Artistry and Delusion in Game Development

Delusion: Rejecting Reality

The practice of an art form is indeed self-expression. There is much thought and dreaming that goes into it, but you can make mistakes if you stop and think for too long. A common case would be putting way too much of oneself into the project without considering other factors other than your own, which has the creator enter the realm of delusion. This is what we shall talk about here, the product of obsession that drives some talented yet misguided creators to the brink of madness.

This is more than just about not being able to take criticism, but not being able to accept that people may not see the finished product the way they intended it. Unfortunate as it may be for the creator, but that is just the nature of the beast—people can and will interpret works of art however they wish to.

NOTE: The following is mostly opinion (and some pretentiousness) born from some observations of the people cited below. This piece does not serve as direct criticism of their viewpoint, but merely an illustration of this particular subject.

On Artistic Delusion

There are two major forms of artistic delusion—artists who have no talent but think of themselves as geniuses and artists who are geniuses but think of themselves as no good. I would like to add a third one, which are artists who vehemently insist on their own intended meaning of their work while rejecting everyone else’s.

Mind you, they do have the right to do that, and I’m not trying to knock on creators’ insistence on what they intend to mean with their work. However, this then goes one of two ways—the execution not being good enough to fully convey their vision, they invalidate the audience’s interpretations of their work, or reject any sort of critique by insisting on the quality of their work despite being widely panned.

Let me put my pretentious cap on for a bit and talk about Zen Buddhism, particularly the following quote.

“That you carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forward and experience themselves is awakening” – Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)

It can also be translated as, “When objects convey onto us, that is artistic expression. When we convey onto objects, that is delusion.”

Dogen was the founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen Buddhism. That school greatly values zazen (sitting meditation) as their main practice for achieving enlightenment. It’s all about emptying the mind; keeping the cup unfilled to taste the tea of awakening.

(Or something along those lines. Zennists are all about being rid of the “sickness” of the mind that is too much thinking and distraction.)

Perhaps the interpretation of that quote can be taken many ways or is merely misunderstood due to being lost in translation, not to mention a possible irony and hypocrisy onto itself. However, it still does make sense in this case.

The following are three examples of creators who were greatly disappointed by how their audiences didn’t see their work how they intended. Were they delusional? You be the judge.

Randy Pitchford

Randy PitchfordThis guy is the main inspiration for this blog post due to his recent behavior. He is the founder and CEO of Gearbox Software, who had been known for some pretty good games. However, they had a flop in 2013 entitled Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was (and still is) controversial due to the finished product poor quality relative to the marketing hype that preceded it.

He spoke much about his optimism for the project during its development, mentioning that he himself is a big Alien fan. Perhaps that contributes to how badly he reacted (and continues to react) to criticism of the game. To him, it was not understandable that while the majority agree that Gearbox is a good studio that made good games, a work of theirs could be so universally vilified. He still can’t accept it failed for the most part.

He has gone on to publicly lambaste any and all who condemned the game with such mind-boggling zeal that it’s almost unbelievable. It does seem that he had been taking all the criticism very personally since it all started in 2013. More than anything, it has been making Gearbox Software look pretty bad.

Jonathan Blow

Jonathan BlowThis one is well known for those who watched the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Jonathan Blow designed and developed with Number None, Inc. a side-scrolling puzzle platforming game called Braid, where you can reverse time to rectify whatever mistakes you make.

It was a commercial and critical success, but he wasn’t satisfied with that because he saw that many of the gamers didn’t seem to get its meaning as he intended. He would then go to blog posts and online articles on the game and attempt to clarify what it really was about, but this only served to make him look like a pedantic try-hard who only cared about his own opinion and no one else’s.

This eventually got him disillusioned with mainstream gaming audiences and much of the industry in general. Despite that, he has not given up on designing games (unlike someone else who was also in that documentary). His new game The Witness, being developed by Thekla, Inc., is set to come out later this year.

Ray Bradbury

(I learned about this one from a Cracked article. You’ve been warned, just in case you actually don’t like Cracked.)

Ray BradburyLet’s leave video games for a bit and go into literature for a classic example of someone who was made bitter due to the crowd’s interpretation of his most famous work. Most people thought Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship, but that was the furthest from Bradbury’s mind when he wrote that book. The symbolism of books being burned in that story was meant to be the death of literature as Bradbury felt that newer media like television and radio had been eclipsing books and the importance of reading.

As time went on, he grew scornful of those who read his book. He was also quite a luddite towards new technology, which is kind of funny since he wrote about stuff like televisions that hung on walls and virtual reality. He also gave computers and the Internet his middle finger seal of approval.

He always insisted on his intended meaning of the book as the proper interpretation and the widely-accepted censorship was wrong. It is said that when he was a guest lecturer at UCLA one time, a student walked up and told him flat out that he was wrong; Fahrenheit 451 was indeed about censorship. He walked out of that lecture.


Admittedly, I may not know exactly what I’m talking about here and its real scale, but I may still be onto something here. I would love to know more about people who may have exhibited similar reactions to how people received their work. Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below. You may also leave a message on either Facebook or Twitter. Thank you for dropping by.