Interview about The Witness and related design topics

On January 31, 2013, Tom McShea of Gamespot interviewed me as part of their Break Room Interview series. It was an interesting conversation!

Here’s the interview.

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72 Comments

  1. Lujami
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, those comments. “Jon said he doesn’t like Japanese games so I’m not sure about this one…” Oh man, I feel embarrassed just from reading them.

    • Posted February 3, 2013 at 4:54 am | Permalink

      Very interesting interview. I agree with almost everything Jonathan said.

      Here is a thought i had on video games. Does anyone agree disagree?

      I think right now there will be happening the same thing in video games that happened in the Hollywood-movie scene in the sixties. At that time the Hollywood had run out of ideas and the whole industry was in a sort of depression. The cinema scope and 3d techniques didn´t seem that fresh anymore and the market was dominated by musicals and family-entertainment movies. A new bold and intellectual generation of young filmmakers came to prominence in America. They were inspired by European filmmakers (especially French New Wave), which at that time were much more daring than the stale Hollywood-studio based economy, because they were individualists-filmmakers. Film makers like Jean Luc Godart and Michalangelo Antonioni.

      I think the same thing might happen in the video game scene. In fact it is already happening. The industry is in a crisis right now, because the market and the content has become stale. The content of most games repeats and often than not it involves juvenile tones and unnecessary violence. In an attempt of saving the market they try to make the games more entertaining and add many bells and whistles to make them appealing. The core structure remains stale (same thing Hollywood tried desperately to do in the lat fifties). Now since some years there has been indie game-scene. They have the same role as the French New Wave had for the movie industry in the sixties.

      The gaming industry will use this ideas and capitalize on them to create a new branch of video games that are AAA but indie at heart (hopefully).

      We saw that in journey. I wouldn´t call it exactly indie, because Sony had a deal for a lot of money with the creators. But in heart it is.

      What i am trying to say, is that game like journey will be the equivalent to movies like Melancholia from Lars van Trier. It is a movie that isn´t exactly independent but i wouldn´t call it a blockbuster either.

      • iBane
        Posted February 4, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Agree very much with what you say. And Holywood is right back there. How many remakes of old movies have we seen in the last many years? How many movies of pre-existing content such as comic book have we seen in the last many years?

        No innovation & not a lot of creativity. Gaming is suffering from this as well. Think about GTA 5. How is it being sold? “The map is bigger than all these other games combined!” But will the map be filled with the same old missions and activities as the first 4? I bet it will…

      • Alexei Baboulevitch
        Posted February 4, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        To be honest, I find it hard to make a comparison to any existing medium. Even in the 60s, cinema had a long history of beautiful and artistic movies. Video games don’t have their “Metropolis”, their “Casablanca”, their Alfred Hitchcock or their Orson Welles. Almost every major game I’ve played to this point has been about doling out simple little bursts of pleasure, perhaps with an occasional semblance of a story to spice things up. They just don’t grip me (or anyone else I know) in the same way as my favorite films — not even close.

        Maybe comparing the current industry to the animation industry in the early 20th century would be more appropriate. At the time, most cartoons were mostly focused on gags and featured simple characters with rubbery arms and legs. Then Walt Disney came along. Over the course of a few decades, he gathered an incredible team of artists, made a few experiments here and there, and eventually developed his first masterpiece — a work that defined animation as we know it today.

        But it’s certainly true that we’re getting a lot more independent voices in the industry, and I think what you’re saying about the future of gaming is correct. I just feel like it’s all kind of a moot point since we haven’t yet proven the artistic merit of gaming, like we have with cinema or animation. This is why I have very high hopes for Jonathan Blow’s games. I feel like shares the same concerns and has the talent to create some huge ripples with his ideas.

        • Posted February 6, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

          Good point! But, when i draw the comparison with Hollywood-movie scene in the sixties. I was aware that at that time the medium movies had already a rich history. I was more referring to the dynamics going on in this particular point in time in the video game scene. But really good point!

          I also like the comparison with Animation a lot. But i am a little on the fence with Walt disney. Technically speaking Walt disney propelled animation forward very quickly. But at the same time it created a standard for the content of animation for years to come. That´s why most people think of something for children with no real deep meaning when they hear animation. So it was kind of a double sided blade.
          If you look at 3d animation the same thing happened. all 3d animation films coming out lately have the same pattern. Productions with deeper storytelling and meaning only take place outside the mainstream market, a thing that in “normal” movies is totally possible.

          As Jonathan said in the interview a similar thing happened to the medium comics. So it is not granted that if more mature works are being made that the mediums reputation will be save. And furthermore when a factor so big to mold the general opinion for years to come hits, it is difficult to regain credibility for the entire medium. In animation= it is something for children because of the overpowering influence of Disney. In Comics = Comics are shallow and talk about super heroes because of the inpact super heroes comics had during and after WW2.

          As a consumer of video games i am really happy that now finally the potential of it is used in different ways.

  2. Posted February 1, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting interview, the point you made early about using the puzzles for flow and conveying concepts rather than being difficult just for the sake of challenge was interesting. I’m starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of trying to design puzzles to communicate an idea rather than just trying to be tricky. The funny thing I’ve noticed is than even something you might think is an “easy” puzzle is still challenging often because it is a new concept that someone needs to learn. I can see how too much of a puzzle grid conflicts with pacing which is also something I hadn’t thought about much but it’s a great point.

    Thanks for the talk, this sort of thing is a continuing help.

  3. martijn@frazermail.n
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I just watched the whole thing. Great job! Props to Gamespot as well for posting these full length interviews instead of short sound bites.

  4. d
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    If you’re upset that games like Far Cry 3 are winning GOTY awards despite being really badly broken in a lot of stupid ways, you really should just say it. You’re not the only one who feels this way. The press can only screw you over if you’re not willing to own the sensational version of the story. Why are you worried about “Jon Blow says X sucks” headlines if X really does, on balance, suck?

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted February 2, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      It’s because the story becomes “Jon Blow says X sucks” “No it doesn’t!” “That guy is a conceited dick, he only ever made one game, who is he to judge game designer Y”, etc… rather than “Here are the actual problems with X and why they are problems” (followed by reasonable discussion of said problems). I have tried this before, so I know how it goes.

      • sebastian
        Posted February 2, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Or, even worse, when they quote sales as a defense. “Well, X sold 14 million copies, so I think that speaks for itself!”. Just because McDonalds sold a billion Big Macs doesn’t makes them good.

        • Posted February 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

          The Internet can be so annoying. There are some people who are open-minded and actually interested in your opinions as a game critic. Unfortunately most of them will never get to hear your thoughts on recent games because people want to just call you a dick or pretentious for pointing at even the most obvious flaws.

          For example: you are the FIRST person I have seen call the end of Red Dead Redemption anything less than “amazing.” It isn’t bad in and of itself, but it doesn’t jive with the entire game that comes before it, and the final plot points betray the truths told in the mechanics themselves. I have single handedly fought off hundreds of people before, and…now…well, spoilers.

          I only played Far Cry 3 because critics were so enamored with it. I definitely felt like it was more flawed than the praise led me to believe. Yes, it was fun, but everything it did narratively failed to connect with the gameplay or even try to tell a meaningful story. The narrative designer himself just shrugs off the little criticism he has received with an “Oh, isn’t that interesting that you think it’s bad, what does that say about you?”

          Apologies for getting a bit ranty.

          • Micah
            Posted February 5, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

            I like all of the comments under d’s. I thought of answering d’s comment about how it’s wise to pick your battles, but I knew it wouldn’t be necessary. I believe what “d” was getting at was that there are some of us who find your frankness and common sense as a refreshing public voice. I’m definitely one of them. We’re here too. For every overreacting troll who just has to send hate messages, there’s many of us who didn’t disagree with you Jon so we had no need to add anything. I know the first thing I look for when some movie gets nominated for a bunch of awards is if there are any who hate the film. I strongly value objective criticism and also feel that many movie critics fail in this capacity as well. Games are even in a worse state than movies are when it comes to objectivity.

