TIGInterview: Jonathan Blow

By: Leigh Christian Ashton

On: May 11th, 2009

Jonathan Blow

I’d find it hard to believe anyone visiting these pages would need an introduction to Jonathan Blow, the amazingly talented game developer/guru seems to be everywhere at the moment, his game Braid being the darling hit on Xbox Live and having recently stormed onto the PC. I took the opportunity to fire some questions over so that he could pour some honey into my ears in reply (except, being an email interview, i guess it would be my eyes? and metaphorically at that?)

Anyway, without further ado, please read on..

Leigh: Jon, hello, thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions. Could you please introduce yourself to the crowd?

Jon: Hi, my name is Jonathan Blow. I make games! I started out in games as mainly a technical guy, but recently I have been thinking ever-more about design, and on Braid I cared much more about the game design than the technical parts.

Leigh: You’ve just released Braid on multiple distribution platforms for the PC. With a longer than average development cycle for an independent developer, you must be pleased to see it finally go out the door?

Jon: It’s nice to have the game (mostly) done. There’s still the Mac port to watch over (though I am not handling the porting of that; Hothead Games is doing it), and the question of whether Braid is going to appear on any other consoles.

Leigh: Though originally developed for the PC, you released Braid first for the Xbox 360, Did this add substantial development time to the project? How complete was the PC version prior to the switch?

Jon: The Xbox 360 version definitely did add substantial development time to the project; there’s a lot of work to do for a platform like that. However, there wasn’t really a “switch”. It was up in the air which platform would be the first release, and eventually I decided on the Xbox 360. At that time the game was pretty much done from end to end, in terms of the number of levels and the puzzle design, though that had been true for a while (the IGF award-winning submission of Braid was the complete game, and that was back in December 2005; I signed with Microsoft in mid-2007). Even after the Xbox 360 was chosen as the target platform, there was a lot of work left to do on the basic game — I was still working heavily with David Hellman to determine how the game would look, and to produce the graphics and do the programming required to place them in the levels.

Leigh: Has the PC version benefited in any substantial way from the inclusion of a port to the 360?

The Braid Title Screen
Jon: It was nice to have a solid, well-defined platform to focus on while finishing the actual game part of the game, before having to worry about all the programming involved in dealing with PC compatibility issues. So I think the game benefited some from my being able to focus on a single tangible experience that the user would have.

Leigh: Braid feels like a game you want people to become emotionally engaged in more than just played, do you feel its important for games to be more than a test of skill or memory?

Jon: I wouldn’t ever claim that all games should be a certain way. There are a lot of possibilities for where games can go, and it’s probably a good idea to explore them all.

Leigh: Is it better to elicit emotional responses through gameplay or narrative? Does it matter if either is well done?

Jon: I gave a whole lecture recently about why I think story-based games have a lot of problems. Here’s the link: http://braid-game.com/news/?p=385 . If a designer is thinking about making something emotional through narrative, I would encourage some kind of narrative structure that is not trying to be a conventional linear story. Of course the gameplay route is also full of untapped potential, but there are reasons why it can be difficult to make headway there, which I discuss in the lecture.

Leigh: You spend a lot of time making prototypes of different gameplay mechanics, is it as much about implementation as innovation?

Jon: If you mean about enjoying the craft of programming… I have to admit I don’t really enjoy programming very much any more, because in order to get things done I have adopted a style of programming that makes it as simple as I can, so that it is just easy to get things done, and it only requires time and a lot of typing. So I am not really solving any difficult puzzles or challenges when programming, as beginning programmers might. On the plus side, this means I can program in a relatively efficient manner; on the minus side, it’s a less-engaging activity. I make up for that on the design side; whether I am making a prototype or a full game, it’s about exploring some interesting space of ideas. Programming is now just the implementation detail of how I do that exploration.

It’s not really about innovation so much as exploring interestingness. There is this idea of chasing innovation in game design that I used to be a big proponent of, but that I now suspect is a little bit misdirected.

Leigh: You’re not afraid to throw away cool ideas when they don’t feel right at the prototype stage. A lot of other developers might not be so detached from their ideas.

