Keith Burgun recently wrote an article on his blog titled Videogames Are Broken Toys. I wouldn’t have bothered with this article at all except that he uses The Lego Movie to defend his point. And poorly at that. So here we go.
It is not instructions, stamped in plastic, that are “the primary force of antagonism” in the movie. No, no, no. That’s something the author dreamed up. The real force of antagonism would have to be Lord Business, the master planner and social engineer who wants to save the city from all the messiness, randomness, unhappiness and burdensome responsibilities of life, and freeze the citizens in a perfect, displayable state. Forever. Which is effectively a death sentence for a Lego person. As well as for us.
Total control. Total predestination of man, by man. Absolute power wielded by a totalitarian tyrant who stultifies his subjects with a steady stream of idiotic entertainment, pacifies them with his simple “how to be happy” guides, and finally lures them to the killing field with the empty promise of free food.
Burgun thinks that the movie was all about the power of “creativity, exploration, doing things your own way”. Now there are admittedly elements of these things here, but to focus exclusively on them is to come away with an incomplete picture. Throwing out instructions is not what the movie’s about. For if it was, how would you reconcile one of the final scenes in the movie, where the crew is able to sneak into Lord Business’s tower precisely because they “followed the instructions”, an idea which was immediately resisted by all the master builders because they were all egotists who couldn’t work together.
And what of the hilarious, yet important line from Vitruvius who advises Emmet early on to trust his instincts. “Unless your instincts are terrible.” Prior to that, Vitruvius tells Emmet that “with proper training, you could become a master builder.” Note that he isn’t told that he already is one, and he’s definitely not saying that all he needs to do is exercise his creativity. That is a modern delusion that Burgun is reading into the whole film, where it does not belong. A delusion that the movie even explicitly addresses in its depiction of Cloud Cuckooland, which is a builder’s heaven with non-stop partying, “no rules, no government, no babysitters, no bedtimes, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.” Where “wild, loose creativity” is nurtured to the extreme. Almost like a modern kindergarten. And it comes across as a total contradiction with “no consistency” whatsoever. It’s a dream world, a child’s paradise, and when reality finally confronts it, it is consumed in flames and falls into the ocean.
The thing about Emmet is that his mind is blank, totally empty, since he’s never actually trained up any creative building skills. All he’s ever done is follow instructions. He’s like a student who knows how to read, but not to write. And as soon as he tries to build something on his own, he marvelously fails. But the movie being what it is, he gets more and more opportunities to develop his skills, and at a critical point in the film, he eventually saves the lives of all his friends with something he’s built. Not because of the ingenuity of what he’d created, but because of its honest modesty. It was a simple, defective idea. But nonetheless, because it was a genuine product of his ability, it found a purpose. And that’s another key element of the film. Every creation has its purpose, and a master builder does not create without one.
Just look at the way Emmet addresses his fellow builders in the gathering hall in the middle of the film. Total humility. Complete honesty with regards to his abilities. And predictably, the master builders reject him as an outsider and a “dingdong”. It’s an elitist refusal to so much as even acknowledge the possibility for talent in someone perceived to be below them. Ratatouille shared a similar message, with recipes substituted for instructions, and at the end of the film, the food critic’s eyes are finally opened. And ours should be too.
In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.
This is the heart of these movies. It’s not an intellectual fantasy where everyone is equalized and raw creativity overtakes the cultivation of technique and structured training via instruction. Far from it. And what of the final scene from The Lego Movie? What was the end result of this newfound freedom from tyranny? Invaders. And these invaders greet our Lego friends saying, “We are here from the planet Duplo and we are here to destroy you.” The final scene sees the undisciplined creations of a little sister threaten the end of the world as we know it. It remains to be seen what will happen in the sequel, but it’s a good note to end on. Beware of those who would use everything you’ve fought for to destroy you.
Anyway, you can refute Burgun’s whole article by understanding that his call for the abolishment of goals in games is so that he can have more rein to explore the entirety of a game’s possibility space without feeling like the designer’s goal is encroaching upon his. It “requires a lot of mental effort” to ignore the goal, and so he’d rather it not be there at all. Apparently his real goal is “exploring edges”, and he feels it’s the greatest goal there is. So much so that it’s even led him to some unusual conclusions, with disastrous results. As for why he thinks this, maybe it’s because he writes so much about game design and just really likes exploring game systems. I don’t know.
At bottom, it’s more of the same old, anti-Christian concept of a totally meaningless, cyclical universe that has no goal, purpose, rhyme or reason to it. And because this is what modern man actually believes, that’s what he intellectually desires from his entertainment. The meaningless, the aimless, and the absurd. He wants to be spared the “mental effort” of ignoring God and the implications of His design, and to just be left alone to do his own thing. Unimpeded. But can we really suppress the truth from ourselves, in our more honest moments? Can we really deny all structure, direction and personal design in our games, just by principle alone? Just because it clashes with our belief that life is supposed to be meaningless? That there is no designer? That there’s nothing beyond the existential moment?
He says that “toys break when you give them a goal.” Not only their toys, but their whole worldview breaks down when given a goal, because by definition a goal shouldn’t be possible in a godless, uncreated world void of any meaning. It shatters their whole reality. When you deny God’s sovereign role in the direction of history and His personal providence in the lives of men, this is where you end up. In a dead wasteland. A self-manufactured hell. One which increasingly resembles a mental prison, like the ruins seen in movies like Inception, where death is seen as the highest hope. It is the ultimate application of the Proverb, “he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.”
It’s also the extension of the existentialism of Sartre to games, who said that man has only being, no essence. That there is no goal for man. No external factor. He is only what he makes of himself. Nothing more. He is, in effect, his own creator. His own designer. And this is the logical dead-end that such rigorous atheism finds itself in. That is to say, this is the intellectually respected position of the day.
But Burgun sneaks the concept of a goal back into his definition for what makes a “great toy”, calling it instead a “core idea” that “ties the whole thing together.” So he can’t even make it through the whole article without submitting to a higher purpose in terms of creation. Now if this kind of thinking can’t even survive the length of the article in which its expounded, how do you think it fares in reality?
Game designers cannot involve themselves with such anti-artistic atheism, because they’re working directly in God’s domain, the creation of worlds and universes. Law and order. Cause and effect. Trials and tribulation. Ethics and morality. Heaven and hell. If he allows his atheism to govern the direction of his output, what will be the result? What happens to such a mind when it steps into the studio? And what can we expect from the designer who alternatively sees creation as the work of the Biblical Creator?
These are all subjects for another day, but for now, fellow gamers, I leave you with a question. Which are the worlds you’d rather see in games? The existential, atheistic worlds that have no goals, no direction, and no meaning. Or the directed, Christian worlds with their narratives, consequences, successes and failures?
Choose wisely. I’ve a feeling you already have.
[Editor’s Note: As Erenan mentioned in the forum, Burgun never explicitly states that games shouldn’t have goals. Using his terminology, his position is that “toys” shouldn’t. Determining which games are, according to Burgun, either “games” or “toys” is an exercise best left to the reader.]