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Jonathan Blow: The Next Phase

January 23, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Can you point to just any examples of recent games you've found to be meaningful?

JB: Well, there are the art games that I talk about all the time, like Passage, The Marriage, and Gravitation. In terms of bigger games, it is kind of rare. I think Everyday Shooter was definitely a very expressive game, in a very different way from Braid. I talk about that one all the time, too.

The reason I talk about these games all the time is because it's just not often that I see new examples of that. I played a bunch of games from this wave of Christmas games. I haven't played them all.

But I played Fable II, Fallout 3, stuff like that. And in Fallout 3, there's one section of the game that people comment on that feels kind of personal and emotional, and it's not the stuff that's supposed to feel that way. It's not the stuff with your dad at the beginning, or trying to find him. That all feels generic.

It's when you find this abandoned camp that's now got monsters in it, but there are these stories of this nurse trying to hold it together right after the bombing.

And you think, "That was really a touching story that I just found out there." And it wasn't actually the game. [laughs] It was just this little pre-authored story.

BioShock had a fair amount of that outside of the critical path.

JB: In the little dialogs, yeah. I can't really count that as an example, though. It's a neat thing that they did, but it's not the game.

The gameplay in Fallout 3 is shooting a guy in the head and watching his blood fly everywhere, right? Or the dialogue paths, of which it seemed there weren't that many.

As you suggested, it still isn't clear what even the basic framework for expressing meaning through a game actually is. At this point, if you're trying to deliver a story or message through a game, most are still doing it in a filmic way. You have the gameplay, and then you have the presentation layer, but they usually aren't intrinsically tied.

JB: We have a model that's somewhat successful now, right? We have these story-based games, like Fallout 3 or Gears 2.

And we know how to put a story in the game in waypoints, and you play between pieces of the story. And there's a certain kind of structural way in which that works well.

You want to know what's next. The stories act as a reward for playing through certain areas. So that's your reward structure.

But it's a problem, because there are things about the fact that it's a game at all that interfere with the kind of story that you can tell and what you can do.

Stories in games are typically not good, right? We just know that. I think part of that is because we don't try very hard, or we don't really have people that competent doing it.

But part of it is that even if we did -- even if we had really, really good writers doing this stuff -- it's still really hard to do a good story in a game, because of the game part.

To give a really simple example: almost every game we make now is challenge-based in some way, right? Unless you're talking about Wii Music, there's some goal that you have to meet. The player is here, and wants to go this way. The game's challenge pushes back on him, adding some friction. You want the player to get through the game eventually, but that challenge slows them down or makes them go in a circuitous path.

That's half our game, this challenge element. In story-based games, the other half is the story. And the problem is that story needs to go [the opposite direction challenge does]. Because stories have pacing. They have an order of events that happen.

So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other. You try to balance them, but usually one of these is going to be more strong than the other, and that's the direction you'll feel more of.

Often in games, the designer says, "Oh, we don't necessarily need challenge. We need the feeling of challenge, without actual challenge." So then, if there are puzzles, we make them really easy, or if there's combat, we make it really easy. So then the strength of the challenge force gets smaller and smaller.

Those lead to experiences that don't feel that worthwhile to me. God of War, for example, is a game a lot of people like. I don't really like it, because I just feel like I just started mashing buttons and all the enemies die.

Fable II is the same way. Fable II's combat is not actual challenge. It's just there to feel like combat. But I don't feel like there's a reason to do it, because I know that I just hit these guys with the sword a few times and they'll just die.

I think this is a problem because, in terms of what games have to offer us, we're not giving people the greatest stories ever told. What we can give them is experiences that challenge them or invite them to do something that they haven't done or whatever.

But we're decreasing this challenge element more and more -- challenge being the new thing that we have to offer over other media -- in order to try and increase this story element. And I think that that might be the wrong trade-off.

If we eventually become no interaction and all story, then we're just a bad movie, right?

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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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!