            It’s easy to attack the messenger rather than the logic of the message. Attacking a person’s character isn’t the same thing as challenging their logic. People often resort to bashing a critic when they can’t refute any of their points.

      • Josh W
        Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Strange isn’t it, make zero games, and you can talk about this stuff, make 1 game, and you haven’t made enough.

        Perhaps division by zero is involved somewhere..

        That stuff about being a critic and a game designer was pretty astute, it’s interesting to me that people have a whole parallel pattern of discourse that reminds me of the one encouraged in music journalism, of feuds and disses and personal relational structure, rather than overarching themes of games, and stuff that is more analytical.

  5. Constant1ne
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I still don’t have answer to main question: narratology or ludology?

  6. Mark B
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate these one-on-one conversations. Good Stuff.

  7. Dean A
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan, early in the conversation there’s an exchange about Myst and its multiple imitators in the era. You say that Myst has some fundamental design flaws, and that the others are worse. You also indicate that recent blockbuster games fall into the same bad design habits as their genre predecessors. Singling out Myst as a game that most people who played then, what kinds of things are you talking about? What about in more modern games?

    The end of the Selentic Age comes to mind… But what about something along those lines that you fixed in Braid?

    • Adam
      Posted February 3, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Myst’s problem, in my opinion, is that it’s a bunch of arbitrary puzzles connected arbitrarily, particularly on the main island. The themes, ages, environment, atmosphere, etc. were all very interesting. However, while the game was good for breaking some ground on its genre, the puzzles themselves aren’t connected in a very interesting way, nor do many of them have a reason for being.

      Riven, on the other hand, was very well connected in its puzzles, and managed to maintain reasons for those puzzles being in the world they were in, at least to a very large degree compared to Myst. The hangman game in the school in Riven is a perfect example. It was to teach the children of Riven the number system, and the player, very much a “child” in Riven, uses it to learn the number system, and then multiple other puzzles in Riven tests the player on that knowledge, then evolves it with numbers beyond what is directly shown. Myst had no puzzles even CLOSE to being that organic.

      Sorry for the rant. Let’s just hope The Witness is a lot closer to Riven than Myst, or even more hopefully, a game 16 years beyond it in design.

      • Walter
        Posted February 4, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        Just to add on to this, and I recall Jonathan mentioned this previously in regard to this subject:

        The problem with games like Myst and adventure games in general is that there is no such thing as “core gameplay”, as a designer would put it. Basically every puzzle is its own thing that is relatively arbitrary that doesn’t build knowledge and the players “skill” at the game. The fact that you successfully completed a puzzle on Myst Island gives you no further advantage at all in the Mechanical Age, for example. You start with a blank slate every time because each puzzle is essentially in a void. Also, a huge problem with adventure games that builds off of this is that things are not clearly identified as “puzzles” or “hints” at all. Although less egregious then other adventure games where you have an inventory and have to arbitrarily combine string with a tambourine to please the elf under the bridge, Myst still suffered from this. Basically there were two types of puzzles, one of which were challenges that you could solve as soon as you see it and another are actual puzzles that you had to go back to. The challenges were all arbitrary and didn’t connect to one another, and the puzzles were essentially the same as other adventure games with inventory, where you wrote down whatever hints certain challenges would give you for later use rather then collect an item after completing a challenge. At its worse, this setup created “hunt the pixel” games where the players just wondered around clicking on everything in the hopes that they would discover a “challenge” so that they could move on with the game.

        Ultimately why anyone really likes any game in the Myst series is due to it’s atmosphere, setting and presentation. If you think about your experience playing a Myst game, chances are you probably viewed the world as fascinating and the puzzles as kind of a blockade to seeing the next thing, whether that be the next new world or the next plot point or whatever. This sort of makes sense, as there needs to be gameplay and it can’t just be a game where you walk around the world (although Dear Ester did this well, but at the time they probably thought that wasn’t feasible), and you need puzzles to stagger the content and make the game a bit longer. And to address Riven, I think the arbitrariness of the puzzles was far lessened (I.E blended into the world and narrative), but the same problems still remained and were perhaps even worsened. While the puzzles in Myst were really only small hurdles that I think most people could get past pretty easily, Riven was debilitatingly difficult. The puzzles still didn’t connect and there was still no core gameplay.

        I think (or at least what I’ve gathered and what I hope) The Witness will have the atmosphere and appreciation of seeing something beautiful that the Myst games excelled at while combining it with “real” gameplay. I can almost definitely say The Witness does the latter based off of what we know, as the puzzle panels are the “core” gameplay. Whether or not this core gameplay is good is yet to be determined, but it is definitely core gameplay either way. And really, adventure games were the only games that got away without having any core gameplay, and I think that is why they ultimately died once when other genres picked up the slack in terms of presentation and atmosphere.

        • Adam
          Posted February 4, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

          Very good read and response, thank you!

        • iqzulk
          Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          Walter, you are clearly wrong when you say the Riven had no core gameplay. Myst didn’t have it – that one I can agree with. Other Myst games didn’t have it – I can also agree with that. But Riven specifically DID have a distinctive core gameplay (it’s just extremely mechanical – I’l explain a bit further). And in RHEMs (1st and 3rd first and foremost) this core gameplay is made even more apparent (and to be perfectly clear, RHEMs are direct Riven clones gameplay-wise – which, by the way, don’t have any sort of eye-candy whatsoever, which instantly nullifies your argument about “Ultimately why anyone really likes any game in the Myst series is due to it’s atmosphere, setting and presentation.”).

          Now I will explain this core Riven/RHEM’s gameplay in as simple and apparent terms as possible, so there hopefully won’t be any misunderstanding whatsoever regarding that matter.

          1) First of all, there is a sprawling intricately connected ingame world which is basically a labyrinth (or a graph). In that labyrinth, there are numerous mechanisms, each one – with a simple straightforward effect on the nearby parts of the ingame world. We push the button – the door slides left. We push the button again – the door slides right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Couldn’t be simpler. There are dozens if not hundreds of such buttons/levers in the ingame world – each with its own effect on the outside world.

          2) We press a button. The door slides right. What are its effects of this state-change on an ingame world gameplay-wise? They basically boil down to only two categories. a) Movement: somewhere in the ingame world, a path which was previously closed becomes opened (positive change) or a path which was previously opened becomes closed (negative change). b) Visibility: certain previously concealed information becomes visible from a certain point of the ingame world (positive change), or a certain previously visible (from a certain point) information becomes fully concealed (negative change).

          3) Ambivalence. We press a button. The state of ingame world changes from A to B, which affect the number of movement and visibility options that player has in the ingame world. Let’s say that all the changes from A to B were positive. Then we don’t have any reason NOT to press a button. Let’s say they were negative. Then we are better off not pressing it. Let’s say there were some negative AND positive changes. Ooops.
          …The door slides down, closing the passage – BUT it has a useful diagram written on the other side…
          …The door slides right, opening the path in current corridor and closing the path in a corridor just behind that wall…
          …The elevator rides up, opening a hole in the ground with a ladder leading down…
          …The bridge rotates disconnecting north and south passages while connecting east and west ones…
          That sort of stuff.

          4) Combinatorics. What will happen if we multiply the amount of such ambivalent-effect buttons and levers hundred-wise? It will give birth to complex navigational puzzles with the necessity to think 4-5 “moves” ahead – that’s what happen. It will give birth to the situations when you carefully tune a dozen of mechanisms (while tinkering with which of those mechanisms for a 10th time since the beginning of the game) thus establishing an intricate looped pathway in a labyrinth – THEN you close a certain door (thus severing the loop) – and THEN you rush though that once-looped pathway, through the half of the labyrinth (possibly – tinkering with some mechanisms again on your way) in order to see, what’s written on the other side of that closed door. A couple of extremely simple and straightforward mechanisms build up to some extremely complex navigational puzzles and complex (without any hard limit other then level-designer’s imagination) combinatorics.

