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Jonathan Blow: The Next Phase

January 23, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Last year, Number None's Braid for Xbox Live Arcade became both a critical hit and a commercial success, proving that creator Jonathan Blow's views on experimenting with gameplay concepts can have real relevance with the wider gaming public in a concrete way.

Does this open the door for more experimentation? Where is the medium headed? Blow, who was previously a code columnist for Game Developer magazine and a contract programmer/designer for a number of notable games, from Flow through Phase, talks in-depth to Gamasutra in this post-Braid interview.

Among other things, Blow discusses his thoughts on PC as a gaming platform, the importance of PR to indies, and the new game ideas he's working on, as well as the role of story in today's biggest games:

What have you been up to since Braid shipped?

Jonathan Blow: A little bit working on an updated version for Xbox Live Arcade, because there were a couple of bugs in it. There were some more minor things, just little, tiny gameplay glitches. I've been doing that.

I have been talking to people about Braid on other platforms, like the Mac and PC. What's going on is that I took some time to do that originally, and then we hit this season where there were just a zillion PC games out. And I didn't want to release it in the middle of that, because probably nobody would notice.

You indicated at one point you were talking to Valve about Steam.

JB: A long time ago, I was talking to them, and it didn't really work out. Since then, they've come back and contacted me, and they are interested in putting the game up. So it's just a matter of me having a PC version ready that I feel is good to go with.

Would you be looking to distribute across multiple digital distribution platforms?

JB: Yeah. I don't think that locking down an exclusive agreement with one online distributor is a good idea. And a lot of people are willing to do non-exclusive publishing, so I'm just going to do that.

There are different schools of thought on that. Some people who would like to see it become almost more console-like, where it's just, "I want to be able to go into Steam and everything's there." Conversely, there's the principle that the PC should stay totally unlike consoles, a completely free market.

JB: I think both those things are true. I definitely like Steam, in that I can buy a new computer and bring it home and turn it on and install Steam and I have all my new games on there. And pretty soon, they're doing the settings and stuff now [via Steam Cloud, which allows users to store save game and configurations server-side]. That's pretty cool.

At the same time, I definitely want to be able to play games that aren't on Steam, right? I definitely want access to services that are not Steam and that are competing with them, because maybe they'll do something better. Maybe they'll do something in a different way.

So I'm in favor of both. And I realize that that introduces some amount of chaos into the thing. That's okay, though, because the PC is the place where that can happen.

If you want a very clean system where there are no alternatives, then that's consoles. That already exists. So, if we were to take that away from PCs, then what happens? What if somebody wants to do something new, and they just can't, because there's no longer a platform? So, I like the way it is now.

What I don't like about PCs is how hard it is to make a shipping-quality game on them, in terms of it not crashing on people's machines, or sounding and looking consistent, or whatever. It's nearly impossible.

Well, actually, it is impossible. What is possible is to do a job that doesn't screw up on that many people's machines. I think that there's no inherent reason for that anymore, so that needs to get fixed. But I don't see anyone working on it seriously.

Microsoft is trying to take stabs at it with Games for Windows.

JB: They're not doing a very good job. And I don't think many people would dispute with me on that fact. [laughs]

As an independent developer, there's another thing about the PC, which is there are a very large number of games -- independent games, even -- getting released on the PC.

I'm not the typical gamer, but a typical gamer only has a limited amount of attention. What should they be paying attention to? It's an open question.

And for me, as somebody who didn't have a big advertising budget, how do you communicate to people that this is a game that you actually want to be interested in?

Having it be released on a console, you don't have that problem, because, for example, on Xbox Live, there are only a limited number of games in the pipeline. If a game comes out on a given week, it's notable at least because it's the game of the week that week, right?

From there, if it's well-received on the console, I can still come to the PC and say, "Well, look, this game, a lot of people liked it." Whereas you could release a really good game on PC, and maybe just it never gets word of mouth, even though it's good. I was very concerned with that.

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Ben Hopper
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I like this guy. I still haven't played Braid, but he seems to know what makes a game fun.

Luke Rymarz
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Braid, in my opinion, was the best game of 2008. If you look at the screenshots, it can look a little simplistic, but you should AT LEAST play the demo. It'll surprise you. Also (if you have any software related background), I spend time thinking about the work JB must have put into the implementation, and it's really fantastic. I'd love to see a write up on some of the algorithms (maybe it's already been done).

