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The Witness: Modeling epiphany Exclusive
 The Witness : Modeling epiphany
June 6, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

June 6, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

Jonathan Blow's Braid is widely thought of as one of the games, if not the game, that launched a perceived golden age of independent game development, rocking the previous console generation. Profiled in Indie Game: The Movie as one of three of the movement's most visible creators, Blow became a kind of royalty.

Reserved and enigmatic, he doesn't wear that high profile or its associated judgments and expectations comfortably. His next game is The Witness, and it's about being alone on an island, solving puzzles in apparent solitude.

I imagine he must be under enormous pressure as such a well-known creative, especially as he's funded the development of the game himself -- I call him on Skype across a seven-hour time distance to ask him about this, and make a 'sophomore album' reference that I instantly regret.

"I don't really think about it that way," he tells me. "I have a long history in game development. I've done a lot of things that I think were interesting, although there is a certain way in which Braid was my first game doing things a certain way. I don't worry about making something good, because it's already good, and we just have to finish it."

"It's already better than Braid was, in my opinion," he adds. "It's so much more vast, and rich, and full of things, whereas Braid was a much smaller game, and I would say there's more design maturity in The Witness."

Speaking of maturity, six years ago, I was a newer writer. I remember that Jon Blow frightened me, in a sense, being one of the first game-makers I'd encountered in my young career who refused to 'sell' his product to me. He eludes the quests we are trained to perform for tidy quotes, pat explanations. You would ask him what Braid means and he would reply, "well, what do you think it means," an unheard-of approach to a press corp accustomed to acting as a mouthpiece for the developer's message.

He made me nervous. He still does, just a little. These days I know myself well enough to understand that I often play video games because I want solution, satisfaction. Jon Blow builds awe instead. In an article about a card game, I recently wrote that I think "maturity" means the desire to chase things that frighten you.

I ask him what maturity means.

"It feels like Braid was an early exploration of some ideas, and The Witness is a later exploration of some ideas that builds on the earlier exploration, with greater sophistication," he says. "You put something out there, and people respond to it the way they're going to respond. And regardless of what you want, that's what happens. If you're going to make things, you're hopefully at peace with that process, and if you're not, you're in for trouble."

"Definitely, to me, the game is about very specific things, and I hope people understand many of those things," he says. "But I'm content to let the game speak for itself; as soon as the game comes out I don't want to go on some lecture circuit saying 'here is what the game's about'. I'd much rather be making things."

"I don't worry about making something good, because it's already good, and we just have to finish it."
What is The Witness about, I ask. I mean, I probably manage to get the question out somehow.

"It depends on who's asking," Blow replies. "I try not to have a stock answer; I try to understand where somebody's coming from. If it's somebody from a press outlet that is not that familiar with games, then I'll say it's about exploration and paying attention to your environment, and doing things that most games usually don't do in terms of trying to use the basics of the medium to their maximum potential. Whereas someone more familiar, I might get into something more specific, here are the puzzles, here are the examples."

The way he talks about games, then, hasn't changed on a surface level since we spoke about Braid those years ago. The increase in his perceived celebrity since then hasn't changed much about his life, he says, but it's made it more challenging for him to be in conference spaces, where people recognize him and want to schmooze. "I'm not really the personality type that wants to do that," he says evenly. "I'll just stay with a couple of friends, behind the scenes."

"That's the most concrete way in which my life has changed. If anything, I work harder on games than I did in 2007; that's not really different. I'm spending all my money on this -- in fact, I have spent all my money on this last game, so I'm not, like, travelling in yachts or taking trips to space."

Blow built Braid with artist David Hellman about 30 hours per week, mostly collaborating remotely. The Witness' team, on the other hand, had 14 or 15 members at its peak, casting Blow as team manager. He says most of his collaborators have traditional backgrounds, primarily to suit The Witness' 3D art-heavy, open first-person world -- he works with technically-ambitious people who perhaps have longed for a creative outlet.

The Witness

Painterly Braid had its elements of technical sophistication -- the fluidity of its rewind mechanic and how that integrated with the game's puzzles hasn't been seen to be successfully repeated since.