          5) Core gameplay. The core gameplay in Riven and RHEMs is as follows. You explore the labyrinth. You interact with its mechanisms and learn about their connections (mechanical or electrical connections, similar symbols, etc). Each of the mechanisms has a simple straightforward effect on the outside world. Then you start tinkering with the mechanisms, you start to question, whether you can combine some of them in such a meaningful way, that would allow you to see or access some previously concealed/closed parts of the outside world. That gives you access to the new information and new parts of the labyrinth (and thus, new mechanisms to play with). You progress in the game is ABSOLUTELY inseparable from your knowledge about what EXACTLY every mechanism does, under which circumstances and how exactly those mechanisms are connected. And that knowledge gives you the ability to solve those navigational puzzles. Drop the first RHEM halfway through the game, run it a month later from that save – and you can as well start from the very beginning (you won’t remember half the necessary stuff about the ingame world – thus you won’t be able to progress).
          Those buttons-bridges-levers-doors ARE basic mechanics of those games (as you move through the ingame world constantly using those mechanics), combining them in a meaningful way in order to solve navigational puzzles IS the core gameplay of such games (hence – EXPLORATION puzzle games). How is that less of a core gameplay than shooting guys in the face, while learning how to move properly and which threats to eliminate first? How is that less of a core gameplay than the gameplay Jon described when asked about Witness?

          By the way, about puzzles. Riven has only 3 major combination locks – and still is the most difficult game in the series. First RHEM has 5.
          And yes, I agree that Riven has a lot of other stuff that dilutes the aforementioned mechanics. And yes, I agree that its navigational puzzles aren’t nearly as complex as (for example) those required to solve the secret puzzle in RHEM3. But still, Riven has the most intricate in-game world compared to all the other entries in series (and most of so-called Myst-clones) – and the combinational-navigational mechanics are extremely apparent in that game and play an extremely major role in its overall gameplay. RHEM just makes those mechanics even more apparent (none of RHEMs contain anything that couldn’t be found in Riven, BTW).

  8. Curly
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    On Bioshock: “Because when you go play it, what you’re actually doing 95% of the time is shooting guys in the face, and then 5% of the time the other stuff comes in. Catcher in the Rye has 0% shooting guys in the face.”

    Sure, but try to make a game where the action is just people talking to each other and you end up with this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Gmmeh9WQ-U

    Short of inventing a Turing-level AI, there are no obvious fixes for the problems it has, either. Maybe developers should look for their profundity elsewhere and leave the social commentary to the kinds of media that can actually do conversations.

    • Dean A
      Posted February 3, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      But that’s just it, making a dialogue about interesting things that mattered six months ago and will matter in six months is pretty hard, even with all humans involved. Curly, I think you are saying there’s a hard problem making game interaction work with full natural language. Absolutely, and it’s even worse than the weirdness in that flash game, which was there even if you ignored the beavis-and-butthead narrator: you have to actually make the computer agents engaging in natural language present what you want to present while still responding sanely to people who, at best, will go off on unexpected conversational tangents that still relate.

      But I don’t think that’s the problem with making a game where you, say, engage with a history of seriously flawed humanists trying and failing miserably to make their tiny secition of the world a better place… or whatever. You don’t have to use natural language to interrogate the presented history, you don’t even have to use language to present it – at least not completely. You are definitely much better off playing with created objects and structures – the game mechanic – if you don’t have to talk to the mediator. I, for one, really hate bending parsers to my will.

      The problem is making the interaction and interrogation interesting, challenging, and fulfilling in the ways you find important as a creator. Or, turned on its head, finding games in which the interaction is interesting, challenging, and fulfilling in ways that speak to you. To Jonathan, and honestly to most humans, shooting people for several hours is not that interesting, is either challenging or not – but never challenging in a new way, and is not that fulfilling. I think the point is that it would be nice to have a wider range of well-thought-out game mechanics to choose from among blockbuster games.

      Constantine, I think you’re talking about two different analysis tools that are almost always applied to the same kinds of things at or around the same time… we call those kinds of things games because ludology – or mechanics analysis – is possible. I think the strength of games is in the playing and not always in the situation, but I bet we all can come up with a basket of examples of emotionally/thoughtfully effective instances where you cannot unlink the two. In fact, I bet for most of those examples, you couldn’t get to quite that emotional state in any other way.

      • sebastian
        Posted February 3, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        I hope I don’t derail your point by saying I always thought Will Wrights system of dialogue in The Sims was pretty clever, where you have pictures representing the general subject, and the reactions of each speaker tell you what they think about the subject generally. But anything said is all in your mind.

        I think you’re totally right about this, Dean. If I think about it, any time there’s real actual dialogue in a game, it’s effectively a piece of movie. Like we’re crossing artforms. That seems the same as having a painting and adding a speech bubble.

    • Walter
      Posted February 3, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I think this argument is very silly. Basically what it boils down to is you saying that it’s impossible to make a good game without violence, which should be very obviously false by now. Do I really need to bring up games like braid on this blog about a game made by the same developer? Games that don’t focus on violence are not only viable, they are often far better than the tired cliche of shooting dudes in the face. Ignoring the fact that I can envision conversations in games being designed well, nobody said that the alternative to violence is conversations. There are a large magnitude of subjects you could cover outside of violence in a game if you wanted to.

      I can understand why Jonathan doesn’t want to mention specific games, though, especially in light of comments like this. Any time you mention a specific game, people who like that game get instantly defensive and say “how dare you insult my favorite game!” without even properly thinking about the argument. It’s funny how he only name dropped one game in this interview (outside of spec-ops which he said he didn’t play that much of) and there are still people getting defensive.

    • Alexei Baboulevitch
      Posted February 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Why is dialog essential for games? Is it essential for music? There are so many possibilities in gaming that don’t involve traditional narrative and dialog, and yet most developers keep trying to climb out of the uncanny valley through the use of progressively more powerful technology. Having teams of hundreds making one game for several years of crunch is untenable. We have all the technology we need to make some incredible abstract experiences, right now.

    • Micah
      Posted February 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      “On Bioshock: “Because when you go play it, what you’re actually doing 95% of the time is shooting guys in the face, and then 5% of the time the other stuff comes in. Catcher in the Rye has 0% shooting guys in the face.”

      Sure, but try to make a game where the action is just people talking to each other and you end up with this.”

      The grand measuring scale of all game development is clearly: Shooting guys in the face (extreme left wing) and people conversing (extreme right wing). Let’s introduce “the fear and love lifeline” on the chalkboard next.

      I’m not trying to make a deushbag response but that’s what I immediately thought of. Funny link though.

  9. sth uncategorized
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Why all the time games are compared with movies !? i think for most of the current games that comparison is like comparing (very roughly, ) checkers and chess each is played on the same board but different rules .

  10. Posted February 3, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate you taking the time out to do an interview, Jonathan, when it’s clear from your blog and your comments in the interview that you are working hard on The Witness. I found it very interesting. Thank you.

  11. iBane
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Gaming is really suffering from a lack of innovation. The community and industry has attempted to replace innovation with technical improvement/achievement. Jonathan Blow gets this from what I heard in the interview. I look forward to seeing how he brings innovation to the community with his new game.

  12. Sean
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    A great interview! I’m sure it left many people with a lot to think about. I’ll post my thoughts here, in case anyone is interested.

    One of the bigger topics of the interview is that both action games/movies since the 80′s have not changed much, but they always have a basic enjoyment level/fun that can appeal to masses. Jonathan mentions how since he has played games for 20 years, these type of basic, repetitive experiences are boring now, which obviously drives him to do innovative design. It spurs good questions to think about, though- will even the players of these games, people who are not bored by them yet, appreciate the games with more depth over the games without depth? Obviously some will and some won’t, but what prevents those that don’t?

