Blur

Generally speaking, two things hold true when talking about game criticism. First, game criticism is largely a first-come-first-serve field where the first things written about a game define any other writing that follows. The practical explanation for this, at least as far as players are concerned, is that most people don’t have the time or the interest in revisiting older games through a fresh lens. Critics, meanwhile, often feel a pressure to be aware of what’s already written about a game so their own commentary isn’t immediately obsolete.

All of this poses a risk for game criticism in that marketing and authorial intent take on far more importance than they otherwise might. Further compounding matters is the the fact that meaningful game criticism only started to emerge within the past ten years or so. Hence the heavy focus on mechanics in early video game writing: games were sold as a series of enjoyable challenges, so writers believed that’s what video games should be and treated them as such. Although even that isn’t strictly true. Writers didn’t deal with the game as it was to them so much as they did the game as it was marketed through its most easily understood features. Taken together, these various aspects of game criticism mean a completely wrong reputation can stick with a game for years because nobody (neither players nor critics) show any willingness to correct it.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-03 12-38-24Blur demonstrates these trends well. Most commentary on the game since its 2010 release has focused on drawing comparisons between Blur and Mario Kart. There are the obvious similarities between them – the most notable being that you collect special items during a race to attack other players – and Blur’s own marketing campaign positioned the game as a more mature equivalent to Mario Kart. Yet to insist these surface similarities define Blur as an artistic endeavor is both incredibly naive and unfair to Blur. We’ve done nothing to argue why this facet of the game and not some other constitutes its core (we’ve only assumed this to be the case), and our argument says nothing about what each game does with this mechanic.

Once we start addressing this latter issue, we find that comparing the two games beyond surface resemblances doesn’t make any sense. In fact, an inverse approach would be more appropriate for Blur. Rather than challenging Mario Kart with the realism it brings to the kart racer, the game instead borrows ideas from that series to respond to the stifling realism of more conventional racing games. Establishing connections between Blur and these kinds of racing games is an easy task, at least if we limit ourselves to surface resemblances. The high visual fidelity, for example, alludes to the same hyper-realism that racing games in general are known for. Likewise, the physics and their lack of physical impact situate Blur alongside arcade racing games, which often conform to the same hyper-realism.

But it isn’t enough to say that these connections exist, or even to limit our analysis of them to Blur specifically. The hyper-realism connecting the game to other racing games isn’t mere scènes à faire, but indicative of a much larger phenomenon in video games, which is itself part of a much larger phenomenon in technology.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-03 13-20-11Photography and visual technology are especially relevant here. When photography was first invented in the 19th century, it was treated more as a scientific tool than an artistic one. This was in part because cameras captured a level of detail that human hands (the only other tool for representing the world visually) couldn’t match. However, the more familiar arguments rests on the objectivity the camera was seen as embodying. Unlike the human eye, bound to an individual’s psychology and thus mired in subjectivity, the camera existed outside human perception and could represent the world as it really was, unmediated by idealism or subjective interpretation.

It’s an odd argument, even when taken on its own terms. Ignoring the obvious retort that humans inevitably affect the camera’s supposed objectivity with their choice of subject matter and how they frame it, there’s the prior matter of what exactly the camera captures. It’s easy to overlook the level of detail 19th century photography could capture. At the time, observers saw photography as rendering more than what the eye could normally perceive; more than what the ordinary person accepted as real in their day to day life. So what the camera depicted wasn’t real per se. In fact, the very idea that it held a stronger claim to representing reality as it really was suggests that what it was depicting was realer than real. It was the crystallization of 19th century scientific thought: a vision of reality that is both purely physical yet also lacking in any emotional truth that might cloud it. Art loses its claim to truth as photography, science, and objectivity unite to exceed it.