"But even though it had that, it was something that could be handled by one person," Blow says. "When I set out to make Braid, I was trying to avoid technical sophistication; I wanted a project that was tractable in scope, that I could finish. It was obvious that The Witness was going to be a bigger game, and as soon as you say that, it's probably more than one person can do."

"I don't want a giant game company," he clarifies. "When companies grow big fast, you get a lot of mediocrity and badness. My model is to keep the team very small, and just do a lot."

I ask Blow about game design as practice -- a consistent application of oneself to something on a daily basis. He says his 2011 IndieCade talk with Marc Ten Bosch helps highlight many of the things he finds interesting about design practice, "but the real thing is subtler than that: there aren't rules, as I always say."

"It's weird; in game design I really value clarity, and in fiction, I don't. I think clarity is often boring."
"I like games that ask something of the player, that have faith the player is a smart person that is interested in what games are doing, that don't manipulate the player," he says. "Those don't sound like techniques of game design, they sound like general philosophy... that turns into technique really fast, because you start saying, 'what should I do in this particular case'."

Another element he calls primary is the ability to see one's game through the eyes of the person playing it, and not only as someone who knows the game inside and out. "It's a super important skill, and it helps determine every kind of decision that you make."

The Witness began with one magical moment, a gameplay idea that came to him that he began building toward, implementing the space wherein that moment could occur. To share that moment would be a massive spoiler, but learnings from Braid and his own general aesthetics very quickly came together to shape the developing idea.

"I had most of the idea for the game immediately, in terms of what it is and how it works," he says. "I have goals for what it feels like, and I can say what those are, but whether or not any particular player feels these, I don't know... so first of all it's quiet and contemplative. And there's a feeling of ... deliberateness to the environment."

"There's not anything random," he continues. "When you see something in a certain place, it feels intentional, and it gives a feeling of focus to the entire place. when something catches your eye, you feel like it was meant to catch your eye in that way. And that... when you're in an environment for a while and that's consistently true, I think there's a feeling that this place is nice, in a certain way."

The Witness

The Witness' environment aims to diminish "mental noise" -- "we don't have to shine spotlights on things, because they don't stand out unless we mean for them to stand out," Blow says. "Even doing that effectively requires being able to look at the game from the eyes of someone who is coming to it for the first time. You have to sit in that place of looking at the screen, and noticing what's calling to your attention. Sometimes as a designer you say, 'wow, this one thing we built actually isn't as meaningful to the gameplay or story or whatever as it appears to represent itself as visually.'"

I ask about The Witness' story, whether it's abstract narrative or strongly plotted. "There's something in between, and I'm still deciding where the dial is going to land," he replies. "There's a specific story of what's happening, and how much of that we're going to explicitly say. It's weird; in game design I really value clarity, and in fiction, I don't. I think clarity is often boring."

Like many adults who've spent a significant share of their lives in the games space, Blow says his interest in new games is increasingly rare ("I really liked these games, that are free, called Heroes of Sokoban," he notes). And despite being crowned mostly against his will as a sort of poster child for the "indie scene," Blow feels like he doesn't belong.

"I'm not really in the 'independent gaming scene,'" he says, when I ask him what he thinks of the state of the market. "I think a lot of indie developers don't like me anyway, because I'm very critical... people probably perceive it in a negative way, but I honestly say what I think about games, and I honestly say if i think something is good or not, and why."

"I'm not really in the 'independent gaming scene'... I think a lot of indie developers don't like me anyway, because I'm very critical."
Blow says he turns the same critical eye on his own work, a principle he feels is important to success. "You want to turn off that instinct to see your baby as beautiful, just because it's your baby," he says. "But the thing about the indie 'scene' -- it wasn't ever a 'scene' when I was starting out, and now it is, with all the things that that entails."

He says the desire to feel good about one's life, participate in a community and pursue social validation don't necessarily go hand in hand with challenging oneself to produce one's finest work. I ask him why he makes games, what he gets out of it; he tells me it's hard to say.

"When I was a kid I just really loved to play them," he reflects. "That develops into something, at some point. I don't think that's very different from most fields."