    A second thought, as well- very superficial experiences (such as CoD or Transformers 3) appeal to just about everyone, whereas deeper experiences will essentially always have a more limited, taste-driven crowd. In this sense, if you want mass appeal, there is financial incentive to remain superficial. Look at animated movies, for example- Dreamworks has experienced massive success by superficially appealing to all ages, as opposed to traditional Disney animation which often appealed to specific audiences, such as kids, girls, and their families. As a market response, Disney itself is switching to become more mass-market, as well.
    Before I get too off topic, the question to ponder over out of this may be- how does one reconcile this financial reward vs artistic reward? This one I think was a little bit more discussed in the interview, talking about Bioshock Infinite’s marketing and all, and how Bioshock gained notice because of their “5%” they did have.

    No more questions, but one last thing I thought I’d share- It would be interesting to know if anyone else has experienced this. One time for a week or so I played through one of the Mass Effect games, and I remember right after finishing I decided to go back to playing League of Legends immediately afterward- I quickly noticed that I was in a totally passive mindset, not engaged at all, and was playing absolutely horribly! It’s interesting that I didn’t even notice I was having a (relatively) superficial experience until I started playing one that demanded engagement.

  13. Sven
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Watching the video – position 11:40 – and I was thinking: After the witness, what about “Braid – the director’s cut”? … Yeah, I’m aware of the problem that there’s always little time and more interesting projects. I was just thinking… ;-)

    Looking forward to The Witness, and I can(‘t) wait! :-)

  14. Dmytro
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Thank you for inspiration John.

  15. Paul Pantea
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Sir Jonathan,

    In the interview you were saying that you’re very happy The Witness is turning out to be a (probably much) better game than Braid. At the same time, you pointed out very few changes you’d make on Braid.

    My question: is The Witness inherently better than Braid? Does The Witness offer more possibilities because of its ideas or because it’s in 3D, or is it simply because you feel that you’ve grown as a designer and programmer?

    Great interview and looking forward to play the game!

  16. BillyTheBanana
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Does this interview contain spoilers? The very first thing Jonathan says makes me worried it does, and I feel like this is the type of game that will be best knowing nothing going in.

    • Posted February 5, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      No spoilers throughout. Jonathan has been careful about this, thankfully!

  17. Posted February 6, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Good point! But, when i draw the comparison with Hollywood-movie scene in the sixties. I was aware that at that time the medium movies had already a rich history. I was more referring to the dynamics going on in this particular point in time in the video game scene. But really good point!

    I also like the comparison with Animation a lot. But i am a little on the fence with Walt disney. Technically speaking Walt disney propelled animation forward very quickly. But at the same time it created a standard for the content of animation for years to come. That´s why most people think of something for children with no real deep meaning when they hear animation. So it was kind of a double sided blade.
    If you look at 3d animation the same thing happened. all 3d animation films coming out lately have the same pattern. Productions with deeper storytelling and meaning only take place outside the mainstream market, a thing that in “normal” movies is totally possible.

    As Jonathan said in the interview a similar thing happened to the medium comics. So it is not granted that if more mature works are being made that the mediums reputation will be save. And furthermore when a factor so big to mold the general opinion for years to come hits, it is difficult to regain credibility for the entire medium. In animation= it is something for children because of the overpowering influence of Disney. In Comics = Comics are shallow and talk about super heroes because of the inpact super heroes comics had during and after WW2.

    As a consumer of video games i am really happy that now finally the potential of it is used in different ways.

  18. iqzulk
    Posted February 6, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Jon, I have a serious question for you.

    You see, from what I gather, The Witness is a Myst-like game with a non-linear structure and a significant accent on exploration – and, thus, backtracking. At the same time, it’s a full-3D free movement game with a first person perspective.

    Now, there is one thing, that old slide-based (Macromedia) exploration puzzlers (Riven and RHEMs specifically) do a lot better than their full3D free movement analogues. They are much quicker. One click – and you have turned 90 degrees or skipped 2-3 meters. And (given that you have transitions on “off” or “fast”), you can basically roam the in-game labyrinth as fast as you can click on the proper areas on the screen. Thus covering literally hundreds of meters in a matter of one minute.

    I understand, that Witness is not the game that is supposed to be a twitch-finger experience. BUT, once you have seen the location and all the scenery, puzzles, mechanisms or panels in that area – you really SHOULD have an option to whiz to the specific point of interest in the ingame world AS fast as is humanly possible.

    On the other hand, such techniques as instantaneous teleportation via the mini-map are extremely detrimental to the feeling that you actually ARE in that ingame world, where all the stuff is connected in various vays. Or, to put that another way, if the player overuses teleportation, the world becomes extremely disconnected for him – and he becomes to see it rather like a set of disconnected puzzle-places, than some kind of structural unity.

    So, my question is as follows. Is there any chance The Witness would have some mode which would imitate old mouse-controlled slide-based Myst-like games , where one click would amount to a 2-3 meter “step” or a 90-degrees turn (with the transition speed the player could actually change to whatever the value he fancies), which would allow the player to whiz through the “cleared” (or just not interesting for him at the moment) sections of the world while maintaining the sence of the world’s intergrity an self-interconnection (2-3 meter steps are small enough so that the player still have extential visual reference on the adjacent shots – and the illusion of the actual places still remains intact)?

    Like, I don’t know, let’s talk about “Ctrl” button. Let’s say, the player presses “Ctrl” (or middle mouse button, or whatever) – and while he holds it down, the mouse interface becomes apparent. The click near the upper edge of the screen would make the character look 60 degrees up, on the bottom – 60 degrees down, left and right edges – 90-degrees turn, click on any point of the screen not close to the edges – the player makes a 2-3-meter step in that specific direction or until the closest obstacle (and, in the ideal case, could make such steps as frequently as humanly possible, should he wish so). The player releases the “Ctrl” button – and it’s back to FPS-style movement for him. Or it could be also dubbed via keyboard. Ctrl+W – 2-3 meter step, Ctrl+A/D – 90-degree turns left and right, Ctrl+S – 180-degree turn.

    Any chance of something like that happening, or are we stuck with the default speed of the character in the game?

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      I have thought about this, but am trying to stay away from it. It would seem that we have made the game world compact enough that it is not super-necessary. But we’ll see what people say.

      One of the things to keep in mind is that the world is way more open than in something like Myst, which means it’s easier to get where you want to go, and you already have two movement speeds (walk / run). On a tablet version of the game, you just double-tap to run to a location. It’s not teleporting but it should be easy enough and fast enough while keeping you in the space.

      I just timed it, and running from one end of the island to the other takes 1 minute, 10 seconds. Yet we have fit 20-30 hours of gameplay into that space. So.

  19. Posted February 6, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    This industry desperately needs more people like you. Great interview as always.

  20. Posted February 6, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just seen the interview. Very inspiring! Jon, you’re a true gem in gaming community. Your insight and critique are invaluable. I loved Braid and certainly looking forward to playing The Witness, but I think that what you say is terribly important. In the end, one can only create a limited amount of games in given time. I’m a developer and I understand exactly how cumbersome and time-consuming game creation can be. But you can still talk and discuss and it’s great that you seem to constantly think about games in a very broad context, as opposed to just making this one particular current game and focusing uniquely on that. I feel that this “humanistic” part of gaming is still neglected and gamers too easily fall into “raw entertainment” trap. I often try to convince non-gamer people to games, but it’s a hard task. You can bait them with the music, sometimes with the story (though very rarely, because, as Jon pointed out in the interview, the story mixed with gameplay yields absurd results). But this interview is a great piece to show to my friends.

    Games world desperately needs people like you, Jon – and I’m very grateful that you’re still here with us, on this side of the keyboard/pad.

  21. Lestibournes
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    The one big flaw I believe exists in Braid is that the story is divorced from the game. If they were properly integrated then there would be challenges that would teach me the story or challenges that could only be overcome through a proper understanding of the story. The way Braid is the stary is irrelevant to the game and I can beat the game without even knowing that there was a story at all. This is why I think Braid doesn’t live up to the standard you set in all your lectures and interviews.

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      I disagree completely. There is not a Right Way to do things. There is probably a way to make the game you are talking about, but it would be very different from Braid, and would probably be about a different subject.