Jon: These things are true! I try to encourage people to be willing to delete stuff that is mediocre or just kind of good – or at least put that stuff in a closet for some future day – so that they can focus on the stuff that is great. Many people don’t think that way, though. When it is so hard to get anything substantial done, you just don’t want to throw away any of your hard-earned progress. One solution is to make it easier to make progress.

Leigh: Should all games try to innovate? Is re-interpreting the implementation of an innovative new mechanic as valid? I ask because it’s worth noting a number of games have time-play in them now.

Sorry, but the princess is in the other castle..
Jon: I think gameplay innovation can result in things that are interesting, but at the same time it doesn’t automatically result in something that is deep — often it’s a gimmick. I am interested in deepness and richness of game design. You can get that with deliberate innovation or without; I think the issues are orthogonal. At the same time, I think if a designer is working on something he really cares about, and is really exploring some ideas in his own style, bringing his own particular insight to the table, then he will automatically come up with something different than most other games; furthermore, this will be a deeper, more-compelling kind of innovation.

That’s what I meant earlier about the deliberate chasing of innovation being a somewhat misguided pursuit. Yes, you can make neat stuff that way, but the innovation will come to you for free if you do things a different way, and you are likely to end up with a different result.

To take a specific example, Braid would be kind of interesting if it were a game with gimmicky time-manipulation mechanics, but I think that many players find it more interesting than that because it is built on a core philosophy and a thorough exploration of a certain set of ideas. Players can feel that, even if they can’t say what the philosophy is or explain the ideas being explored.

Leigh: With talk of innovation and emotional investment, there are still some very conventional design choices like jumping on the head of monsters, moving platforms, ladders, levers and collectables. Is this saying fundamentally there’s not so much wrong with games as they are, they just missing those one or two extra ideas to make them more worthwhile?

Jon: I did these things because they were right for Braid; for another game, I would do something completely different. I don’t think you should take the presence of these elements in Braid as any kind of statement about whether anything is or isn’t wrong with games as they are.

Leigh: Can you talk a little about what inspires your design choices?

Jon: I’d like to, but this is a very broad question. Hopefully in the previous answers I have at least given a little bit of information about this.

Leigh: What about games that you enjoy, are there any real favourites you can say have had an impact on you in some way?

Jon: There are a lot of games that I’ve played that I enjoyed and that influenced the design of Braid. Probably too many to name. Games that currently spring to mind as “favorites” are very different and probably didn’t influence Braid too much (examples: Netrek, and Counter-Strike sometime around the beta 4 – beta 5 timeframe).

Leigh: Since Braid is a platformer, I want to tell you my favourite platformer of all time was The New Zealand Story. Any chance of a remake with time reversal? :)

Jon: I never played The New Zealand Story! Maybe I’ll be able to check it out sometime.

Leigh: Heh, I was only joking, but have you ever wanted to remake any old favorites, felt there was an opportunity missed that you’d like to explore?

Jon: I often get the idea to remake old games, though I usually don’t do it. Actually, though, one of the earlier ideas I was playing with in Braid was that there would be secret levels with remakes of classic games, modified with the time rules of each particular world, accessible when you finished each puzzle. I had an entire remake of Mountain King in Braid at one point. I think it was better than the original Mountain King, with more-sophisticated gameplay, but it didn’t fit what Braid was becoming, so I eventually took it out.

Leigh: Thanks for your time Jon! It’s been really great to hear from you.

Jon: You’re welcome!

Jonathan Blow created Braid for the Xbox 360 and PC which is available now at various digital outlets. You can view the Braid website, Jon has a blog and he is also a workshop organizer at The Experimental Gameplay Workshop

To top it all off, he’s an indie superhero who could talk the hind legs off a donkey, bravo sir!

  • Paul Eres

    Another thing I could point out is that Braid’s story is a linear narrative. You can’t change much about it. Not that we always have to follow our own advice, but it seems weird for his one game to contain primarily a linear story (even if it’s vague and sparse, it is linear and it is a story), and then to recommend against linear stories.