The spirit of the time would (arguably) pass, but it would linger long enough to affect video games. More specifically, the medium started making this logic relevant to itself in the 90s and beyond as part of its desire for greater cultural legitimacy. According to video game advocates, they wanted others to respect the medium as a serious artform. Yet their tactics more closely adhered to scientific rather than artistic thought: a focus on increased visual fidelity and more powerful technology in the pursuit of more realism. Racing games played an important role in all of this. They were often the vanguards of technological advancement, beginning with Pole Position in 1982 and tracing a path through Ridge Racer, Virtua Racer, and perhaps to a lesser extent through OutRun. For a modern example, consider the racing series that has based its identity (its name, even) on the physical phenomenon it depicts in the highest level of detail: Dirt.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-03 12-37-21Contrast this against Blur. On the one hand, we’ve already established its place within racing game tradition. On the other hand, some parts of Blur don’t neatly fit that tradition. While the game is perfectly capable of capturing the texture of gravel or steel or pine or concrete, lights hold greater priority for Blur. Yet the game idealizes its lights more than their real counterparts. Surfaces are more reflective, even under conditions that wouldn’t be conducive to good lighting. They also linger longer than they would in real life, often blurring together into a single indistinct, ethereal sight. (This is almost certainly what gave Blur its name.)

And what are we to make of the power-ups, which exist completely outside the physicalist framework? True, they interact with the world around them (impose themselves upon it), but any referent they might have in reality is as ghostly as their appearance. Speed boosts map nicely to nitrous, but what consistencies can we find between that, a wall of energy that protects cars from impact, spheres of molten heat, and haphazardly placed rings of lightning? In fact, it may be in the power-ups’ nature to defy precise definition. Made of pure energy congealed into a specific place, they seem to exist in the world more by choice than out of absolute necessity.

We could explain these discrepancies by characterizing Blur as more aesthetically charged than its peers. While technically accurate, such an explanation tells us very little about the way in which the game is aesthetically charged. We would do well to remember that for all its differences, Blur’s effect is just as rooted in technology as any other racing game. I’m not just referring to the game’s high visual fidelity; what it does with light already has precedent in long-exposure photography. What this means is that Blur doesn’t exist outside or completely counter to 19th century scientific thought. In fact, it accepts the core premise of technology as revealing a level of truth the human eye cannot perceive on its own.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-13 18-21-25The only difference is that Blur interprets that truth as being emotional in nature. That isn’t to say this idea is completely alien to the world of video games. Burnout, for example, uses crashes and wreckage to celebrate the physical as an act of creation in its own right. But where Burnout’s project preserves the physical world as it is, Blur’s more direct interest in emotional truths means it openly acknowledges ideas about transcending the real through technology that scientific thought only implied.

Indeed, returning to our previous examples, we can say that sentiment defines the game’s ethos. A focus on light often means a focus on movement in practice, IE a focus on the sum of its positions over time. Although what Blur depicts cannot exist in reality by definition, its depictions feel truer to reality than reality itself will allow. The world bleeds away so that we are left only with the effect: a visual representation of the lived activity that constitutes a place’s soul but that ordinary life hides from view. This is to say nothing of how the game imbues life into the cars themselves; hinted at through the patterns their tail lights trace, but more fully realized with the power-ups. Each one is defined not for its utility, but for the unique way in which it affects the world around it. Shunts (the equivalent to shells) burst out and ripple outward like a subwoofer. Barges exert a similar effect, but localize it in the space around the car rather than in the power-up.

I’ll admit that this makes the game sound overly indulgent. But isn’t that the point? Blur exists as a mythic, almost spiritual celebration of technology as a living thing. It collapses the space between technology and art, both giving technology an expressive quality and allowing the world to fade to reveal the emotional realities that ordinary life hides from us. It would only make sense for our language to reflect that.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-14 15-58-12It would be easy to end things here and conclude that we’ve fully and accurately represented what Blur is. However, there remains so much more to be said about the game. I’ve said very little regarding my own experiences playing the game, and leaving things where they are know would risk being dishonest about those experiences. Furthermore, there’s more to be said about Blur’s aesthetic and its relationship with technology than our present analysis will allow.

The most obvious oversight would be the role that trendy youth culture plays in Blur. It’s impossible to ignore. So much of the game’s style relies on ideas that players would associate with youth: street racing, club music, cities associated with living the high life while you still can – Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. We could reason that this is in line with what we’ve already seen of Blur; that the game links technology to youth because the latter is when our creative life energies are at their most potent.