      Braid was conceived as something like an illustrated story book, but (depending on how you think about it) with the gameplay parts taking the place of illustrations, and thus occupying most of the book; or else with the gameplay being the text of the book, and the text of the story being like the illustrations of the book.

      Nobody says illustrated story books are flawed because you don’t need to look at the pictures to understand the story.

      • Posted February 8, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        To add to this:

        Going the other way, one would actually consider it a strength of the illustrations if they stand on their own and require no text at all for a viewer to understand them. In fact, if a caption is necessary to understand the illustration, then some would suggest a better illustration might be needed.

        • Micah
          Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          That’s an interesting thought, and I agree with your first sentence, but some of my favorite films have tons of dialog. This is because it is through dialog that we can get some more intensive character development or just more of a clarifying explanation about a particular person. I don’t think you can tackle certain complex subjects without some sort of verbal communication. On the other hand David Lynch is somewhat of a master in communicating nonverbal imagery. However, I doubt that all subject matter can be tackled that way (at least more quickly than the character explaining). Hmmm… This could spark an interesting debate.

          • Posted February 8, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I agree, but let’s be careful. There seems to be at least two distinct but similar ideas under discussion here.

            One is whether the text of a work *should have to be* understood in order to understand and engage with the other components (e.g. Braid’s puzzles, the pictures in a storybook, etc.).

            The other is whether the text of a work and the other components (e.g. the visual element of a film) *can* work together to help convey some additionally complex ideas that otherwise could not properly be conveyed by the individual components alone.

            The argument presented earlier was that a flaw in Braid exists because a player can complete every puzzle without reading a single word of the story. They are not so integrated that one must be understood to understand the other. However, this fact does not preclude the possibility that a significant understanding of the story and puzzles in combination can lend to the communication of a more complex idea.

            Jonathan has often expressed his unwillingness simply to explain what Braid means or what it’s about because the work as a whole was designed to convey a complex idea that he could not have properly expressed by writing an essay.

      • Lestibournes
        Posted February 10, 2013 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        I didn’t express my complaint properly. Although it would be nice if the story and game were integrated in that way what I really meant is that I would like some way of knowing whether my understanding of the story is complete and correct. I think it would be best if that was somehow accomplished in-game, but having you spell it out is also OK.

        To me art isn’t throwing paint on the wall and telling people to interpret it how they like, it’s successfully communicating a thought, feeling, or idea. If I have no way of knowing whether my understanding is correct then I might as well be looking at that random stain on the wall.

        This is also why I hate modern art. It’s like the joke about a guy who couldn’t afford to send his wife a telegraph, so he went over the senctence he was going to send, reasoned that each word can be inffered from another, and thus eliminated all but one of the words from the sentence. He then sent a one-word telegraph. Modern art is like taking that one-word telegraph and trying to expand it back into its original full sentence form, and the result is a sentence that has only one word in common with the original message and the rest is just pure fancy on the part of the viewer.

        If you could at least confirm that I can reason out the full and correct meaning of Braid without mistake and without having to dedicate to it the same level of time and effort as if I were writing my doctorate thesis then that would at least be something, though probably still not enough to encourage me to go through with it.

        I guess you’ll find this message disappointing, since you said you were disappointed that people didn’t understand Braid or got stuck on superficial meaning. I’ve found what I’ve seen of the story to be a bit depressing and it didn’t have a good enough hook to reel me in and get me to spend hours on end searching for clues and reasoning things out like I did with Harry Potter (on whether or not Snape really killed Dumbledor) and Bleach (on the issue of whether or not Urahara is a villain).

        • Jonathan Blow
          Posted February 10, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

          Well, look, if you read Paradise Lost, how do you know if your understanding of the story is complete and correct?

          If you look at the Mona Lisa, how do you know that your understanding is complete and correct?

          What exactly is a “complete and correct” understanding of a painting anyway? Does that even make sense?

          If your model of a good story is Harry Potter then we are just looking for different things. And that’s totally fine!

          • Lestibournes
            Posted February 11, 2013 at 4:13 am | Permalink

            Right now my favorite authors (present-day) are Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, and to a lesser extent Mike Resnick. However, their works are straightforward and didn’t give me much to think about, although I did enjoy contemplating the inconsistencies, mistakes, and wrong choices in the Mistborn and Captain Cole series.

            Maybe the reason why I’m talking this way about the story in Braid is that from the start I felt like the story was a puzzle to be solved, rather than “art”. Somehow comparing Braid to those works of fine art doesn’t seem right to me. It just doesn’t have the same kind of feel.

            “Art” usually means putting in a lot of hard work before getting to anything interesting, and on top of that the message and presentation are usually depressing. Then there’s more accessible art with subtle themes and messages. Somehow theres some elitist expectation for people to write an essay exploring each of these elements in detail and spelling everything out when they are already fully understood intuitively anyway. To me good art contains depressing elements but isn’t ruled by them, is clever, interesting, original, and doesn’t try to mask its deficiencies. It doesn’t make itself cryptic in order to pretend to be clever. It doesn’t rehash the same old concepts with a twist in an attempt to be original. It (more optionally) gets people interested with low-hanging fruit and then has some deeper things to explore. A poem that makes heavy use of references and metaphors because that is the best way to express itself is different than a poem that tries to be sophisticated by being hard to decipher.

            I studied Biblical poetry in high school. I wasn’t all that good at it. To me my greatest moment of epiphany was when a teacher took a poem that appeared to be a very simple, easy to understand, abstract prayer and showed through various references that it was actually talking about very concrete events and alluding to some hidden personal history. It didn’t matter that I didn’t discover this on my own. Just having the teacher go through the discovery process in front of me and show me how all the dots connect was already a great experience.

            Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t try so hard to create fine art. Don’t force it, but instead let it come naturally. That and I’m also taking the opportunity to vent. Sorry for the mess.

        • Nathan
          Posted February 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          Meaning is not something that an artist injects into a piece of work and then ships out across the world for everyone to understand and agree with. Meaning is constructed over time, by many people. The creator, the reader, the society in which the work is released, the time and language in which it is released… All of these things play their part in meaning-making and to say that there is a “full and correct” meaning of anything is asking a bit much…

          At the very most, one might be able to say that the collective ideas and interpretations of ALL of the interpreters of a piece of art is the “full and correct” meaning. (On a side note though, I don’t know if this is true… It might be the case that the people who ought to be constructing meaning are those who are taking the time to analyze and dissect the creation; on top of, of course, the creator him/herself.) If you are going to latch onto the idea that the “maker is always the master of meaning,” you’ll often be disappointed by works that ask you to think for yourself.

          Harry Potter and Bleach are just as open to interpretation as Braid, depending on the person looking into it. In your case, it seems that those two choices have drawn you in. For some reason, their messages (as perceived by you and whoever else you have discussed their meanings with) hit you in a way that drives you to look deeper. Just because Braid and modern art do not impact you in the same way as Bleach and Harry Potter, does not mean that they have less to offer. The fact that they didn’t “hook” you says only this: what hooks you is different than what hooks others.

          I have seen several instances in which an author and a reader are sitting down, discussing meaning. In some of these situations, the reader has gathered a sense of meaning that is actually better supported by the text than the author’s idea of its meaning. In the end, the two usually reconcile. The author appends his/her original idea of the work and the reader walks away with an understanding of the original intent. Both learn. Both grow.

          If you’re not willing to put in a bit of effort to come to a few well-founded conclusions (it is silly to hyperbolize the effort required to do so, as you did), then perhaps Mr. Blow ought not to explain his original intentions to you.

          • Lestibournes
            Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            You’re right. The reason I’m so agitated is because I wanted to be in the “in” crowd that understands Braid but was too lazy to figure it out myself. I looked it up online and saw something that fit well, but I wasn’t satisfied. I thought that there had to be a deeper or more hidden meaning. That doesn’t mean what I wrote was hypocritical. Those were my real thoughts that I’ve developed over exposure to various stuff. I just didn’t see any value in arguing both sides since it seems that “the other side” is what everyone here thinks anyway.

