August 8, 2011 Page 3 of 5
Blow Versus the Mainstream
It's little surprise that Blow doesn't have much time for the design ideas that populate mainstream games these days, given that his game embraces concepts that are increasingly ignored by major studios, such as uncertainty.
"That's one thing that really disheartens me about mainstream games. There's a joy of discovery that is gone from a lot of games," says Blow. "And that gets very tedious to me." The voiceovers in The Witness will never instruct the player on how to solve the game's puzzles.
"Original Nintendo games, like Metroid and stuff, were extremely like, you just had to find your way through that game," he says. "Somehow that turned into 'we focus test the hell out of everything and any time anybody has a single problem with anything, we kind of iron that out.' And I feel like it makes games kind of flat."
Games today often constantly reward the player, or strive to provide novel experience after novel experience. Short attention spans are expected.
"And this is definitely a long attention span game, right? You have to not be playing a game for achievements, or for power ups, right? And that's kind of what interests me as a game designer, is creating experiences where the experience itself is interesting enough that you don't need those other trappings to keep people motivated," says Blow.
"I do think that there's an audience out there who appreciates this kind of thing, that's game-literate, that treats the player as someone who's intelligent, first of all, and who's thoughtful and who wants to have some choices to make."
He's making a game that's slow and thoughtful -- that, in itself, is becoming unusual. Many games concentrate on delivering an excess of stimulus in simple environments, quickly navigated. With The Witness, he says, it's the opposite.
"Just given minimal interactivity -- like, 'Hey, I can move and look around and I have a simple interact button,' -- how much can I do to make everything in the world matter? So that if you notice something is there, or if you notice a tree is shaped in a certain way, or you notice a building is oriented a certain way, that actually matters in this game. And the more that you notice, the more the player can get out of that, right? So it's kind of the anti-FPS that way."
He's considered and discarded the current drive to constantly reward the player. "I almost fell into that trap when I was designing this game," says Blow. "My assumption for this game was going to be, any time there's a sequence of like say three things... you go one, two, three, and then the last one there's a little box that you open, and you get a reward," like a recording or other item to collect. The player has no inventory in the current version of The Witness.
"And thankfully, I questioned that again later, and was like, 'Why am I doing this? I'm doing it because somebody thinks that that's what you need to make a game.' And I'm just like, 'You know, no. That's kind of bullshit. That's not what this game is about.'"
He's not a fan of achievements, either -- in fact, he'd love to not have to implement them in The Witness at all.
"These two games that I've made so far have a lot to do with focusing the player's attention, or creating an atmosphere of focus, and having a very intentional design. The game knows what it's about, and knows what it wants you to do. And when you give somebody a bunch of achievements that they can do, it's like, well, maybe I don't really know what I want you to do," says Blow. "Adding this other stuff just defocuses the game."
Well, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade require them. "Fuck that, man. That's so stupid."
And it's not just about how achievements can warp the design. "It's trying to be a long attention span game. Creating quiet atmosphere. If you solve a puzzle and it's going to go, 'Bloop! Achievement Unlocked,' it pulls you out of the game. It pulls you out of the mood."
While Blow is considering ways to de-emphasize achievements if the game comes to consoles which require them, he'd rather avoid them entirely. "I'm kind of hoping that I don't have to do achievements, one way or another," says Blow, "but we would like to release on one of those consoles. There's quite an audience there, so we'll have to deal with that when the time comes."
Braid deviated from the mainstream in another way. It was a game with secrets -- things which could only be discovered through careful, experimental play (or, soon after release, watching YouTube, Blow laments.) Few games these days still have secrets, however. It was once a foundation of mainstream game design (think back to Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.)
"If you're making a triple-A game and it's very expensive," says Blow, "and you're competing with other games that are also very expensive, so the stakes are very high, every dollar you spend, you want it to be there on the screen, and in the player's face. Because if it isn't, then your game is going to seem like it didn't have as much money spent on it as the other one. And that didn't used to be the case, or didn't used to be the mentality."
This doesn't affect just secrets, but also the fundamental design of the games. "You go to some GDC lectures, and there are talks about, 'Well, we had this big dramatic event happening, and players didn't notice it, so here's how we redesigned the level to ensure that they see the thing that we made happen.'"
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