impression of The Witness. I have to admit, I didn’t even know this game existed until The Looker was released and reviews laughed at how it poked fun at The Witness. I wanted to play The Looker, but I also wanted to get the jokes, so I played The Witness first.
The witness is a puzzle game where you draw lines from one end of a maze to another. Over time there are various conditions for you to fulfil as you go through the maze, which I’m not going to touch on. It’s not just a puzzle game, though – you explore an island full of these goddamn puzzles and make wires light up and lasers go off and watch lectures by scientists.
That last part is why I say this game is pretentious. I was actually enjoying myself, to be quite frank. I love puzzles and I love puzzle games. If the devs had just let the game be what it is – a bunch of puzzles to solve on a calming, charming island – then I’d have enjoyed it even more immensely. Instead, I go inside an underground area, do a puzzle, and are immediately treated to this:
Hands up if you know what the fuck any of that has to do with drawing lines on a goddamned maze.
Now. To be completely fair, there is a good gameplay related reason that video is included in the game. To tell you that would require me to spoil a huge part of the game, but because I don’t respect this game any more than anybody would respect me if I told them I pissed in a jar, I’m going to tell you – the game normally has its line puzzles on panels, but you can also draw lines on the scenery itself. Sometimes you’d see a circle – oh, you think, that kind of looks like the start of a maze like on the panels. That’s because it is.
I’ve seen people react with extreme amazement that they can draw on the scenery. I…didn’t have that reaction. You see, in this game, despite being first person, you can’t fall off of stuff. You can’t jump, either. Pressing the spacebar only opens up the ‘draw a line’ interface, whether or not you were facing a panel. I actually tried to jump and brought this interface up, and immediately I thought obviously we’d be able to draw on the scenery because why would this be a thing? And so when I saw something that might be the start of a maze, I immediately went and drew on it. Nothing happened. Bunch of lights and flashing. It was so underwhelming I decided I wasn’t going to bother hunting for more scenery puzzles.
Anyway. The video above shows several circles. You can draw on those circles. That’s pretty clever, to me, but doing so as I mentioned only causes shit to light up for a moment and nothing to happen, so I don’t see any reason to continue.
Now if that video was put in for that reason alone, I wouldn’t have thought the game pretentious at all. I’d have thought it quite cool, in fact. But I did get the impression that this game was trying to be smart because there are audio logs scattered around the place, and while you’d imagine you’d be getting clues and hints as to, yknow, why you’re on a deserted island solving goddamn maze puzzles, but no. You get quotes from scientists and philosophers.
So, what, are video games not allowed to be intellectual or philosophical? No, I didn’t say that. But the fact that we graduated from audio quotes of Great Thinkers to an actual fucking video of some white guy telling me that I’m stupid for liking art instead of science makes me feel like this is all leading up to some huge fucking two hour lecture titled “You’re Stupid and I’m Smart: This Is Why” as my fucking ‘reward’ for solving all these goddamn motherfucking puzzles. You can guess why I didn’t actually feel like continuing the game. I refunded it, in fact. If you’re so smart, figure a way to stop me from getting my refund, prick.
Then I played The Looker and my mood did a total one eighty.
As a parody game, The Looker is stuffed chock full of jokes. For example, it has a ‘Hint’ button that does nothing but say “You can do it!” and “I believe in you!” until you hit the end of its dialogue stack and it totally berates you for being a dumbass. This actually highlights how I felt throughout the game – like I was the butt of some huge joke, the unwitting target of some prank. But somehow, I didn’t feel the malice directed toward me like The Witness made me feel. I felt like I was laughing along with the game despite being the butt of the joke. Even better – I felt entertained.
The Looker is a direct parody of The Witness in particular, and maybe because I hated The Witness, I gained more enjoyment from the jokes as a result. One of my favourite ‘puzzles’ parodies the sound cue based ones by replacing the bird chirps and beeps in The Witness with some tired sounding dude going ‘…beep’ every now and again. The dude even gets frustrated and goes ‘you’re so close – I mean, beep!’ when you get close, but because of the maze being what it is you get frustrated as well when he keeps saying you’re so close but you haven’t solved it and start shouting at the guy…I was laughing my ass off the whole time.
Then there’s the audio log parodies, but unlike before, I am not going to spoil anything about The Looker. Go play it. In fact, if you have ever experienced a pretentious ass game, then I suggest you play this and have a great laugh. If that game was The Witness then you definitely need to play this game. Finally, if you were the creative genius behind The Witness, then someone needs to force you to play this game. I mean…your whole point with The Witness was ‘different perspectives’, wasn’t it? Entertain this perspective, if you dare.