            I do value personal interpretations, but I put the original intent of the artist above everything else. Understanding that intent is what I now focus on when trying to understand anything, that, and trying to see what the artist did well, what he did poorly, and how I might have done things differently. Perhaps I’ve developed this approach due to my experience from reading or watching incomplete series, forming my own opinions and expectations, and then finding out I was wrong when the next chapter of the story is released.

          • Lestibournes
            Posted February 17, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

            Also I thought I understood Braid, but I felt that it was way too simple and so it had to have a deeper hidden meaning that would take a huge research effort to uncover since I’ve noticed to hint of it on the surface. Now after playing the last few levels again and thinking about it in the shower I’m thinking that maybe it is that simple, that I’ve already noted all the important points in my passing thoughts when I played it the first time, that the explanation I’ve read online really did put it all in order without missing out on anything major, and that all that are left to discover are minor points and side issues. But I think this should make my frustration more understandable, as it is based on the assumption that Braid is super difficult to understand since it can’t be so simple that I’ve already got it without even trying.

        • Brad C
          Posted February 14, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          Lestibournes,
          I have a few comments on your posts on this chain, but can’t reply directly to the final nested quote:

          To me art isn’t throwing paint on the wall and telling people to interpret it how they like, it’s successfully communicating a thought, feeling, or idea. If I have no way of knowing whether my understanding is correct then I might as well be looking at that random stain on the wall.

          This is also why I hate modern art. It’s like the joke about a guy who couldn’t afford to send his wife a telegraph, so he went over the senctence he was going to send, reasoned that each word can be inffered from another, and thus eliminated all but one of the words from the sentence. He then sent a one-word telegraph. Modern art is like taking that one-word telegraph and trying to expand it back into its original full sentence form, and the result is a sentence that has only one word in common with the original message and the rest is just pure fancy on the part of the viewer.

          First, “modern art” refers to art from the late 19th century to ~1970. “Contemporary art” is likely what you mean, however there are likely some artists you dislike who could fall into both categories.

          I believe it’s a fair statement to say appreciation for art (positive and negative) is something which increases as you experience individual growth through your own life experiences. It’s inevitable that every day you live, breath, eat, and interact with more and more people, your perspective of culture, ritual, language, music, games–creative expressions–change. This is even something Jonathan touches on in the interview.

          To be clear, I do not want to tell you that there is a “correct” way to interpret art, but let me provide an alternative point to the two examples you gave:

          “[Art] isn’t throwing paint on the wall and telling people to interpret it how they like…”

          -What if your reaction was the explicit purpose of the piece? Would that make the art “successful”? Does success at eliciting a specific reaction make the art “good”?

          “It’s like the joke about a guy who couldn’t afford to send his wife a telegraph (…) taking that one-word telegraph and trying to expand it back into its original full sentence form”

          -We will presume this joke was first told during the time telegraph was new. What does the idea of taking a paragraph of text and reducing it down to one word due to the cost of sending each word on the telegraph represent? How does this medium of communication relate to how humans communicated from the first homo-sapien (and hominids before) prior to this microscopically short period of our species existence prior the telegraph?

          The creative outpourings of any individual are by necessity going to be born from their reality, which is typically interpretation of specific idea or concept steeped in a specific place/culture/moment in time.

          This art or statement or whatever you want to call it may not be obvious, interesting, or well thought out. It may be an obvious/tired idea now and seem cheap because of it. A great example of this is Worhol’s work. I did not fully grasp the statement of the art until I saw an entire gallery of his work. A screen print of soup cans one could argue makes for poor art today, but what did this statement mean in 1962? What was happening in New York? What was happening in the the United States? Where was industry? What did people see as “real art” during that period?

          If you could at least confirm that I can reason out the full and correct meaning of Braid without mistake and without having to dedicate to it the same level of time and effort as if I were writing my doctorate thesis then that would at least be something, though probably still not enough to encourage me to go through with it.

          I do value personal interpretations, but I put the original intent of the artist above everything else. Understanding that intent is what I now focus on when trying to understand anything, that, and trying to see what the artist did well, what he did poorly, and how I might have done things differently. Perhaps I’ve developed this approach due to my experience from reading or watching incomplete series, forming my own opinions and expectations, and then finding out I was wrong when the next chapter of the story is released.

          I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself here. What many people (myself included) appreciated in Braid was not some epiphany of human philosophy, but the subtle genius of the game as a whole. In my opinion there isn’t a maxim or other statement in Braid. It’s the entire game which is the statement. There are things about Braid I don’t particularly care for–or feel like miss the mark–but those blemishes of the gestalt do not diminish it’s whole.

          What is the current state of popular gaming? How did Braid interact with the player? How did the player interact with Braid? Hell–were the puzzles fun?

          My answers to these questions are why I like it and will be looking forward to the release of the Witness.

          • Lestibournes
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

            By “modern art” I meant a type of art that was born mainly out of rebellion or attempt to differentiate rather than because it was good. Rebellion against what came before, and differentiation against it and photography by taking the opposite approach to realism just so as to try to compete with photography instead of producing the best representation of the idea period. To me this is very frustrating as it results in ugly paintings that don’t say anything that couldn’t have been said in a pretty painting. I do see merit in breaking the bonds or realism, since that may allow some ideas to be expressed more directly, but not when that’s all you do. The stuff about throwing paint on the wall and calling it art seems to have grown out of this. I also wanted to say that Rorschach tests aren’t art.

            The joke about the telegraph message is just a joke about a telegraph message. It isn’t an example of art.

            “[Art] isn’t throwing paint on the wall and telling people to interpret it how they like…”

            -What if your reaction was the explicit purpose of the piece? Would that make the art “successful”? Does success at eliciting a specific reaction make the art “good”?

            If the point of the piece is to elicit a specific reaction then I might call it art. If it does elicit that reaction then I’d call it successful. It’s a bit unfair to the viewer if he doesn’t know that his reaction is the message.

            I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself here. What many people (myself included) appreciated in Braid was not some epiphany of human philosophy, but the subtle genius of the game as a whole. In my opinion there isn’t a maxim or other statement in Braid. It’s the entire game which is the statement. There are things about Braid I don’t particularly care for–or feel like miss the mark–but those blemishes of the gestalt do not diminish it’s whole.
            As I’m talking and thinking about Braid here my opinion on it is changing. I still don’t see the entire game as a whole as a statement, but I can see how some of the story is tied together with the game. The reason I’m even bothering to write here is because I like Braid and Jonathan Blow.

          • Lestibournes
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

            I forgot to say something important:
            Thank you everyone for your words. So far I’ve learned a lot through this discussion.

  22. iqzulk
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    You are clearly wrong when you say the Riven had no core gameplay. Myst didn’t have it – that one I can agree with. Other Myst games didn’t have it – I can also agree with that. But Riven specifically DID have a distinctive core gameplay (it’s just extremely mechanical – I’l explain a bit further). And in RHEMs (1st and 3rd first and foremost) this core gameplay is made even more apparent (and to be perfectly clear, RHEMs are direct Riven clones gameplay-wise – which, by the way, don’t have any sort of eye-candy whatsoever, which instantly nullifies your argument about “Ultimately why anyone really likes any game in the Myst series is due to it’s atmosphere, setting and presentation.”).

    Now I will explain this core Riven/RHEM’s gameplay in as simple and apparent terms as possible, so there hopefully won’t be any misunderstanding whatsoever regarding that matter.

    1) First of all, there is a sprawling intricately connected ingame world which is basically a labyrinth (or a graph). In that labyrinth, there are numerous mechanisms, each one – with a simple straightforward effect on the nearby parts of the ingame world. We push the button – the door slides left. We push the button again – the door slides right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Couldn’t be simpler. There are dozens if not hundreds of such buttons/levers in the ingame world – each with its own effect on the outside world.

    2) We press a button. The door slides right. What are its effects of this state-change on an ingame world gameplay-wise? They basically boil down to only two categories. a) Movement: somewhere in the ingame world, a path which was previously closed becomes opened (positive change) or a path which was previously opened becomes closed (negative change). b) Visibility: certain previously concealed information becomes visible from a certain point of the ingame world (positive change), or a certain previously visible (from a certain point) information becomes fully concealed (negative change).

