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Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid
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Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid

September 12, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

I also wanted to ask you about the phrase you coined: "dynamical meaning," which is something I've been hearing about quite recently, the whole idea of game mechanics communicating something emotionally and intellectually to a player, in a similar way that narrative does, through the very structure and interactions. Which is the first game that really brought that to your attention, in which those things were really there and important?

JB: It's hard to say. This is something that games have been doing forever. I don't remember the sound effects from Pong or anything, but in an early game like Space Invaders or whatever, the game mechanics are communicated to you in various ways. You can read the rules on the cabinet, but really, there's sound effects in there. There's an ominous sound to the invaders, to help you realize that they're dangerous. It's a bad sound when you get hit, and a good sound when you hit the enemy and blow up the boss UFO. Those kinds of things are so simple that people weren't thinking of them that way.

But that kind of nonverbal communication... it wasn't in the gameplay rules yet, but it was in what I was calling the... I don't remember what I was calling it, but the core audiovisual elements of a game, like the symbology of a game. That's the kind of thing that a lot of academic game people have talked about, so there's probably a standard term for that, like... communication through the sound effects and stuff, that I don't actually know, because I don't read enough about it.

But over time, back then, games got more complicated. You had games on the PC, or on home computers before the PC, that you needed a manual to play at some point, because it needed a lot of keyboard controls, or if you had a lot of time to figure it out, you probably could. Then from there, everybody was like, "Okay, games need to start having tutorials." That was something that the industry was doing in the '90s. I remember when I started, which was in '95 or '96, it was like, "Oh yeah, you need to put in a tutorial so people can figure it out."

And from there, tutorials became more elegant. If you look at a modern game like Portal, you start the game and you're kind of in the tutorial, but you're playing. And the level design is set up to communicate things to you as you go through the game. Valve are very clear about that. In the developer commentary, they describe that sort of thing.

Which is not to say that Portal was the first game to do that sort of thing -- not even close -- but for a long time now, games have been using more and more things to communicate to the player. They're using the structure of the world, where things are located... you come over this hill, and you see this castle on the other hill, and you know that you should probably go there, in an open-world game. Things like that. The gameplay rules, on the one hand, are kind of a new thing. Like the art games that I was talking about have popularized that, or made it popular or more well known.

Like The Marriage.

JB: The Marriage was a breakthrough game for me, because it was the first game to really do that. That might be at least a good half-answer to this. Before The Marriage, I didn't quite see it that way. Rod tells me that The Marriage was a little bit inspired by Braid, actually, because there's a last level in Braid that does some things about telling a story through gameplay and not through text, as it does in the rest of Braid.

Rod Humble's The Marriage

But what The Marriage does is very different from what I did. What I did was set up a gameplay scenario -- basically a level that behaves a certain way, that tells you something. What he did was more lower-level. It was built in to the bottom-level rules of the game, which is what Braid does a little bit, but The Marriage made it clear. The Marriage was like, "This is what I'm doing. This is all." Something about that clarity really helped, and it inspired a lot of people.

But games have done that for a long time. Chris Crawford, the guy who founded the Game Developers Conference and then got kicked out from it, has been doing that kind of thing for a long time. For the past 14 years, he's been working on interactive stories. That's different. But way back in the '80s and stuff, he was making serious games -- games about nuclear reactors or the Earth's biosphere or Balance of Power, which is possibly his most famous game, and is pretty much a message-based game.

It had this theme where you just can't bully people when you're a world power, and all these things are at stake. I don't want to say that he was pedantic about that, in a way that a lot of message-based games are now, because it was definitely a game, but it was in there. Right down to when you lose -- he made a public statement like... when you lose that game, he didn't want a cool nuclear explosion to happen or anything, because that's an audiovisual reward.

He understood rewards and penalties a lot earlier than a lot of game developers did. He was like, "No. You just get a black screen saying 'You Failed,' because I don't want to encourage failure." That was a thing where the rules maybe had the message, or the tuning of the parameters maybe kind of had it, and that was from the '80s. It's been a long tradition slowly building. That's a long answer to a short question.

I liked when you were talking [as part of Blow's Develop Conference lecture] about developer standards like, "Okay, we're going to make a really big, triple-A title. We'll start with the scenario first, then the characters, and the story." And you were saying, "Why don't we find a new way of doing it, where we start with the messages in the gameplay mechanics, and then move on to something larger?" The challenge is always going to be how you start from that position and then make a game that's not just an indie game but a mainstream blockbuster. Is that even possible?

JB: It's not just starting with the gameplay mechanics, because a lot of games do that. A lot of games say, "We're a first-person shooter. Maybe it should be World War II. Maybe it should be in the future. Have the concept and some decent things and we'll figure it out."

But what I was after is starting with whatever the thematic, meaning content of the game is -- that could come from the story and it could come from the game rules -- to start with that content and then make sure that coming from both sides, you can get there. You can communicate that in a way that doesn't conflict with itself. So is the rest of the question like "How do you do that?"

Yeah. How do you scale that up to a blockbuster title?

JB: That was kind of the big question. I don't know how you scale that up. Even the idea of scaling it up is not something that I thought about concretely until the night before I wrote that lecture. You look at these smaller games and you take it for granted that it's a smaller game and it's different from a big game. It's different in so many ways, it's hard to see a path from one to the other. How do you go from Gravitation to Gears of War? I don't exactly know.

But because I don't know, I can't see it clearly, but I also don't know that it's not possible. I just feel like we should start exploring in that direction. Actually, there are some games that are sort of doing that. There's a lot that I cut from that lecture, but one of the games I was going to mention was Far Cry 2, where they have this dynamic story situation, and there's a core gameplay mechanic that supports that about how friends that you have in the game are relationships that you maintain that come in to the action gameplay and interweave with that.

Of course, I haven't played the game, but I've talked to the designers about it. So it's too early to see how that's going to work. And it's still not quite the same level of thing that I was talking about, starting with these really low-level, abstract rules. But it is a step in that direction, from the top down. Starting with the given, "Hey, we've got a big-budget first-person shooter. How do we make it more meaningful?"

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