That being said, we’d have to acknowledge the specifying effect this new perspective exerts on the game. Technology is no longer some abstract or eternal thing, but the product of a specific cultural/historical moment. And although the game itself remains rather vague on this point, as players it’s impossible for us to ignore that change because it’s so central to the game’s appeal. “You don’t want to be left behind, do you? Enjoy the high life while you still can.”, the game appears to beckon.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-20 12-48-39In any case, I’m not terribly interested in this line of analysis; at least not on its own. It says more about the aesthetic the game adheres to than what Blur does with it. (We can draw obvious parallels between this and Japanese racing media like Racing Lagoon, Initial D, etc.) Far more interesting to me are those aspects relating to social media and fandom. The former only goes so far as Twitter and Facebook integration (possibly through an account on the now-defunct Blur website; I never made use of the feature), but fandom represents a major aspect of play for Blur. Most of the actions you take in the game, you take to increase your fan following. Using a power-up, evading other power-ups, leading the race, completing certain special actions (EG “drive through all these rungs”) – each one boosts the number of fans you will have accrued by the end of the race.

Most critics at the time ignored these aspects of the game; an odd decision in hindsight, given how prescient the game’s inclusion of these features ended up being. I’m not only referring to social media integration in games (which would become more popular in the years following Blur), but to larger trends in the culture around the game. While the game abstracts away many of the realities involved with celebrity culture (players can accrue more fans but are never asked to maintain their current fanbase), the general picture does a good job of anticipating the increasing intimacy of celebrity culture in the Internet age; not to mention the blending of reality and fiction we’re asked to participate in as a result of these developments. As impressive as that may sound in theory, in practice foresight alone is hardly worth celebrating. If anything, it highlights severe limits in the game’s vision. It’s either ironic or completely appropriate that Blur, blind to what the world around it was becoming, would only be capable of replicating its worst aspects.

One could argue that the fandom motifs, like the more general youth motifs, are far from the game’s worst aspects, and are in fact compatible with its ideas about revealing emotional truth in the world. Fan demands reveal new paths we might otherwise pass by, and new ways in which the power-ups interact with the world and its drivers – or so the argument goes. As compelling as it may sound, this argument overlooks one key difference between our previous characterization and our current one: fan demands always narrativize the action within the game, and they do so according to a certain logic.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-22 18-09-17We will examine that logic in greater detail later. For now, we need only understand that play is narrativized according to the demands the Other places on us. (In fact, I want to note that we only know that Other through the demands they make.) I cannot understate the importance of this shift. Play, once a performance of the modern world’s vivacity, is now rehearsed, transactional, and more emotionally distant than before. The for-itself that served as its backbone is cast aside as my actions are tethered to the desires of a distant, omnipresent Other.

This fact, more than any other, typified my experiences with Blur. Its demands were relentless and emotionally exhausting; more akin to work than a recreational activity. The tasks assigned to me felt arbitrary and, if not outright impossible, then prohibitively difficult. Maintain a speed of 120 MPH for an entire lap. Barge a car into the water. Beat a race with this specific car. Long since past the point of actually completing the races available to me, I came to view my driving only through these goals I still needed to complete. Hence my frustration: each run that didn’t advance me toward my goal was an automatic failure, regardless of whatever else happened during the race. The fact that I’d feel relief upon finally completing all my goals suggests they were more a burden than anything else. Blur told me that this is what it takes to be a celebrity; that I should both accept and aspire to the life I’ve chosen. The illusion was shallow, at best.

More specifically, Blur uses its youth lens to justify this kind of experience as a casual activity. Street racing, the game contends, is something that friends opt into out of friendly competition with one another. As if this addresses my earlier frustrations. If anything, all we accomplish by accepting this as true is revealing a toxicity in Blur for couching its stringent demands in a personable facade. Yet we already know that this kind of framing cannot be true where Blur is concerned, since we rarely know the people we’re racing against. When we do know them, we know them only as authority figures in the scene; rivals we must topple on our path to success.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-18 15-39-36Moreover, even if camaraderie were to emerge between us, we would still have to contend with the fandoms both of us are entangled with. Indeed, what makes our rivals authority figures in the first place is the fandom each one has accrued by the time we meet them. Fandom takes primacy for Blur, and all our previous issues become relevant again. We cannot truly understand the game until we confront the thought underpinning this concept. Before we proceed, it must be said that Blur acknowledges the existence of multiple audiences (evinced by the multiple rivals I take down over the course of the story), and at least in the technical sense, the core concept of managing a fandom holds true because of this.