I have one more question, I tell Jonathan Blow. He's said the answer to the question "what's The Witness about" depends on who's asking. So. If I, I say, were to ask you what The Witness is about, what would you tell me.

He answers almost meditatively; I feel like I'm entering an instance of a world that was made only for me. I will psychoanalyze it later.

The Witness

"The Witness is about modelling the feeling of epiphany with great care," Blow says. "We set up a simplified version of the real world, as all game worlds are, and we tried to make this one very simple and clear in order to create very strong instances of this realization. You're trying to figure something out, you don't know how to get somewhere... so like many puzzle games, you'll be thinking about something, and you'll be stuck and you don't know what to do. You have no idea."

"Maybe you take a break or you go to sleep and wake up, or take a shower, go to the store and while you're reaching for the cat food at the store, suddenly something happens in your mind where you understand exactly what that was about, what was going on," he explains. "The clearer and simpler the puzzle is, the more beautiful and strong that feeling of epiphany can be."

"And the more that a puzzle is about something real and something specific, and the less it's about some arbitrary challenge, the more meaningful that epiphany is. Because it's about something: Not just an arbitrary set of moves, but 'oh -- I see light and shadows behave in a way I didn't think about before. I didn't see it, because it was so simple.'"

I will psychoanalyze it later, I insist. Probably when it's 3:00 AM and I'm writing this article while I can't sleep and am worried about the future and would like to go someplace free of mental noise, someplace that feels nice.

"The subjects of the puzzles in The Witness are the same kinds of things that happen in the real world, but simpler," he adds. "So the kinds of epiphany situations that you have, have some analogy in the real world, even if it's faint. It's about that connection."

Yeah, I'm thinking, as the insomniac night turns to inky dawn and I realize I've missed my chance to sleep through the night again. That sounds pretty good.

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Sjors Jansen
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We could use a bit more criticism imho.
Not saying everything always needs to be criticized.
But a while ago, I asked a game journalist for a critical opinion, and she felt like she had to start out with a disclaimer even though I mentioned I had thick skin as an experienced developer (and the points she made weren't harsh at all).
It could of course just be courtesy, but it makes me think a lot of developers can't take criticism at all. If you ask somebody "What do you think?" you can't get mad if you don't like their answer right? :)
Perhaps it's a good idea to look at how graphic artists criticize each others' work and learn from that? They seem to handle it well.

Fabian Fischer
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I think it's because professional game design is a very young field. Many things are still mysterious to us, because we've not quite figured them out yet. Moreso of course for the not so "design-minded". That's why we have these vague and anti-progress ideas floating around of "everything's valid if someone likes it". Ideas completely disregarding the variety of reasons for "liking" something. It's not always a good thing to "like". And it certainly doesn't always have to do something with games specifically, even if it's a "video game" someone's liking.

We see a lot of anger against people who openly critisize _anything_ basically. We always see answers like "Who are you to say what's good/fun/abusive ?" etc. They're of course invalid, because they're not tackling the arguments, but the person behind them. But still, they show how most people quickly jump to kind of a "defensive stance" and don't accept any criticism whatsoever.

I deeply appreciate Jonathan Blow's mindset. Although I do not always agree with his solutions, I highly value his critical analysis of the industry and game design in general. For those who want to know what that's all about (and maybe learn some new things in the process): search YouTube for his talks on "Video Games and the Human Condition" or "Game Design: The Medium is the Message". Good stuff that'll make you quesion and probably critisize a lot of things. Or, if you're already doing that, it'll maybe strengthen your position by providing you with some additional arguments or perspectives.

CE Sullivan
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I think the problem is when criticism is based on "like" or "don't like" and not on objective analysis. I played the demo version of Braid, but I didn't like it enough to buy the game. Same for Fez. Both were probably great games from a design standpoint, they just weren't games that particularly appealed to me. I think we need to recognize the difference between what we like and "good game design." "Everything" might not be good game design, but I do think that if a game is liked by someone other than the designer, something probably went right somewhere, whether or not you can immediately identify it.