    3) Ambivalence. We press a button. The state of ingame world changes from A to B, which affect the number of movement and visibility options that player has in the ingame world. Let’s say that all the changes from A to B were positive. Then we don’t have any reason NOT to press a button. Let’s say they were negative. Then we are better off not pressing it. Let’s say there were some negative AND positive changes. Ooops.
    …The door slides down, closing the passage – BUT it has a useful diagram written on the other side…
    …The door slides right, opening the path in current corridor and closing the path in a corridor just behind that wall…
    …The elevator rides up, opening a hole in the ground with a ladder leading down…
    …The bridge rotates disconnecting north and south passages while connecting east and west ones…
    That sort of stuff.

    4) Combinatorics. What will happen if we multiply the amount of such ambivalent-effect buttons and levers hundred-wise? It will give birth to complex navigational puzzles with the necessity to think 4-5 “moves” ahead – that’s what happen. It will give birth to the situations when you carefully tune a dozen of mechanisms (while tinkering with which of those mechanisms for a 10th time since the beginning of the game) thus establishing an intricate looped pathway in a labyrinth – THEN you close a certain door (thus severing the loop) – and THEN you rush though that once-looped pathway, through the half of the labyrinth (possibly – tinkering with some mechanisms again on your way) in order to see, what’s written on the other side of that closed door. A couple of extremely simple and straightforward mechanisms build up to some extremely complex navigational puzzles and complex (without any hard limit other then level-designer’s imagination) combinatorics.

    5) Core gameplay. The core gameplay in Riven and RHEMs is as follows. You explore the labyrinth. You interact with its mechanisms and learn about their connections (mechanical or electrical connections, similar symbols, etc). Each of the mechanisms has a simple straightforward effect on the outside world. Then you start tinkering with the mechanisms, you start to question, whether you can combine some of them in such a meaningful way, that would allow you to see or access some previously concealed/closed parts of the outside world. That gives you access to the new information and new parts of the labyrinth (and thus, new mechanisms to play with). You progress in the game is ABSOLUTELY inseparable from your knowledge about what EXACTLY every mechanism does, under which circumstances and how exactly those mechanisms are connected. And that knowledge gives you the ability to solve those navigational puzzles. Drop the first RHEM halfway through the game, run it a month later from that save – and you can as well start from the very beginning (you won’t remember half the necessary stuff about the ingame world – thus you won’t be able to progress).
    Those buttons-bridges-levers-doors ARE basic mechanics of those games (as you move through the ingame world constantly using those mechanics), combining them in a meaningful way in order to solve navigational puzzles IS the core gameplay of such games (hence – EXPLORATION puzzle games). How is that less of a core gameplay than shooting guys in the face, while learning how to move properly and which threats to eliminate first? How is that less of a core gameplay than the gameplay Jon described when asked about Witness?

    By the way, about puzzles. Riven has only 3 major combination locks – and still is the most difficult game in the series. First RHEM has 5.
    And yes, I agree that Riven has a lot of other stuff that dilutes the aforementioned mechanics. And yes, I agree that its navigational puzzles aren’t nearly as complex as (for example) those required to solve the secret puzzle in RHEM3. But still, Riven has the most intricate in-game world compared to all the other entries in series (and most of so-called Myst-clones) – and the combinational-navigational mechanics are extremely apparent in that game and play an extremely major role in its overall gameplay. RHEM just makes those mechanics even more apparent (none of RHEMs contain anything that couldn’t be found in Riven, BTW).

  23. Posted February 8, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Jonathan,

    Great interview! Really inspiring and insightful. I feel like responding to many of your points but am not sure if putting them all into these comments is the right way.

    I also happened upon this recent DICE presentation by David Cage. I feel like his thoughts and desires for the industry are aligned with yours in numerous aspects. Have you seen the presentation? Do you have any comments on his theory and nine ways to improve?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Co8e37Pc-lw#!

    Seeing these two things in such a short period of time really gives me hope. I hope other developers see these and are inspired to create the kinds of games I, as well as you both, have been longing for.

    -Paul

    • Posted February 21, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      You sly dog! Here I am thinking I may have been a bit off to associate you and David Cage in the same sentence – while both innovative developers you seem to play in different spaces – and then you follow each other on tonight’s PlayStation presentation! What a shocker! (Hope you had a chance to chat a bit backstage ;-)

      Stunned, I thought you might debut some sort of indie game channel / social group for PS4, but no – debuting a trailer for The Witness instead! Easily, the highlight of my night!

      So, any thoughts on Sony’s big night?

      ~Paul

  24. Micah
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Oh I mistook you’re earlier statement about how “a better illustration may be needed” as if it was always possible illustrate every idea better without words. Which is why I felt it necessary to comment. It seems from your last comment though that you were just talking about the game Braid there, in which I wouldn’t need to make such a clarification. That’s actually all I have to say to end the topic you and I were originally discussing, but you got my brain thinking.

    My answer to those 2 ideas would be:
    The text doesn’t have to be understood, but it can also add depth and more fulfillment to the nonverbal experience. You could also make a game in a way where it’s a requirement to read text, but that is much more difficult to do where the player doesn’t feel like they’re being forced fed or are being stopped from playing. There are ways around this I’m sure, like audio recordings from a character/narrator as you do other things.

    2nd idea: Of course it can work, but it doesn’t have to be necessary either.

    As to the original argument: We’d have to then go into what we defined as a flaw. Even if Lestibournes is right and the story in Braid is indeed divorced from the game, which I don’t think it is at all when you look at each of the world’s time manipulation functions relative to the paintings that the puzzle pieces make up, but even if it was supposedly “divorced” who says it’s a flaw? Jonathan already pointed out how there isn’t only one correct way to do things. I also love how the whole story line in Braid is backwards just like it’s main interesting mechanic of time manipulation. A player could wisely note how you can never travel forwards into the future just like the main character can’t and is stuck in time with their obsession.

    Yeah I understand why Jonathan has no desire to explain Braid. It defeats the purpose of making it. He would be robbing us the satisfaction of discovering it for ourselves. Why would he spend so much time making puzzles both of mathematical and philosophical nature, if he just solved all of them for us?

    Hey, I enjoyed your thoughts Luke.

    • Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, and I enjoyed your thoughts as well. Once again, I agree with you.

      • Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and actually regarding “a better illustration may be needed” I was referring to illustrated children’s books, where if the picture isn’t clear enough to grasp what it depicts without reading the text, then you probably need to go back and redraw it.

        • sebastian
          Posted February 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

          I wonder if videogames have an equivelant to expositional dialogue in films. Dialogue is a perfectly acceptable thing in film, but blatant exposition is not.

          In the same way, I wonder if cutscenes are also a sign that you’ve failed to integrate your message properly into your game.

          Also, just like the illustration example here, where if you need to explain with text, then perhaps the illustration wasn’t good enough. (To be clear, I don’t consider Braid to fall into this category.)

  25. Pavel Rogozin
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan, a question.
    Before you, i read someone psychologist woman about not to do anything for the money.
    And she wrote.
    For example if i speak about something, and this is something was my live experience.
    For the true understanding what are you talking about – person with who you speaking must have the same experience. In some your interviews you talk that your first games have different motivation from when braid, and thats why you don’t finished any.
    So what are you talking about its only your experience, including about AAA games.
    You can tell this only because you have “bad” experience in past. And now you know how to not to do this bad things. (Sometimes filtering bad idias takes a lot of time)
    Am i right?

    If your motivation before Braid was not right, how do you feel yourself when you get money for your games or consulting. Its not true money, isnt it?

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      I do not understand what you are asking.

      If I had not gotten a substantial of money for making Braid, we would never have been able to make The Witness. So in that sense money is totally fine and is working as intended (people vote with their wallets, indicating they like something, they get another project like that).

