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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow

December 6, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

It's interesting you say that. It seems like a theme in Braid as well. It's just you, you're on your own, and even though there are enemies in Braid you still, that sense of there was something here before and then gone.

And I noticed this with Adam Saltsman's games as well. Do you think that's got anything to do with the way in which you work? For both you and him -- solitary programmers as your background, and not working with big teams.

Do you think that reflects something about you?

JB: It might. Yeah, I mean it seems undeniable that like... if you're in video games and you're able to do substantial projects, you probably spent a lot of your life figuring out how to do it, because video games are hard to make, right? So that's got to be formative on my personality or on somebody else's personality.

It's hard to say for sure because I haven't spent a lot of time working on big teams. I know that I don't like it, mainly for reasons of you're always having to compromise, you can't just get things done, and there's all this inertia; it becomes a political process, and I don't like political processes. So I would say that there probably is some degree of influence there.

Part of it, though, is also that... I feel like parts of what I'm trying to do is explore territories that are underrepresented in games. And so, you know, Braid had a certain kind of sadness to it, while at the same time having upbeat and hopeful elements; it was a mixture of things. And you know, if you think sadness in video games, it doesn't often get done except in a very direct like, "Oh you killed my son!" or whatever. And so I found that ambiguous kind of sadness to be what I wanted to do there.

And The Witness actually is less sad and more hopeful. It's a little bit of an emotional sequel to Braid in that way, even though the gameplay has nothing to do with it. You know, even though you're alone, in this game it becomes alone with a purpose, with a good reason for being alone that becomes revealed as you understand more about what's going on.

And as for the next game... the game that I am thinking maybe the next game... is very abstract, so it's hard to even call anything in it a character, so I don't know how I would file that. But maybe it does.

So you've been talking again recently about things that you perceive as damaging game design trends, which is kind of in a theme that you're known for. My perception of your work is that you value games that level the player over games that level the avatar. Do you think that's true, and would you prefer it if all games functioned like that?

JB: Well, you know, it's really difficult to say. I don't want to be in the business of saying that all games should be anything. Because I think that, actually, there should be a variety of all kinds of games. That's what makes things healthy, right? Like all the time, the way we progress in anything -- in science, in arts, or whatever -- is that totally out of some left field corner, some surprising thing happens and it moves us; it causes a paradigm shift. So having a wide variety of games, I think, is the most healthy thing. I don't ever want to say, "Don't make that".

However, that's not the situation that we have right now, right? What we have is, there are a large number of a small set of kinds of game, and there's all this territory that's kind of unexplored around it.

And so when I go and give lectures like that, I feel like it's a good idea to call attention to certain unexplored things and say like, "Hey, maybe this is valuable". And then also on the other side, like what I was doing in my most recent talk [is to] say, "You know, a vast majority of our games that we're making -- and almost all of them -- have these certain design trends in them and I actually want to question that trend because I do think it's unhealthy."

Now me personally, as a designer, I think very much about when I make something and I'm going to put it out into the world... You know, Braid sold hundreds of thousands of copies, right? That's hundreds of thousands of people playing a five-hour, four-hour... however long it is for them. And that game has an impact on somebody's mind, like that's just how it is.

And so when I do that and I'm putting something out with that kind of volume, I have to care about what it's doing. It's doing something to the minds of my players, and the question is, "What is that?". And for a lot of games, you know, going back to really old games like Pac-Man or something, what the game does to the mind of the player is mostly about just teaching them the basics of the game.

Like, okay, I'm this yellow guy and I'm eating these dots and these ghosts will kill me but I can eat the power pill and chase them. You don't know that before you ever sit down to play Pac-Man, but at first you know it and then you learn how to strategize around that or whatever, right?

So there's a learning process that happens, and that can be a very positive thing. And I think to a large extent, that's what games are actually about, is learning. So then the question is if games are about learning, if every game teaches people something, then if I make any particular game, what is that game teaching people?

And obviously there's always this very game mechanical level of things that it's teaching, but usually there are subtler things as well. And so what I try to do is think about what those subtler things are, and make sure that I feel okay about that. And call attention sometimes when I feel like there are huge trends of subtle things that are very negative that are being done to a large volume of people. I just feel like I ought to say something about that, because very few game designers think about things that way.

So getting back to the first part of the question, while doing all these talks, I don't ever want to say to any specific game designer, "You shouldn't make some kind of game." Actually, that's not true. I would say that about most actual games -- like, you know, even back when I gave a talk a couple years ago saying like, "Hey, I don't think World of Warcraft is that great".

I still wouldn't tell people, "Don't make that game" exactly, I would say, "Think about what you're making and be careful when you make it and try not to exploit players." But I mean now that we've got FarmVille and stuff like that, I pretty much would say "don't make that kind of game" because I don't see much value in it.

It's only about exploiting the players and yes, people report having fun with that kind of game. You know, certain kinds of hardcore game players don't find much interest in FarmVille, but a certain large segment of the population does. But then when you look at the design process in that game, it's not about designing a fun game. It's not about designing something that's going to be interesting or a positive experience in any way -- it's actually about designing something that's a negative experience.

It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. Which previous genres of game never did. And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically.

And there's this kind of new way where people are, like Bryan Reynolds working on FrontierVille and stuff, making it supposedly deeper, but that kind of thing has been very token so far. And in fact, I would argue that the audience of that kind of game doesn't necessarily want a deeper game, or certainly that's not proven; it's very speculative.

So I would say don't make that stuff. If you want to make a Facebook game, there are a lot of very creative things that could be done, but the FarmVille template is not the right one.

A long-winded answer to your question.

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