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Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid

September 12, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

In the wake of its success on Xbox Live Arcade, Number None's innovative platform title Braid has majorly increased the profile of independent games on consoles.

Its creator, Jonathan Blow, previously a code columnist for Game Developer magazine and a contract programmer/designer for a number of notable games, from Flow through Phase and beyond, has always been an outspoken advocate of working outside of the orthodoxy -- in more ways than just going it alone as an indie developer.

Blow runs the Experimental Games Workshop at GDC, and is an advocate of creating games that challenge the conventional wisdom about how to make a game -- from their core design on up.

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, the designer talks candidly about the ideas that led to the development of Braid, and why challenging conventional pacing and gameplay is so important.

As someone who is doing all of the roles within the traditional development team, as one guy... you talked about how you're trying to keep from getting jaded and protect a bit of innocence in the whole process, as you're stretching yourself to do all of that stuff. How are you trying to keep some purity and vision?

JB: I don't know if there's any kind of technique that aids that. I don't know. The actual hard thing for me has just been to do the work. Three years is a long time. It's been about three years of calendar time working on Braid, but I actually started the game and did a little prototype, and then there were several months of break before I was able to really start development.

So it's been like three and a half or more, total, since I first conceived the game to when it was done for Live Arcade. And I still have to do the PC version, so it's going to be even longer. It's a long time to work on one thing, to not have any external validation for it. So I'm not making any money [during development].

I guess one of the reasons I showed the game at the GDC a few times -- not only because it was cool and I wanted to share it -- was because I knew from my history of getting burned out on long projects, I wanted to have at least some kind of communication with the outside world about this. Because otherwise, you just get nothing. You don't get nourished at all for that entire period, and it becomes very depressing.

I'm not a very materialist person. I don't feel like I really need external validation in my personality, but actually, the human psyche does, always. Even if it's not in your higher level of personality, there's something down there that wants that.

It's something, I guess, when you announce your game, and people start to get excited about it. It's like, "Oh crap, I actually have to do that now. I've got to deliver the goods." It's a super-real motivator.

JB: Yeah. In fact, I announced it very early. I showed it at the GDC in... I lost all track of time now, but I guess it was 2005, like March 2005, after I'd really only done a few weeks of work on it. So it was just a basic prototype.

But it was at this experimental game session that I run, so people weren't expecting more than a basic prototype, and they really liked it. I showed it in '05 and '06 and '07, like at various stages of development.

So that kind of process you were talking about, about how most development teams have become so process-driven, it's like a factory. You get your head down and list all your tasks to make the game, fulfill your tasks, and then you get onto the next one. That results in game designers becoming quite jaded and tired. Do you think that filters down to game players in any way?

JB: I think that everything that the developer does shows up in the final game, somehow. Or doesn't show up -- it shows up as something that's missing. Large-scale game development with big budgets has a way of polishing over that.

Like, "There's some kind of joy that didn't make it into the final game, but we're going to spend some money and have some awesome full-motion video animation on the main menu when you start up the game, and it's going to get people hyped." Gamers kind of commute to that, and that's what they expect -- that kind of production value.

Number None Inc.'s Braid

Indies can't necessarily do that. We can do a smaller amount of stuff, so our job is to just do it better, in order to be relevant to the player. With Braid -- and this is one of the things that doesn't come across -- people look at screenshots on the web and videos... I haven't put a good video of it up yet, but they look at bad videos on the web and they're just like, "I don't quite see what's good about this game." Part of that is because they can't see the gameplay, but part of it is because the game is about setting up a mood and instilling a feeling, and when you play it, hopefully...

Some people have told me that they do feel this way. If you do feel that the developers really cared about this game and really set it up for you to play and meticulously thought about everything... hopefully that's something they feel from the very beginning. That's not something that just happens. That's something that has to remain intact through all of development, from the beginning from when you're excited about the idea, and at the end, when it's just painful to work another day, but you have to, to get all the bugs nailed down and stuff.

I still haven't quite answered the question, but it's in what you do every day. You have to keep that certain feeling about the game. You have to know that it's important enough.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Jonathan Blow
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In this interview I said that Braid had some influence on Rod Humble's game The Marriage, but this can't be true since Rod didn't play Braid until close to the ship date. I must have been thinking of something else, and gotten things confused due to the sleep-addled state in which the interview was conducted.