I really appreciated Everyday Shooter too, as Jonathan mentioned. It's got that screenshot problem as well, but to a greater extent. The screenshots look uninteresting, but it's also not very interesting to watch if you aren't playing it, since a lot of the good vibes you get out of it have to do with the rhythm you have with the controller and the game.

Anyways, very interesting interview. Makes me wonder what stories and challenges in games will be like in 10 years...

Bob Stevens
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People seem to like JRPGs, many of which have traded challenge almost entirely for story. I don't mind, really. A lot of people think playing games in god mode is more fun.

Maybe this is even illustrated by Braid, where the whole game is one big god mode.

Chris Remo
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However, in a game where the challenge isn't derived from "not dying," god mode does not remove the challenge.

Seth Burnette
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I generally agree with Blow's statements and I'm usually surprised that most of what he says isn't staggeringly obvious to other game developers. However, I can't help but think that he's setting up a false dichotomy between story and challenge. I think a game's story just needs to be told differently in order to meld with the challenges. It is cliched, but Portal is a good example of doing this very well. As an analogy, lighting techniques and tricks don't translate directly from film to video games since the player controls the camera but that hasn't stopped talented environment artists from achieving fantastic results in their own way. Perhaps with further advances in "storyteller AI" like L4D's vaunted AI director we will see the same happen with narrative.

Looking back on that I sound like a Valve fanboy, but those are just examples that spring to mind.

Nestor Forjan
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My ony gripe with Braid was that it got tons of recognition for its (great) soundtrack, but I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere that the tracks are not original compositions but renditions of folk songs and children's tunes, which is worth noting.

Anyway, on his "potential new project" I'm interested in seeing where he takes dialogue trees. We've been discussing it here recently and I think most people agree that there is much room for innovation.

From what he says I think he's overcomplicating it a bit, looking at how to change it under the hood when reworking how things are presented could be more effective, but I'd like to see what he comes up with.

Reid Kimball
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Chris said: "As you suggested, it still isn't clear what even the basic framework for expressing meaning through a game actually is."

Something I've been attempting is using a "moral premise" that acts as the foundation for both gameplay and story. This moral premise is a moral statement of right and wrong, something like, "quitting responsibilities leads to despair, but pursuing responsibilities leads to happiness." From that moral premise, you form the gameplay, characters and story that will let players explore, experience and hopefully agree/learn from it.

Shawn Yates
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Jonathan hit on some pretty important points here I think but like Seth said, this doesn't necessarily apply to all cases. Braid was though, a gem of a game and Jonathan did such a great job.

Steven An
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I do think Blow is over-thinking the challenge vs. story thing. No medium is perfect at conveying story. Do movie directors agonize over what may happen when an audience member goes to the bathroom and misses a few minutes of the movie? No - they deal with it, and well-crafted movies will make it obvious when something really important is about to happen.

Similarly with games, we shouldn't see the challenge vs. story conflict as a fatal flaw, but rather just as a problem to be solved. Puzzle games provide hints, God of War provides difficulty adjustment, etc. etc. Alone in the Dark had the DVD feature thing. None of these are perfect, but they deal with the issue in a practical way, ensuring that most - not all - people will get the optimal experience.

Derek Rumpler
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I don't know. I don't mind story lines in games, but most people want to skip them. I think optimal story telling means involving the player in the story. What little I played of Bioshock seemed to provide this. I think a game is more engaging when the player is making the most decisions, such as kicking a door in instead of watching a cinematic of a door being kicked in. Bioshock provides a lot of these small moments and I think it is stronger for that.

I'm interested in what Blow said on indie developers vs. corporations. And I think he's right. In some ways, its better for the gaming press to hype your game for you than to overhype it. But all the same, its tougher, because if your product isn't that great, it reflects back on you. Sometimes its nice to have that corporate protection.

Jacob Corum
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I felt Braid somewhat lacked the merging of story and game. Namely due to the text between levels. I have not yet purchased the game (though am more than willing to if it does come out for PC) but my friend has bought and played through the game, and does not know about any of the story. he enjoyed the game and thought the last level was interesting but he skipped past the text because he found the game to be much more entertaining. People bought your game to play it not to read it. Dialog isn't necessarily a bad thing in games.

JeanMi Vatfair
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Story telling in current-gen games is flawed, and Blow points that issue succesfully. Like Steven An said, solutions have been found and are applied, which means the developpers are (consciously or not) aware of the problem.

