When you think of pretentiousness, you probably think of failed attempts at being intellectual or profound. It’s the failed attempts that you think of. It’s not pretentious to actually be profound or intellectual, but when an artist’s ambition is not matched by his talent, it usually ends up feeling phony. You might think of a college chick who wants to open up your third eye with a shitty tambourine dance and some pot; or you might think of some indie developer who tries to tackle the sensitive issue of rape with an 8-bit sidescroller. In both cases, you’re thinking of someone who bites off way more than they can chew. You think of Peter Molyneux.
Peter Molyneux is equally known for his disappointing games and his grandiose rhetoric. These go hand in hand: without the rhetoric we wouldn’t be so disappointed, and without the disappointment we wouldn’t mind the rhetoric. We hate him because he tricked us, and we ignore him because… well, he wants lots of attention without really earning it. We’ve seen the tambourine dance once too many times.
Only masters can transcend their medium (whatever that medium may be) to accomplish something profound like elevating culture or making us think about our mothers. Pretentious imitators will almost always resort to quirkiness or marketing to compensate. Fakers trick stupid people who want to seem intellectual into mistaking eccentricity for genius, laziness for controversy, and an incomprehensible presentation for subjectivity. And lord knows there are enough stupid people to keep fakers in business. But they’re not all the same. They range from manipulative, cynical con artists who know exactly what they’re doing to wide-eyed dreamers who, sadly, lie to themselves more than to others. Either way, “fake it ’til you make it” seems to be the motto. Whether Peter Molyneux is a liar or a fool, I won’t pretend to know, but he’s a handy poster child.
Hedonism is Honesty
When I think of what’s considered pretentious or not, I often think of pornography as a starting point. Is it possible for porn to be pretentious? We recognize something as being “honest” and “down to earth” (ie. the opposite of pretentious) when it simply gives us what we want without high-class posturing. Porn is explicit, raw, and honest. You could say the so-called “plot” in porn movies is the very definition of pretentious. Well, let me argue that it’s more of a tacit admission — so crude and disposable that it actually mocks the idea of there being a story. It’s an empty gesture, a legal loophole, and a farce. To be pretentious, don’t you need to be pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes? This is why vulgar, lowbrow, philistine creations can’t be pretentious: because hedonism is our ultimate Darwinist-Freudian expression of honesty. For ages, leading thinkers have been teaching us that we’re all repressed animals, deep down. And if this is true, pretending to be something better than an animal is pretentious. We might try to hide it, because it makes us uncomfortable, but hedonism is honesty, sex is truth, porn is the gospel, and masturbation is devout prayer. True intellectuals won’t privately deny this.
And that is why smart people dismiss Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity as pretentious while embracing Diablo 3 as good old fashioned fun.
Curiosity was introduced to the world as a massive “social experiment”, which, you know. It’s not good. They admit it’s a blatant attempt to test a hypothesis about human behavior, not to create value for the end user. What they don’t admit is that it’s a pathetic vie for attention, dressed up as an avant garde experiment. Since you probably don’t know much about it, here’s the deal: you tap squares on the screen and earn points, which you can spend to unlock better square-clearing tools. The playing area is a massive rotatable cube that potentially millions of users can destroy simultaneously, a few tiny squares at a time. There’s only one cube, and once it’s destroyed, the player who hits the final square will receive a “life-changing” prize. Pretentious as fuck, right?
Peter Molyneux said it’s real purpose is to test the capacity of 22 Cans’ servers and hardware, which is kind of a dick thing to say. He doesn’t care that this “experiment” leverages players like lab rats? We’re just chasing the same mysterious chunk of cheese, not important patrons who are entitled to customer satisfaction. The fact that only one person can even win the game — oops, I mean the experiment — means everyone else chasing the goal will end up feeling like a loser who wasted their precious time destroying squares to help some other dude. Nobody even knows what the so-called “life changing” reward at the end will be. Speculation has not been rampant, for obvious reasons.
I’ve played it, and despite my best judgment found myself compulsively tapping away. Tapping with a certain rhythm creates a chained multiplier effect, you see. And clearing an entire screen without moving the camera provides bonus digital money as well. This in-game money is used to buy power-ups that clear extra blocks, for a limited time. It can be addictive, I guess. By directly encouraging moment-to-moment technique in tandem with screen-by-screen strategy, and by balancing this against long-term investments (some items cost millions and even billions of coins, which is as daunting as it sounds) the game taps into powerful, primal urges or competitiveness and mastery. Whether your goal is to satisfy your curiosity, as the game portends, or to have your life changed dramatically, as Molyneux promises, your actual motivation during the endless grind will be nothing more than an addictive instinct to clear a screen and get stuff in return. Clear. Collect. Buy. Clear.
Oh hey look, it’s Diablo 3!