Caliban Darklock
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I didn't like Braid. I really, really, REALLY didn't like Braid. It's the whole "understanding" concept, which when you really come down to it is just the developer saying "think like I do, and you can succeed". I just fundamentally rebel against that idea, which violates the principle of expressive fertility (Hal Barwood and J.C. Lawrence have both expressed this principle in slightly different ways), and turns the entire game into what feels like a bondage-and-discipline game where the goal is simple subjugation and submission of the player.

I find this to be a shocking and horrible development in modern gaming, and anyone who follows this model with the intent of "taking it to the next level" - a common goal in development; the same thing, but more of it - is moving beyond the unethical into the outright immoral. It is not merely an encouragement of irresponsibility, but an active extermination of individuality and creativity.

This is not in any way intended to be a slam on Jonathan Blow's desire to drive gaming in new directions and provide experimental types of games, nor am I saying that Braid should never have been made. Any defense of individuality must accept that individuals will frequently want things and do things that are distasteful to others, and those things may even be seen as desirable by large groups of people. It can be productively argued that if nobody hates your game, your game doesn't have any real merit in the first place, and Jonathan has certainly opened a valuable discussion. He injects great insight to that discussion, and asks valid questions that drive the seeking of valid answers.

When you turn from playing Braid to reading Jonathan's elucidation of the principles behind it, you find the very opposite of how I see Braid itself: he encourages creativity and individuality, calling for developers to display more of both.

Jonathan's most incisive statement (IMO) has been the basic truth that WoW is not a good game, that it has gone too far. I entirely agree with that; I don't like WoW either, but for very different reasons. What Braid demonstrates to me is that it is every bit as possible to go too far in the other direction, and every bit as bad for the industry as a whole. If most game developers were trying to make something like Braid instead of something like WoW, and there are certainly many people pointing at Braid as an inspiration, things would still suck. The real lesson - and I think Jonathan would agree - is that what really sucks isn't what game you're chasing, but the idea of chasing someone else's game at all. When all the games are variations on the same theme, whether they're all MMOs or all RTS or all Braid, there is simply not enough variance in the population.

The principle of expressive fertility applies: there must be many kinds of games with many kinds of gameplay. There must be games like Braid, and there must be games like WoW, and there must be games like Tetris (yet another game I don't like), and all the spaces in between. You can't eliminate the games that suck, because your opinion is no better or worse than mine - and we'll never agree completely on which games suck.

Chris Remo
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In this feature's associated news post, I posted that I disagreed with Jon about the fundamental distinction between the reward structures of Tetris and WoW. That's still the case, but now having read the full interview, I do entirely agree with the larger point about WoW itself (or, rather, it and its immediate surrounding industry mentality), that it is basically "unethical."

Getting beyond that, this was a fascinating interview about a great game. Pages 3 and 4 in particular, dealing with the intent and thought processes behind Braid, grabbed me.

Lorenzo Wang
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Caliban, "expressive fertility" is not (and shouldn't be) the sole modality games should seek. I wasn't blown away by Braid either, but one thing it has contributed to games is the personal expression of the designer. In film, that kind of "director-vision" is evidence of a maturing medium.

So you contradict your own conclusion, because Johnthan *is* expressing himself through his game. Braid is in part a response to the *way* WoW makes players meet designer expectations. He's saying it forces players, therefore it's artificial, where as with Braid the player learn naturally what the designer expects.

I don't see why he'd agree that "chasing the designer at all" is a bad thing, as not all games are sandboxes. A great designer is a pleasure to "chase".

Caliban Darklock
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Lorenzo, you've confused where I'm talking about players and where I'm talking about designers.

Expressive fertility is for players. Designers already have it; they can make whatever game they want, and they can restrict and control the player experience as much or as little as they desire. Where Braid fails in this regard is that most of the goals have one and only one path leading there. It reduces to a maze - one path leads out, the rest are dead-ends. The ability to choose another maze and come back to this one later is just a book of mazes. "This one is too hard; I'll turn the page." The player has no ability to solve any maze in a new and unexpected fashion.