However, these are partial fixes and the whole problem remains deeply anchored.

The observation is correct : challenges and story are fighting against each other. But I don't feel Blow is giving solutions, except the one that consists to omit the story. Don't put in dialogues, don't use branching narratives, ... well, don't use narrative at all and it will be more pure, like the good old Super Mario Bros III. Wooha.

But is that really what people wants today? I also dislike stories in games and how they are usually integrated, but no one can't deny the hype surrounding games like MGS4, Gears of War 2, ...

So, why does this work, can't you ask yourself?

Bob McIntyre
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There's a bunch of this interview about how rewinding time is this unique thing that Braid did and now it's "been done."

Is Ubisoft's three-game Prince Of Persia arc forgotten? They made three games that were all about a character rewinding time to undo his mistakes and finally taking responsibility for his actions instead of using magic to fix everything. No slight to Braid or anything, but "you can rewind time" has in fact been done before and certainly isn't completely exhausted by one title.

Eduardo Gordon
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I think the key for stories is making people care about what happens in the world. How can players have a vested interest in what happens? The best books and movies create a world that you want to be a part of, if only vicariously though the characters.

Games have the added challenge (opportunity?) of 'audience' input, and the audience is singular since the capacity for input is singular. The audience becomes a subjective participant rather than an objective viewer. The trick seems to be engaging both sides: the imaginative with no center or point of reference other than the media itself, and the participatory side where your activeness as a player is essential.

There seems to be a focus on one or the other, usually, but I think both are essential. This could be a non-issue in multiplayer games, since the imaginative side is taken care of by the setting and the 'story' becomes your interaction with other players. One way to tie the two together in singleplayer may be to have a story play out among AI players with the player involved in some way through relationship. This would take some creative use of AI like Seth said earlier about Left 4 Dead's AI Director.

Stephen McDonough
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I'm always interested in Blow's ideas and what he has to say on game design. I do think he is onto something with the challenge vs. story situation, but I don't think he is advocating choosing one over another, but exploring how they can be made to harmonise rather than wrestle for prominence.

Braid explores this in one way, as do the art games he refers to. I don't doubt Blow will continue exploring in future. As he says, interactivity and challenge are the strengths of our medium. Ditching them for story doesn't seem the right direction to go.

Chris Bell
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Though 2 weeks too late, I am quite interested in the points Blow addresses specifically story or narrative being intrinsically tied to the player's actions or "doing". In Braid, the manipulation of time is directly connected to Tim's own wants to make up for bad decisions or the desire to erase unfortunate memories. The manipulation is entirely player controlled, and the player begins to connect their own manipulation of time with the desires and emotions of Tim.

For a small game such as Braid, this metaphor resonates easily with players since there are few other elements clouding its purpose and its relevance. Unfortunately, for games that try and do the whole open-world thing, or incorporate many different types of actions or object manipulation or whatnot, most game elements are not as fine-tuned or are not treated with enough care to be well-represented.

Referring to a comment made above, Derek Rumpler points out the distinction between a cinematic of kicking in a door in versus the player actually controlling the kick. One passive, the other immersive. For those familiar with how often this action exists in the Gears of War campaigns, Epic uses the former. The player pushes X and is treated to a short cinematic of Marcus Fenix kicking in a door.

The experience is completely binary, without a variation of the degree of power of the kick, how far the door opens, or whether or not its blown of its hinges. Compare this then to the active door mechanics of say, Mirror's Edge, and the experience is both more memorable and immersive (though still not perfect).

The bigger the game, the more details need to be accounted for (and the more unlikely each action will receive its adequate fine-tuning), but even a game like Gears of War which has a relatively small set of gameplay mechanics can account for these small detail experiences.

Until games can account for even small detail actions being immersive, we will simply be pushing buttons for the sake of seeing a movie at the end.

Wyatt Epp
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You know, I had a bit of a sour taste after Blow pretty much publicly told Ryan Gordon that OpenAL and SDL were both inadequate for sound during a series of complaints about building Braid for Linux. But having read this, I can see the other side rather clearly, too. He reminds me a lot of Linus Torvalds in a way: both are brutally honest and have strong intuitions about what is "acceptable" in their respective specialties. I'm looking forward to more from him even though I can't (currently) play Braid on my platform.

Jose Teran
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I am very happy about this work. I never get tired of playing it.

As a gamer, I want to keep playing this type of games that really CHALLENGE you to go on and learn more from it.

Both thumbs up!