    But I think all these attacks on Braid’s personal character and people saying that the only people who like his game are just pretending to are pretty depressing. I liked Braid, I thought it was a pretty great game, as I said in my review on indygamer. So by saying the above paragraph I hope I’m not associating myself with people like judgespear and helldiver.

  • judgespear

    You got me confused with someone else. I never said that. I just was refuting the “Jonathan Blow can say what stories suck” point with the fact that anyone else can do the same to him, and that his story isn’t much in terms of conveying emotion (unless deciphering abstract metaphors counts) or even non-linearity.

  • Edmund

    hey i have this crazy idea about how you can show jon how wrong he is….

    Make a fucking game and shut the hell up!

    if you believe what you say, then put your money where your mouth is and make something better then braid. make something that proves us all wrong. or hell just make something, it might enlighten you to how the creative process works. Use some of the time you guys spend bitching about how overrated/flawed/worthless a game is on the fucking Internet to do something useful with your life….

    like make a game that gets idiots bitching on tig.

  • judgespear

    I mean, don’t get me wrong. I thought Braid was alright. But you don’t need to associate me with “helldiver” like that.

  • judgespear

    Edmund. That’s the “if you haven’t made something you have no opinion” argument again. Please don’t bring that up.

  • Paul Eres

    I was referring to this passage:

    “Maybe that is a reason why people take issues with him saying how things should or shouldn’t be because he himself doesn’t even actually do most of the things he tries to talk and share his “expertise” about.”

    Because I don’t think that’s true and think it’s pretty rude to put it that way even if it were true. I think he does do at least most of the stuff he talks about (not all, but most). But who knows? I haven’t seen everything he’s done. I haven’t read everything he’s talked about. Have you? If not, why make such claims?

    For my own part, I think of Jon Blow as a pretty great game designer, a good (but not great) game theorist, and a superb marketer. That he’s not as great a theorist as he is at marketing his game isn’t anything negative against him, I think any skill is admirable.

  • Edmund

    i only bring it up because its valid, words on a sub screen dont have as much effect as something with substance.

    those who cant do teach and those who cant teach troll the internet bitching.

  • moi

    I don’t understand why some people think devellopers have inflated egos.
    Is it because of the super serious lectures about mario clones, or because of the internet contests celebrating the glory of their fat naked bodies.
    I think they are just jealous, they don’t have any sense of nobility.

  • moi

    * “indie devellopers”

  • Edmund

    yes my biggest problem in life is that i wish that one day id atleast become a piece of text in a forum.

  • judgespear

    “i only bring it up because its valid, words on a sub screen dont have as much effect as something with substance.”

    In that case, how much substance would that leave you with? What games have you worked on? If you haven’t made any, should I disregard the statement you just made because you lack substance?

  • judgespear

    Wait, don’t answer that. I forgot who I was replying to. You’re the person who actually brought up the whole “if you haven’t made a game you don’t have an opinion” on that last thread regarding your game. I almost forgot.

  • Chris Whitman

    “I don’t get what you’er saying chris whitman.”

    It was a tongue-in-cheek response to the most likely tongue-in-cheek suggestion that art games have somehow ‘damaged’ indie games.

    I mean, obviously it isn’t *just* that you don’t have to play Braid if you don’t like it (although this is true): there are still plenty of alternatives. There are a lot of games out there (the majority of them, in fact), that are more traditionally ‘game-like.’ I just don’t see the point of policing a minority to tell them that doing their own thing is ruining your fun.

    Isn’t that kind of silly?

  • Edmund

    what kinda bizarro world have i just stepped into?

    ive slummed it up enough.. im taking the high road kids, toodles!

  • Llort

    TIGSource- Trolls Playground

  • moi

    @chris whitman:
    I never said that you were ruining my fun. I know fun games still exist (even among indie games). I was just saying that you guys are masochists in my eyes, always discussing to hell about trivial things.

    also notice that I didn’t express any opinion about jonathan Braid or his game, I don’t have any. Never played it.

