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Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid

September 12, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

When you were first designing Braid, did you have a metaphorical meaning in mind that... I guess you didn't want to push it on the player, but wanted to leave enough clues there to find that kind of thing?

JB: I did. Even before I wrote any of the code or anything, I had a full idea for the game. It would've been an okay game, both in terms of gameplay and in what the story was about. Then I started doing that, but even in the first day or two, it changed when I saw how the gameplay was turning out and as I saw how the mood of the game was developing. That kind of changed my idea of the story, and it went in a different direction.

I started the game with some very strong literary influences -- Invisible Cities is a book by Italo Calvino. It's a series of very short, three-to-four page pieces about different fictional cities that have different kinds of reality and different ways that they work.

Then there was another book written by Alan Lightman called Einstein's Dreams. He's a physicist, actually, and he wrote this book which was very much like Invisible Cities, but was about Albert Einstein thinking about... he still hadn't quite figured out relativity, and he was still working as a patent clerk during the day and was very busy, but he would go home and think about how time behaves in the universe. Like Invisible Cities, the way that he was thinking about time was linked to how people are in the universe. Because if the universe is a certain way, it's going to determine what's in it and if people are in that universe, what they're like. That was never quite a satisfying book for me, but it was definitely a strong influence on Braid.

But I wanted to take that and go in a different direction. The initial idea was to do something like that, but with gameplay. Go to different rules, have different rules of time, have that relate to humanity somehow, and just speak to what it means to be in our universe. I didn't know the details. I had ideas for details. Then I started filling in the details and that took the higher level idea further. So the game is still about that, but it has a lot more to it now.

I started out by stylistically imitating Calvino, and I moved away from that as I saw that there were better things for this work. There are a lot of details in the game that I hope that people notice or they at least feel at a subconscious level. There are a lot of things, even in screenshots and stuff on the web, that no one has noticed. I follow forum discussions about the game, and it's cool that nobody's noticing them, because that means that they really are not obvious, and I think once people start discovering those, they'll enjoy the game even more.

I was excited about the game when I started, but what I ended up with was much better than the original idea. I don't think that happens very often in game development. I got lucky there. Usually, you have a great idea for a game, and you can't do all of it. You can maybe do half of it. And it's still kind of cool, but it's not quite what you thought. This is way better than what I had originally written. I don't know if I'm going to be as fortunate in my next project, but I'll take what I can get right now.

You've talked about how when you've got like a gameplay potion that you've made up with those elements, as soon as you drop something else in there, then the meaning and metaphor changes. With Braid, I think I'm right in saying that the time travel came later? That way you could rewind and fast-forward -- was that always there?

JB: That was the very first thing in the game. What happened was I originally had the idea that it would be about time, but I had other ideas about what it would be. The rewind was something I wanted to try.

There was a mailing list discussion with me and a bunch of designer friends about Prince of Persia and Blinx and games like that. It was kind of cool that you could rewind, but they don't use it very well. I've given this thread in lectures before. So that was kind of in the back of my head. "Hey, I want to try out rewind."

But that wasn't even the major idea, since a couple of other games have done rewind, and I wanted to be Mr. Experimental Gameplay Guy. I want to do something totally different that nobody's ever done. So I had some ideas about... there was this idea in quantum mechanics about how time doesn't actually go forward at a small scale. It's called the arrow of time.

It's an obvious fact about our macroscopic world. You can remember the past, but you can't remember the future, and you can't predict the future. But on the quantum mechanic level, that doesn't exist. The rules go the same in both directions. So where does that come from? I wanted to explore the idea of what if that is actually illusionary.

So one of the worlds was going to be trying to conceptualize that somehow. Maybe I go through the level with whatever powers I have -- maybe it's just running and jumping and opening doors -- and then time reverses, and I have to follow the same path in reverse, and I hope that I did something that's actually possible to do in reverse. It can be a puzzle like, "Hey, if I went down somewhere that's too high to jump up again, then it was invalid somehow with the bidirectionality of time." That was one idea that I had.

The other one was, maybe I can do something -- it's a 2D game and has always been conceived as a 2D game -- where you run around a level that gets extruded into 3D. Like, you stack the different frames on top of each other, and you can see a cube from different [angles] and then you can maybe do something with that, to visualize this hyper-gameplay thing.

I tried both of those to various degrees, and other things too. The quantum mechanic thing or the bidirectional time thing, I mean, just on paper really, and I didn't come up with enough compelling... I thought the theme was cool, but the gameplay wasn't living up to it. I didn't see why that would really be compelling. I ended up programming the cube thing later, and it just didn't... that came later, and it was harder to program, after the rest of Braid, and it didn't add enough. It's like, "Okay, I'm rotating this graphical thing and I'm seeing the future and stuff." I was like, "The rest of the game is strong enough. It doesn't need that."

But the rewind was the first thing that I actually programmed. Because I'm the programmer and the designer, this is one of those things that might not happen with a bigger team. As the programmer and the designer, I instantly saw, because of the way I programmed it, that certain things were possible.

All of the ideas were mixed around in my head, and I had the idea without knowing where it came from, which is just, "Oh! I made it so you can rewind, which involves storing all the memory about where everything was in the world somewhere so that the game can go back later and retrieve it. Obviously, I can do that to only some of the objects. I can have some of the objects always go forward in time."

I didn't logically plan that idea out or brainstorm it. It just happened. From there, the rest of the game just exploded. Originally, it was going to just be rewind and a bunch of things unrelated to rewind -- maybe time-related, or universe or quantum mechanic-related things. But from there, as soon as I had that idea, the game was about rewind centrally, and everything else was as minimal possible changes as I could make to that core rewind that would still be very interesting.

There was just no end of ideas from there. It was like, "Oh yeah, I can do that. I can have time tied to your position in space." That idea happened within five minutes of the first one. The other ones came a little later, but right there, that was enough for a full game. I programmed those little levels, and I knew that this was the best game that I've ever been working on.

I don't know if I was just the designer and there was a different programmer if that idea would've happened. This level of idea mixture doesn't happen on a team. It might've happened. I don't mean to say that Braid is somehow a brilliant idea that only I could conceive. Given enough time, all ideas are going to get explored. But I don't know, it might've been a while before anyone made this game otherwise.

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