Chasing someone else's game is about designers. A designer who begins construction of a new game by saying "this will be just like that other game over there, except with X and Y and Z" is chasing someone else's game, instead of leveraging the environment of expressive fertility he naturally enjoys.

Creativity that begets more creativity is good. Because Braid does not beget more creativity from the player, it is not-good in that space (which doesn't make it bad). Because chasing someone else's game is not creative at all, it is also not-good, although creative elements might conceivably be added. Even the sandbox game is not necessarily good; it takes very little creativity to stick an avatar in an environment with a physics engine, and you have no assurance that the player will do anything more than duplicate what he does in other sandbox games.

The restrictions of the game environment stimulate creativity - make them too loose, and there WILL be none; make them too tight, and there CAN be none. While neither is good, I find only the latter to be actively bad.

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As a professional developer with over 10 years of experience in the industry, I cannot help but be really proud about what Jonathan achieved.

How many of us joined this industry with high hopes of making outstanding contributions and redefine genres ? Only to end up being wage slave for large publishers trying to create and design the next Slot Machine of the industry. The take-over by large corporations and the recent mergers are only further proof of this tendency, obliterating the creativity and leaving a lot of people in the dark, hoping for their big break, one day... It's very easy to criticize but how many of you actually took 3 years of your life and made a game that you truly believe in ?

The industry is in a very sad state right now. The future brings us: In-game micro payments, free to play with tons of ads, slot machine design approach (think about the pathetic old lady with her ice cream bucket filled with quarters at Las Vegas). The Asian gaming market is actually a very good example of this unethical design approach. I understand the economical mechanics behind our industry, but I think that now we are unbalanced and we lean only toward the financial aspect of this medium.

Since I first entered this industry, I've been waiting for this day forever, the day when finally creators can make games with their soul and their mind. I believe that democratizing the game creation process and making it accessible to small teams is key to reinvigorate this industry. Jonathan did not mention XNA, but in my opinion it's a good first step in the right direction (PSN and WiiWare as well).

I truly hope that one day our industry matures enough to reach a point where we can offer content for everybody and we don't only focus on the next big trend / Pop phenomenon. Where we can aspire to offer something else than pre-chewed ideas and universes.

Gaming is more than money, it's a beautiful blend of art, literature, philosophy, cinema, music and more.

We do have now a very powerful medium in our hands, and I hope that we push it to where it truly belongs.

Why are we so afraid to create intellectual content ? We will scare the mass ? We won't sell enough of Ever Crack 28 or Bejewel V.45 ? There is room for all genres, just look at the literature industry and the movie industry, we are no different.

Again, thank you Jonathan for your achievement, and lets hope it will pave the way to more creations like yours. There is hope for this industry.

rod humble
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Hey Jon, Yup it was your game Raspberry which was hugely influential on The Marriage. No biggy though as Braid was a continuation of your thought process on expression its fair to say Braid was an influence too.

Lorenzo Wang
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Caliban, beg to differ but I didn't misunderstand you at all since you never mentioned players.

That Braid only has one right solution out of an amazing variety of clever ones makes it a failure? Are we using the number of solutions as a metric for successful game design now?

"Expressive fertility for players" can also take place in the mind. That doesn't mean the game should (or can) respond to all the creative approaches players have.

If you've played Braid, then you know that you can try all sorts of creative ways to reach the "one" solution. You don't solve all parts of the puzzle in the same order or way either. You also know there are many layers of interpretation of the story. If these aren't enough for you, I'm surprised you haven't dismissed almost all non-Spore games out there as "not-good".

Jeff Preshing
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Hey, I really enjoyed playing Braid. I thought the game mechanics were ingenious, and clearly a lot of love went into the design of each level. After finishing each one, I was left impressed that somebody could come up with it in the first place. The story of Tim and the Princess went way over my head, though. But I played through it with a couple friends, and it made for an enjoyable night.

The problem is, this is exactly the kind of game that should have extra levels or DLC. I'd like to play more, but I can't, because now I know the solutions!