  • Chris Whitman

    Well, I was responding to:

    “Also most of these so-called high-class intellectual academic artsy games are almost always just super mario clones. Sometimes just an extended Mario tutorial.

    You guys are taking all the fun out of videogames with your aert.”

    But I misunderstood you I guess! Sorry about that.

  • Chris Whitman

    As for the bullshit trolling or whatever: people come here to have an actual discussion. If people are upset at the ‘dethroning’ of Jon Blow (whom no one has really put on a throne in the first place) it’s partially because no one likes having what they like shit on by some douchebag who thinks everywhere on the internet is his personal playground, but also just because we’ve heard it all before: so many, many times.

    Seriously. We’re just tired of hearing it, and tired of how it’s impossible to have an actual conversation here without getting another rehashing of the ‘I hate such-and-such’ talking points.

    Can’t you just get your own blogs or something?

  • undertech

    Live the life of bivalves; filter feeding is the only solution to this wonderful reality we have here. Clams are happy creatures right?
    Wishing for anything more will bring nothing but disappointment, like telling the guy that he’d be disappointed if we (who’re we anyway?) don’t agree with him.

  • Paul Eres

    Sometimes life under the bivalves produces pearls.

  • http://www.roachpuppy.com IceNine

    Where I come from we’d call you all haters.

  • Paul Eres

    Oh, also:

    “I was just saying that you guys are masochists in my eyes, always discussing to hell about trivial things.”

    Some of us find discussing trivial things pleasurable rather than painful — just because you find it painful doesn’t mean we do :)

    People do differ in what they get pleasure out of, and it’s often surprising how what we hate others enjoy. Even the word masocism reminds that there are people who enjoy pain.

  • bateleur

    I like Braid. I find Jon Blow’s talks thought-provoking and worthwhile.

    Is that… on topic here? ;-P

  • Mark

    re: Also for everybody here: there is an old saying “You don’t have to be a cook to say that the food is bad”

    Yeah, but if you want to learn how to cook you’re better off listening to a chef than some random bloke who whines about the food being bad.

  • undertech

    Paul: very good point. And occasionally, a poorly worded dissent does indeed turn out to be the beginning of wonderful discussion. However, what we have going on here is leading to no pearl at all and should be discarded.

  • Guy

    The problem with open ended games, is that they are more like real life. That is, filled with day to day routines.
    How many of the people here had saved the world or had a great adventure in RL?
    Even if you had a great adventure, what part of your life it takes?
    Games that try to imitate reality, usually suffer from having many of the unexciting parts of life.
    That is why you have to force the adventure with a linear or semi linear game mechanics.

  • Corpus

    Edmund, “those that can’t do, teach” is one of the most pathetic, dribbling and asinine popular phrases around today.

    You do your intelligence and creativity a disservice by spouting stuff like that.

  • http://www.dyson-game.com Alex May

    Agreed with Corpus.

  • Jad

    Yo, I see two camps

    1. People who think it’s interesting to read what Jonathan Blow has to say

    2. People who go batshit crazy nuts over the fact that Jon Blow gets posted on the internet at all and are convinced that everyone who doesn’t hate him automatically considers him the kind of indie gaming and longs for giving him fellatio. Maybe they’re all trolls?

    Wat

    (I do see intelligent discussion here also so you don’t have to react to this post saying that ‘I AM NEITHER 1 OR 2′, it’s chill, I believe you. I am making blanket statements here okay durr :D)

  • Jad

    King of* Goddamnit

  • jim

    @Daniel

    I think the figuring out the puzzles bit is really key to Braid. It’s all about the “Oh, that’s how you do it” moment.
    Maybe try replaying it in the future when it’s less fresh in your mind.

    In general:
    I think some people seem to be conflating Jonathon Blow saying something they don’t agree with as the same as Jonathon Blow being arrogant.
    If you watch the lectures he does actually give reasons for his ideas. It’s not him going “This is what I think and I’m right because I’m awesome.”