      When I was young I used to feel like money was generally icky and evil. Now I don’t feel that way exactly. People are usually icky and evil *about* money, but money is just a thing like any other thing. It’s neutral. (The main way it’s different is that it is way more imaginary than what we consider physical things.)

  26. Posted February 9, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jon,

    I really enjoyed watching the interview. Thanks for your ideas!

    At one point you suggested that Bioshock can really only be considered meaningful or smart when considered against its own peers (i.e. other FPS games) and that if you were to hand the game to a monk who spends his time reading books he wouldn’t really value Bioshock the same way that the game industry does. Now, on the one hand, I understand and can appreciate the part of this argument that suggests that game developers should attempt to create games that are actually of great value and not just “good” with respect to their competition. However, I wonder whether the Give the Monk a Video Game Test is really a fair metric. To me it doesn’t seem impossible to conceive of great art that defies appreciation by the uninitiated. If you hand Inland Empire to the same monk (or a random reasonably educated person on the street, as you also suggested, and preferably one who isn’t an existing Lynch fan), will he or she see its worth? Now, I haven’t watched any of Lynch’s work yet, and perhaps I’m way off base here, so instead I’ll use another illustration that I know a lot about.

    I listen to a lot of heavy metal music. Please, bear with me. The real or imagined merits of heavy metal specifically aren’t really the important thing here. It’s only an example of a general concept. In any case, much of the music is extremely intense. My wife often asks me, “how can you listen to this?” Now, I totally understand why she asks me this question. It’s music that is designed to be difficult to appreciate. A friend of mine often describes the extreme metal listener’s relationship with the music as combative. It’s art from which any beauty to be found must be wrestled violently away from it. This is a gross oversimplification of the idea, but this might be enough to make the point. It doesn’t matter if it’s death metal or a Lynch film or Braid or what have you. I’m positing that, in many cases, there are elements that go into a piece of artwork, sometimes intrinsic to the specific form or media, that can be difficult to approach and engage with prior to becoming familiar with some of the characteristics of that form. And furthermore, the fact that it is so esoteric does not necessarily imply a failure of the art to be meaningful or valuable.

    Perhaps I’ve said enough already, and I apologize if I was too wordy. Again, I enjoyed the interview and hearing your thoughts about the subject, but I wasn’t quite sure if I agreed on every point, and I wanted to put my own thoughts out there in the off chance that you have time to read and respond. Thanks for your time.

    • Jonathan Blow
      Posted February 10, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      I agree that many things are not so accessible to newcomers. That is true of video games but it is not really relevant to the point I was making. My point is just that you can’t credibly describe a game like Bioshock, where you go around shooting tons of dudes, as being about morals or humanity or ethics. It is not about those things — it only can pretend to be, because it is at its core a shooter game. This is obvious to anyone who is not living inside the weird bubble of the video game world. The reason I brought up a monk is because that would be someone who does not live inside the bubble of video games.

      • Jackson Wagner
        Posted February 13, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

        I actually saw your talk “Design Reboot” before playing Bioshock . I totally agreed with many of the criticisms you made of the game (I thought it was ridiculous that players got equal rewards for saving vs harvesting, so I decided to ignore any loot from saving sisters that I might receive), but after playing it, I feel that while Bioshock is definitely broken in some ways, it is still a more integrated game than you gave it credit for.

        Lots of people talk up Bioshock as if it was all about the moral choice or the characters of the story. My view is that Bioshock is playing a tricker game than just straightforward exposition.

        The puzzles of Braid value clever and creative thinking, so over time the player will naturally begin to enjoy and crave the moments of insight and catharsis that accompany each solved puzzle. Bioshock values being good at shooting folks, scavenging resources, and upgrading skills –all things that make the player feel more powerful. So, as they play, the player learns to crave that feeling of power.

        Of course, almost all shooters and RPGs try to make the player feel powerful. But Bioshock is interesting because, while it is trying to make you long for power as much as possible, it is simultaneously trying to convince you that craving for power is super evil. The main story of Rapture tries to show us how Andrew Ryan’s way of life (accumulating influence and ability in the name of self-interest) is unsustainable and doesn’t lead to a good life anyways. After that, it casts Fontaine as the villian: much worse than Ryan, here is somebody who is has no values other than blind pursuit of all forms of power. (The same themes show up in other little ways, of course. And, all the while, the player is still getting more absorbed in shooting dudes, upgrading guns, and stocking up on supplies.)

        But, by the end of the game, the player is basically a carbon-copy of Fontaine. So all the evilness with which he is portrayed is really directed at the player: “Why are you so obsessed with this feeling of power? Why do you like playing these kinds of videogames? Look, if you follow this feeling, you’re just gonna end up living a nasty life until you ultimately get pushed off by somebody else even tougher than you! Even if you manage to get on top and be a super-powerful person that can impose their will on anyone, then what will your life be like? You’ll end up doing something like sitting on a nuclear submarine, alone, always threatening to pull the trigger (ie, the cutscene at the end of the game)…”

        So, sure, the gameplay and story conflict with each other. But they mostly conflict in an intentional way, designed to get the player to really feel the desire for power before slamming them with the consequences of chasing that desire, and ultimately to get the player to question why they like these kinds of games, to what extent accumulating power is an acceptable goal in real life, etc

        • Jacques Mastiff
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

          Although the core gameplay was based around action as well, Shadow of Colossus did use more of the visual aspects of game to get the message through and it did it much bettter.

          Bioshock will not cause the reflection because the decision is arbitrary. It doesn’t have a meaningful repercutions gameplay wise and thus won’t affect the player when he gets to know the fact. The issue is marketing-driven and is just a flavor, a way to make “shooting in the face” more appealing or a failed try to justify it.
          Abe’s Oddysee / Exoddus had more impact than this.

  27. Sean Boocock
    Posted February 10, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I really appreciated the interview. I hope that The Witness in its own small way helps change the landscape of games and the mainstream audience’s perception of them. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and realize that the industry missed its chance at mainstream adoption, reduced forever to retreading the same experiences that make significant money now.

    Best of luck with the final development push.

  28. George Bearpark
    Posted February 10, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been following this blog since around mid 2010 and haven’t been involved in posting in the comments section because I’ve always had so much to say and never thought I could get it all across in a few short (or even long) comments. I’m hugely excited for the game and am a very keen follower of yours in general (both in terms of Braid and the lectures you give). I won’t say I agree with you on everything (I think we differ when it comes to the basic principles and fundamentals of meaning) but regardless, I always find it a pleasure on an intellectual level to listen to you speak. But, the main point of this little comment is to mention that predominantly as a result of this blog I have been working on a development blog of my own. Not for a game (as much as I love games, I have no talent in them) but instead for a novel. I only just started it a few days ago, but I think it’s a nice idea and I haven’t seen anyone else do anything quite like it before (in terms of both the novel and the blog). Anyway. Sorry if people think this is plugging. But I personally would love to know if I had influenced someone. This is why I don’t comment, I’ve ranted on far too long! http://georgebearpark.wordpress.com/

  29. asdf
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    I said something stupid in the braid blog before it was released. Maybe it was good karma back then, and I should re-up.

    I love intelligent side scrollers like Oddworld.

    Keep up the good work. Most interesting game out there!!! 2013.

  30. Jukaman
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    Hello,
    first let me say I’m a huge fan of Braid.
    The Witness looks absolutely gorgeous. I was wondering, since it’s a first person exploration/puzzle game, do you plan to support upcoming Oculus Rift VR goggles? I think the game would be perfect for VR experience.

  31. Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    As a musician, I really appreciated your motivation to try to push the medium of games to higher levels. I deal with a similar issue trying to create a piece of work beyond disposable entertainment or TV commercial soundtrack. I got a lot out of your interview and I felt comforted in knowing that there are others out there who want more from what convention dictates. I will try my best to work hard and stay motivated in realizing my visions and creative expressions. Braid really captured my imagination and was an artistically and intellectually engaging experience for me. I am excited for your team’s next creation! Wishing you best of luck – may your bugs be few!!

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