Yet all of this is beside the point. What stands out during play aren’t the differences but the commonalities between each fandom. First, the fans seem to enjoy conflict in general. To offer a few examples:

  • I’ve earned fans for “bullying” other racers (tailgating them so I can fire all my shots into them).
  • One set of events is called “Ruthless Aggression.”
  • One on one races involve establishing one’s own prestige by toppling another’s. Blur is not only aware of this but develops on it in places. When introducing me to one of my opponents, the narrator once told me, “If you beat him, you’ll take his place, and he doesn’t want that.”

These examples alone point to a false idea of individuality on Blur’s part. It’s a zero sum game where individuality is withheld from all but the leader of the pack, an idea that holds weight only insofar as it can undermine others, and a prize one is expected to sacrifice endlessly for. Aside from explaining Blur’s veneration of celebrity, this reasoning serves only to justify ruthless competition and the conditions that necessitate it.

However, there’s more that remains to be said on the subject. While the audience may prefer conflict, they don’t prefer all conflicts equally. The fans prefer a good underdog story about rising up through the ranks through nothing more than hard work. Again, we see this idea constantly at work to structure the game. Putting aside the narrative progression of emerging from obscurity to become the top racer, and ignoring the similar arc within races (you always start at the back), it’s all but impossible to earn new fans when you’re in first place. “How else is the player’s victory supposed to feel earned?”, the fans most likely reason. I suspect this appeals to those fans because it mirrors their own life conditions and changes the gameplay action into something they can aspire to.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2018-05-14 12-11-08What sort of goal does this imply, and how does that affect their desires? This brings us to the final point of narrativization for Blur: the accumulation of wealth (whether measured in fans or cars) as an absolute good. Consider this a by-product of the American dream-esque logic we’ve implied until now: if one’s success in life is determined by the work they put into it, then it follows that wealth is the most effective way to demonstrate one’s virtue. The previous lenses we’ve understood Blur through reinforce this reading, even if they do make it fuzzier. The Californian cities and countrysides the game asks you to drive through bring to mind Silicon Valley and its promises of salvation through technology, but just as easily remind us of boom-era Japan’s focus on consumerism as the height of luxury. In any case, Blur ignores the realities associated with both to represent wealth and conspicuous consumption as not only sustainable, but desirable; maybe even admirable.

What I’m getting at is this: the game’s universalizing lenses serve only to hide truth rather than illuminate it. The most notable traits it shares with Mario Kart have less to do with either game’s artistic projects and more to do with the era they emerged into. Life as individualistic competition; cooperation as temporary and unstable; the meritocratic belief in one’s own achievements, divorced from the systems that made those achievements possible – all these values are reflective of the neoliberal realities that made Mario Kart and Blur possible. Where Mario Kart hides these dreary politics with a veneer of innocent and childish fun, Blur does so through the many lenses we’ve already discussed, whose purpose is to generalize and render inevitable the current historical/cultural moment. In other words, to render that moment immune to any and all critique.

For as critical as I may sound toward Blur, I’m more ambivalent than anything else. Although what I’ve said doesn’t outright negate the game’s aesthetic accomplishments, I noticed it producing a shift in how I perceived the game as I spent more time with it. The more I focused on the goals the game gave me, the less my own analysis focused on the self (through Blur’s aesthetic, constructed as vivacious and youthful) and the more it began to focus on the outside motivations imposed upon that self. Blur has been put in tension with itself, but it’s not a tension the game can work with. If anything, it detracts from the game’s project by splitting the game’s personality: in one instance speaking to rising above the world as it currently is, and in another instance using that act of rising up to codify the very world it wishes to overthrow.

Or at least that’s the generous interpretation. A more cynical view would say there is no conflict, and that Blur demonstrates the dangers inherent in the rhetoric of technology as salvation. As we’ve seen, bringing out the human element in technology can easily reaffirm that technology’s supremacy over man. No matter who loses, the cars – those objects Blur reveres so highly, those pieces of branded merchandise that possess a level of reality few if any humans in the game world can match – always win.

Blur is far from unique in resigning itself to realities it believes it has no hope of affecting. Given the similar trends I found in Demon’s Crest, one could make the argument that such resignation has defined mainstream commercial video games for decades. True or false, the assertion doesn’t make the experience of playing these games any less disappointing. The expressive potential both games exhibit demonstrates that creative expression needn’t be anathema to mainstream video games. Yet if either Demon’s Crest or Blur or any indication, so long as these games must cater to the demands frequently made of commercial video games, then there will always be a hard ceiling on how much of that potential can become reality.

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