    @people worried about “art” games
    If you don’t like “art” games don’t buy or play them. Seriously.
    As long as people are buying “fun” games giving them ad impressions then those games will keep being made.
    This isn’t an either all games are “art” games or all games are “fun” games thing. They can co-exist and people can only pay attention to what interests them from either group.
    It’s that simple.

    @bateleur

    I think you have to insult someone too to be ontopic.

    My position is I’ve watched a few of Blow’s talks and thought they were interesting. I’ve played the demo of Braid and liked it. I’m going to buy the full thing as soon as I finish World of Goo. I’m a bit behind the times.

  • Movius

    Jonathan Blow. I noticed the latest update for Braid on Steam forces the game to run in a lower resolution on my PC. Was it your love of Hitler or Stalin that inspired this decision?

  • Paul Eres

    No, the dictator of the small resolution game is Mao.

    And undertech, I’d say the discussion about linear stories in games that came out of this thread between all the ad hominem attacks on blow was possibly a pearl (which is why I tried to save it by moving it to the forums).

  • Solved

    I believe that a game with a true non linear story that invoked any kind of emotion would be extremely difficult to make. The reason games work is because they limit you to a certain amount of actions and situations. Being able to basically do anything and edit the story to your hearts content causes many problems. For instance, every single poaaible path would have to be playtested. Secondly, many players would ignore any kind of non linear story altogether and just kill all of the important characters. If the player bends the story too much, it will just break and become unrecognisable. When someone is playing a game, they don’t play it how they would act if faced with a similar situation in life, because, if they fail, they can just try again.

  • Daniel Camozzato

    I gave up reading the comments around #70-something. It is sad, but maybe you should consider asking for an user/pass for the comments here, because the trolling was beyond ridiculous.

    There *is* a reason why this guy is being interviewed, people. Whether or not you think it is a good reason, it really doesn’t matter. Tough world. There are a lot of different ideas about everything and only so many interviews to go around, so you are just sounding envious. If you care that much that he is “wrong” – i.e., you believe the world will end because he is leading us toward certain doom with his “wrong views” about game design -, go get your own interview and say everything backwards.

    Interesting interview, by the way. Thank you, Jonathan and Leigh.

  • Miroslav

    I believes the picture in the article shows Jon’s facial while reading these comments.

  • Anthony Flack

    Good interview! I always thought that this recent trend towards indie developers taking “gameplay innovation” as their mantra was somewhat misguided. I mean, that’s well and good, but personal expression is far more nuanced. In recent years I’ve felt like indie devs have become a bit too much like M. Night Shymalan – putting far too much emphasis on the “twist”.

  • Cliftor

    Dear lord I hope all this vitriol doesn’t erode the foundations of TIG.

    Like them or not its a fucking privilege, not a right, that we have to opportunity to speak directly to the artists like we can here or elsewhere.

    The level the discourse has been dragged to makes me wonder: does TIG need a moderated comment system? If I were a developer I don’t know how long I’d put up with this before I just said “fuck it” and stopped talking to anyone outside of a small group of other developers. And that would just be injurious to the quality and strength of this kind of community in the first place.

  • Greg-Anims

    miroslav,i looked at the picture after reading that and i laughed so hard.

    jonathon blow is a genius! good interview i enjoyed it and definitely agree that if you really care about your game, it becomes origional without needing a special gimmick

  • http://erikbriggs.me Erik Briggs

    Starting with comment 130 ’til now, agreed. QFT and all that. Finally some people who aren’t delluded. Maybe the TIG readership finally took their much needed nap after last night’s crank-fest. Almost everything prior to that is a useless WoT.

  • William Faulkner

    I MADE THESE DESKTOPS FOR BRAD:
    DESKTOPS

  • moi

    SRSLY the face of jon Blow in that pic is awesome. I’ll try to draw it for my next avatar.

  • William Faulkner

    BRAD NEED TO SOTP MAKING GAMES!!!1 LIKE ‘ACQUARIUM’!!!1 WHO HAVENT PLAYED ECKO THE DOLHIN??THS GAME IS A RIPOFF!!

  • lol2youtoo

    and then the “last of us” came out…