Fabian Fischer
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Sure. But one thing to keep in mind in regards to, especially modern, video games is that they're not always liked because of their interactivity to begin with. You said "something probably went right somewhere" when someone likes something. That's true. However, the game design could still be extremely bad. It could be nothing but hot air in terms of interactivity. And it could still be likable for reasons totally disconnected from that: graphics, story, sound effects, music, compliments, whatever.

So, not only do we have to discern our subjective opinion from objective criteria, but we also have to discern game design from other disciplines involved in the making of many video games these days.

Ian Custer
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Proper criticism and games journalism are like oil and water. Games journalism has almost always been thinly veiled advertising, and most game journalists aren't really expected to contribute anything more thoughtful than "this was a fun game" (Gamasutra is, of course, an exception to the rule). There are some people trying to break out of that (Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb, for instance), but by and large the industry looks at games more like commodities than works of creative expression.

Albert Thornton
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I'm curious to know where you see 'proper criticism'. All criticism falls into one of two camps:

1. A statement of the critic's personal subjective opinion of the content
2. An attempt by the critic to use the content to justify their personal social agendas

Both are nonsensical.

Criticism by anybody not directly involved in the creative process is, quite literally, a zero-value profession.

Michael Joseph
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absurd. consumers of a work are critics of the work... otherwise we're zombies & drones or something less than human.

Don't tell me you've never shared an opinion about a song, movie or book you've read or a four course meal you ate at a fancy restaurant? Don't tell me you've never read a movie or game review?

When it comes to subjective opinions and personal social agendas, I don't see how a creative work like a film or game is fundamentally different than a critique. Criticisms are opinions (like the one you just offered) and are often given as part of a larger conversation comprised of many different opinions. I know you don't think personal expression and the exchange of ideas is a zero-value profession or you wouldn't have bothered to make a comment.

As for the two camps:
1) it's clearly possible to give objective criticism to certain aspects of a creative work, but the value or weight that is applied to any objective components of the work is obviously subjective. But some level of objectivity has to exist or there'd be no way to evaluate talent and skill. But I think criticism\opinions\argument\conversations are a requisite for the formalization of the arts. Maybe you think that is a luxurious past time, but it's what people do.

2) there's nothing necessarily nefarious or wrong about explaining one's feelings about a work from the point of view of one's own politics, philosophies, beliefs or aesthetics. If that's inherently wrong, then the entirety of humanity is wrong and nonsensical.

For me, a critic only crosses the line into the realm of "improper criticism" when their criticism is disingenuous or otherwise lacking integrity. And that is the same test I apply to the producer of any creative work.

Simon Jensen
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Criticism may be a subjective opinion, but if the person giving that opinion is a person with extensive depth of experience and knowledge in the subject matter it's not a zero-value contribution.

On the other hand, we're seeing more and more people who ARE involved in the creative process utterly incapable of contributing proper criticism, simply because they're part of the creative process and are unable to take an objective look at the content or for fear of alienating their peers or idols .

Ian Custer
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The value of criticism is this - it draws attention to aspects of a medium that would otherwise go unnoticed. In understanding them, we're able to gain a deeper appreciation of the medium as readers (or viewers or whatever), or make better choices about what we put into our work as creators. Without feedback, input becomes meaningless.

Michael Joseph
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@Ian Custer
Thanks for that. You did a better job of responding to the claim "critics add nothing to a creative work" which in retrospect is probably closer to what Albert Thornton was trying to convey. I originally only saw something like "critics are self serving parasites." Deeper appreciation indeed. :)

Duncan X
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Myst gameplay. Myst atmosphere. Even looks like the island from Myst. But you know...I loved Myst...I'll play it.

Polly Feemus
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- "The Witness is about modelling the feeling of epiphany with great care," Blow says.

As witnessed by words like "awesome" and "literally", we live under the ever-present danger that our words become devalued through over-use and mis-use.

An "epiphany" is the feeling you get when are suddenly strike by an important realisation, a realisation that transforms your understanding of the situation - a realisation that has important scientific, religious or philosophical consequences.