Caliban Darklock
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Lorenzo, the word "player" closes the first paragraph of my initial comment. Did you bother to read it?

And to the anonymous commenter... XNA is an absolutely awesome step in the right direction, especially with the arrival of Community Games. I think we're going to see a lot more games next year that aren't "more of the same", but by the same token, I think none of them are going to be like Braid. There's a world of possibilities out there, and a lot of them haven't been explored simply because nobody knows how to make money exploring them. To the indie developer, this is an open doorway begging to be entered, while the larger studios just nervously scurry past as though it isn't there.

Ben Taber
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In playing Braid and watching my brother play, I have noticed that we didn't solve all the puzzles in the same way. I am absolutely certain that in the process of playing through, I solved one puzzle in a rather bizarre way which I sincerely doubt the creator designed into the game.

Designing a puzzle with a primary solution dictated by the environment and rules of play isn't the same thing as creating a sequence that the player must follow, the difference being that the player is completely free to move within the space created and by the rules created, and all those rules are transparent to the player. Because of this, I don't believe that creating a space with a specific puzzle solution is limiting the players' creativity, any more than placing them in another environment that limits their movement. There may often be only one 'right' solution, but if that solution is a natural product of the rules of interaction and of the environment I think there's still plenty of room for players to feel creative, if not necessarily inventive.

JeanMi Vatfair
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Braid was a cool experience.

And yes, it's an original puzzle game, disguised as a platformer. So don't be surprised if the challenges it features have only one solution. Puzzles aren't meant to be solved in unexpected ways.

Tyler Doak
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I think he was questioning 'creativity' because Blow mentioned that its not like a slide puzzle or something where you can just move the pieces around until it works.

I think some puzzles should push for more possible solutions or methods of a solution, but even if they do only have one solution that can be good. Especially in the case of Braid, where there is a message involved and themes to be expressed. Those things could be compromised or more easily misinterpreted or simply backfire or contradict with the important messages and subtler metaphors.

Dan Kyles
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Personally, I thought Braid was great... I don't think that a game must allow many different ways to complete it. Even less so for a game that's less than 10hrs long.

"subjugation and submission", wow. What a closed mindset. I see it more like the designer saying "Hey, I thought of a cool riddle! Can you solve it?" Most of the puzzles can be solved by logical thinking, so it's not necessarily forcing you to think like the designer, just to think logically...

In a way, the fact that the game puts you in someone else's head and shows you how someone else is thinking is still a beneficial thing. It's expanding someone's world-view somewhere :)

Lee Stansbury
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took me about 10 minutes to really appreciate it but its an over all fun littl game to play. There are many nitpicky things that could be pulled from it but thats only because its so stylized.

I especially liked the usage of the puzzle you create to effect the environment you are playing in.

great demo

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" It's very easy to criticize but how many of you actually took 3 years of your life and made a game that you truly believe in"

I believe in every game I make.

Being in the industry proper does not make you less important, less creative, or mean you contribute less to 'advancing games' than some indie who sinks a bunch of money into a personal pet project.

That's the problem with this stuff: people get carried away. We get that you like Braid. Many of us don't understand why (simple platforming, simple puzzles, time mechanics that are mainly borrowed from other games, etc) but that's a matter of personal preference.

But Braid has redefined nothing. It has 'advanced' nothing, at least nothing more than any other game. It's just a game that has some fans and some detractors.

The only thing Braid seems to have truly proven is the 'indie' effect: if an independent developer makes a game, it gets a cred and score boost from every reviewer who is anxious to rattle on and on about 'death of the industry' and 'games need creativity' and blah blah blah. It's a soapbox catalyst.

Industry games have done more to 'advance gaming' than any of these recent indie darlings. That's just a fact.

Ben Taber
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I think it's funny how easy it is to tell which of Braid's detractors have played the actual game and which have only played the demo. I was interested to hear, that Jon Blow opposed the shortness of the current demo, and I believe he was entirely right to do so as it gives some people a very misleading impression of the game.

"simple puzzles, time mechanics that are mainly borrowed from other games"

Case in point. Now, I can entirely understand how playing through some small early portions of the game could give this impression, but I can only say that anyone who believes the complete collection of Braid puzzles to be 'simple' is either a genius beyond the reckoning of man or someone who has only played the demo.

