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Jonathan Blow: The Next Phase

January 23, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

So aside from the other versions of Braid, presumably you're working on another game?

JB: I am. I don't really want to give much detail about it, though. And the reason is that I've had three or four different games that I was convinced was the next game I was working on, and I'd work on it for a little bit and decide I could maybe do something better.

My newest game I started is looking very promising. I'm very excited to do it. But if the patterns of history continue, then I may not be working on it a month from now, so I don't want to start telling people about it.

Is it that RPG-ish thing you alluded to in your blog, where you mentioned you were interested in conversation scripting systems?

JB: Yeah. It's an RPG right now, a 2D RPG that I'm working on. You never know. Next month, it could be a Pac-Man clone or something.

Braid had hardly any dialog, so to speak. It was all narration, or prose text.

JB: It had a very small amount of dialog. It had four words or so.

One of the things you seem to attempt to do is include mechanics that are fundamentally tied to the larger theme you're trying to express in the game. Some traditional video game interactions would be difficult to handle that way, I'd think. Most dialog interaction, for example, is very transparent mechanically, moreso than the world interactions at the heart of Braid.

JB: Right. When you play an RPG, you usually go and try to exhaust the whole conversation tree, just because you know that there might be something that you get. That's true.

The way I'm thinking about it for the current game is that what goes on in those dialogs is actually very closely related to the core mechanic that you do in the RPG. And I can't really say more about it. But there is more of a tie, like you were saying is going on with Braid -- a tie between the game mechanic, or the core ideas and themes, and the things that you do.

That said, though, if in this game, people do the, "Oh, I'm just playing with the dialog tree" thing, it's fine, because the way the dialog is used is not necessarily in a straight, dramatic, linear story sense anyway. I think that you just have to be aware of those things and design with them in mind.

Do you think that mentality is something of a nonrenewable resource for a designer? I can't help but feel that the time-control mechanic as it relates to telling a story where time is a central theme, as in Braid, has now been "done." It would be tough for another designer to want to also make a game that does that without coming off as derivative, as opposed to just making a game where time control happens to be a mechanic.

JB: Yeah. I know exactly what you're saying. I think that, interpreted very narrowly, that is true. And that's one reason why I'm not sitting down and doing Braid 2. Because what would it be other than what it already is?

But in a broader way, about trying to make games that are somehow more meaningful, I don't necessarily prescribe exactly what method by which that should be done. There are a lot of ways to do it. And what I did in Braid is maybe one way.

I think that we don't even have a very good picture of what all the ways are that things can be done, just because, if you look at how many people have seriously been trying anything remotely like that in games, it's been a couple years or something, right?

You can't expect to even have a good map of what's possible in a medium after just a couple of years.

I think that Braid serves as one data point. "Hey, here's a thing that somebody did. It's a technique that is possible." Maybe somebody in the future applies it to a different subject or whatever. Maybe they could apply it to a time-rewind game and have like a different theme that they're hooking it up to, and that could still be refreshing, too. I don't know.

It sounds almost crass when you put it that way, when you strip it down. [laughs]

JB: Yeah. It's hard to talk about it. I mean, you know that that's not the way that I feel about it. But I just hope to serve as an idea like, "The bulk of what we're doing in games now is this over here. Then there's this other thing over here."

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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!