Pretentious. I just used the word and you thought of one or two or a handful of things– people, speeches, movies, games, books… it’s a term thrown around for a lot of things.
It has a very simple dictionary meaning: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. It’s not how it’s used, mainly. It’s mainly used an an attack, a way of saying “this thing isn’t as smart as it thinks it is”. It’s barely a critique; it’s a meta-critique, that attacks the thing for daring to try to be more than the attacker has decided it is “allowed” to be. We see it elsewhere, when someone is “trying too hard”.
There is another meaning, one people don’t want to admit. A thing is pretentious when I am afraid I am not enough for it. Not smart enough, not fashionable enough, not witty enough, not attractive enough– not enough of something. It is the crowning attack of the anti-intellectual, the denial that something can push our limits, be beyond our grasp.
We’re hardwired to do this. We fight against anything we don’t understand, and our first reaction is to deny it any validation. We weld our understanding to our beliefs, and we fight for both. That something might be valid but beyond our comprehension is anathema– we instead fight against it and seek to validate ourselves in so doing.
It’s possible to be genuinely pretentious. Creators often do this, when they’re afraid their audience is catching up with them. Works will be made obtuse, defy explanation, and hint at a bigger picture than is actually there. To actually be pretentious, something has to pretend.
I remember playing The Stanley Parable, and Braid, and the rallying cry of the detractors for both games was that those games were pretentious. They are not. What they don’t do is fully explain themselves, but that isn’t the same thing. It just sounds better to say something is pretentious than “I didn’t get it”, or “I did get it, but it didn’t move me”. It’s okay not to be moved by a powerful work. It’s not okay to try to say a work isn’t powerful just because it wasn’t powerful for you.
I’ve written before about how it’s okay to not like things. This is the same concept. It’s okay to have a different reaction to things than other people. In fact, it’s pretty much inevitable. I don’t think we talk about this enough. I feel like we have culturally moved to a place where, in our little circles, it’s not okay not to like the things everyone else likes. You have to have a reason WHY, and if you do, you have to be willing to listen and try all the suggestions people have to make it better. If someone likes something and you do not, something is wrong and must be fixed.
I just finished a game, one that’s already being blasted as “pretentious”. It’s about a lot of things, about game design, about relationships, about fixing broken things. It’s about being pretentious, and about being heartfelt and genuine. It’s powerful, and a lot of people won’t get it. A lot of people won’t be able to get it; they’ll simply lack the experience and understanding to have it resonate. They’ll have different experiences and understandings, and other things will resonate with them.
I keep typing this paragraph over and over again, because I can’t quite get the thoughts in my head to coalesce. Maybe it’s late, maybe I’m tired, but I don’t want to sleep and have these thoughts get lost, paved over by the new day. I lose a lot of thoughts that way, because I’ve convinced myself that I’m creative and can just come up with more. I’m fond of saying that ideas are worth very little until you make something with them. I still believe that, but I think I’ve started to conflate ideas with thoughts, and I think I’ve started discarding thoughts, even important ones, because I believe I can just come up with more.
I can, I always will, but perhaps sometimes it’s worth holding onto a thought. I just finished a game that felt like a front row seat to a cry of anguish, and in experiencing it I felt like I could have perfectly mimicked that cry. It cut deeply, and I’m still reeling. This whole post, all of it, I’m writing so that I can make sense of my own thoughts, because they were a mess. They’re better now, I’ve made sense of them while talking around them for ten paragraphs.
I’m very reticent of recommending games to people, especially ones that affect me personally. I see myself as something of a curator of media, and I try to only make recommendations to specific people for specific things. I don’t want to recommend The Beginner’s Guide, because it’s a work that’s powerful for me and I have no way of knowing if it would be powerful for anyone else, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
I think I’ve come to an end, here. This post rambles, and doesn’t really go anywhere, but I think it has to be that way. Like many such posts of mine, I’m leaving out images as a bit of a flag; my half-baked thoughts are distinctive as half-baked blog posts. I could clean it up, put a polish on it, and make things look more like I meant them, like I’ve got a point to make in saying all of this, but that would be, well. Pretentious.
Thank you for reading.