Anyway, there's no need to get defensive. If it's a soapbox catalyst, then I think it's perhaps time you took a CLEAN look at where you, yourself, are standing.

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" If it's a soapbox catalyst, then I think it's perhaps time you took a CLEAN look at where you, yourself, are standing."

I have.

My issue is not specifically with Braid. My issue is with the culture of defeatism that we engender with the constant, nonsensical cry of "there is no creativity in games!". While I don't doubt that some people (naively) believe this to be the case, most people only make the argument to preface their self-aggrandizing and soapboxing. It's the game industry's form of conspiracy theory: belief in an unprovable, tenuous assertion that confers upon its belief group a sense of superiority. E.g., if I say there is no creativity in games, I come across as a more creative and concerned person than the average gamer.

There is no romance in defending the status quo. But just because a position is or isn't romantic doesn't make it right or wrong. We'd all like to be the single voice crying out in the wilderness while tragic music plays; but the fact is that there is no 'creativity crisis' in games.

Ben Taber
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Nevertheless, I would argue that you are setting up a strawman argument to characterize those you disagree with, or are at very least overgeneralizing. Certainly I have not observed Jonathan Blow to have said that the mainstream game industry is creatively bankrupt, or never moves the medium forward. There are probably some people who do say things like that, but you can find someone to say any crazy thing.

Anyway, just because you're annoyed at people being callously dismissive of something you've worked on, there's no reason to callously dismiss something someone else has worked on to try to restore some kind of cosmic balance.

I think that there are so many incredibly creative people working in the mainstream games industry, working so hard, but I believe that they are hobbled by their medium. The companies are becoming more and more risk averse. However, I know that I, personally, am not fond of most of what gets released nowadays. You can't tell me that the industry at large is creatively healthy when every fourth game is an FPS/TPS with either a gritty futuristic theme or a World War 2 theme. This is not an insult to the people who worked on these games. This is economics at work. If I ran a game company, and was beholden to the stockholders, I might well find myself making the same decisions. Those who did not could expose themselves to lawsuits.

Does this mean that only indies will ever be any good any more? Of course not. The industry moves forward, and bits of brilliance shine through; but with so many people working on a single project, and in many cases working towards cross-purposes, I don't believe a large and externally funded team can ever create as streamlined and unified a product as a small and internally funded team can. Once again, merely economics at work. It's not a matter of who's creative and who isn't. We're all creative. It's a matter of who has the most freedom to pursue that creativity.

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When I wrote: "I truly hope that one day our industry matures enough to reach a point where we can offer content for everybody and we don't only focus on the next big trend / Pop phenomenon. Where we can aspire to offer something else than pre-chewed ideas and universes."

I just read the last comment from Ben Taber, and it basically sums up what I was about to reply. This is actually what I meant when I first wrote my comment, but maybe expressed it too much in a drama tone.

I've been in creative lead positions working on AAA titles for a while now, but the more I progress in this industry and the more it goes the way that Ben stated it, design by committee and diluted visions.

I know this is a generalization and there are many examples of studios and teams that benefit from more creative freedom, and not surprisingly this is from where comes most of the innovation and breakthroughs. Until they get bought by EA or another big publisher and then fall into the "machine". I am not saying it's necessary a bad thing, it's part of the industry ecosystem.

Right now we are witnessing the end of a cycle. The industry started with garage gaming and a more democratized way of developing games and then we switched to the corporate / MC Donald business model for many years. I am just glad to see that new options and distribution channels are becoming available to Indie developers.

Jose Teran
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wOw, it's truly marvelous to read this. It's good to see that people as Jonathan stands up and say what is owed to be say and, the best of all, whit tests that support the truth of his theory.

I really think that we need to create a change in the way we do videogames. It's not about the hottest graphics, but how an ORIGINAL design, music, gameplay and game mechanics leave to your users a unique and unforgettable experience. That is the real challenge; and is what we need to make the exception like Jonathan. The future of the industry is in the people that thinks (and acts) like him.

Both thumbs up for you and I hope meeting you soon.