Now to say that you experience "epiphany" when you solve a puzzle in a computer game - well... is that really the right word? I can imagine you might feel a release of tension. You are now free to explore the island a bit more, and perhaps solve another puzzle, and another... - but to say that you feel an "epiphany"...

What next? Will we have game developers saying that their first person shooter is trying to model the experience of "enlightenment"?

Does anybody else feel a little uncomfortable?

Albert Thornton
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This is really just the result of fawning 'journalism'. Gamasutra's staff likes Blow - they're constantly promoting him as an indie star - and thus will let him engage in all the flower-talk he wants.

I have nothing against Blow, but as six years of the current President have shown, a fawning press corps is not just embarrassing. It's harmful.

Sjors Jansen
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I believe the puzzles might be abstract representations of real-life concepts. I haven't played the game or anything, but I think epiphany here alludes to the player mentally drawing the line from a puzzle inside the game to a bigger concept in reality. Like a-ha! now I know what it represents!
I could be mistaken though..

Ian Custer
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What's wrong with modeling an experience like epiphany or even enlightenment? Herman Hesse did it to great effect in his book Siddhartha. Who else is attempting this kind of thing in games? I personally would like to see more of it - it expands the scope of stories that games can interface with as a medium.

Shawn Clapper
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Looking at the history of any language shows this is just how it is. Words always change meaning, and then we invent new words to fill in the blanks. Just like how curse words that were once harsh are now common words and new curse words came in to give us "harsh" words again.

Dave Hoskins
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This 'epiphany' he's talking about is the fundamental to ALL games!
Take the millions of Hidden Object and Adventure games on the App Store, and they are full of mini serotonin boosting moments. And that Flappy Birds game, each barrier past is another little achievement award in the user's brain.
This is nothing new, it's actually a fundamental to gaming.
Perhaps they could use the word 'epiphanette' instead? :)

Craig Schwab
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This strikes me as a fluff piece intended to preserve the narrative that Jonathan Blow is some kind of genius and to cater to interviewee's undeservedly inflated ego. It seems like the writer came into the article with a good sense of the real story, but then allowed herself to be intimidated by Blow and let him control the direction of the story, which his only real talent.

Jonathan Blow did not change the world of gaming and never will. I'm fairly certain that most people who tout Braid as a genius work of art have actually only played through the demo. In reality, it's a decent game that makes minor improvements on the Prince of Persia: SoT mechanics, with a story that reads like a middle schooler's journal and ends in an M Night Shyamalan type twist. Arguably, the game actually owes its success to Microsoft pushing the game in a marketing strategy intended to highlight their cooperation with indie game makers, and then game critics being pushovers and buying into & disseminating the campaign material. Additionally, at the time Microsoft still had a long way to go in providing downloadable content through the Xbox store, and Braid had few games to compete with.

People don't like Jonathan Blow, but it's not because he's critical. It's because he's a nasty person, his minimal contributions are overrated, and he's a yuppie who looks down his nose at everyone else & insults anyone who has the audacity to disagree with him as being stupid and narrow-minded. We all know the a-holes who only know how to build themselves up by tearing other people down, and Jonathan Blow is a prime example. Calling him "critical" is a drastic understatement- he craps on the hard work, contributions, and tastes of any creator who isn't friendly with him and part of the hipster indie-game scene, and in return only offers vague college sophomore level philosophy as solutions. No one calls him on it because they've accepted the narrative of Blow as an insightful genius and allowed him to rest on his laurels.

When the Witness fails to live up to its hype, I'm sure we'll hear plenty about how it's the audience's fault for not being refined enough, and just not "getting it." Jonathan Blow is terrified of releasing this game, because it's going to shatter the narrative that's been built around him.

I'd like to see a journalist with guts interview him, that won't allow themselves to be intimidated. There's some good questions to be asked here. Given the failures of the previous three Myst games, does he really believe that there remains an audience for this type of game? Why did he scrap the writer's original story in favor of Braid-style ambiguous anecdotes reflecting his own life and insecurities? Is he afraid that a more specific and less ambiguous story would leave him open to harsher criticism (because the ambiguous story elements come off more as a defense mechanism)? Given how critical he has been larger game studios, does he feel any sense of conflict in using the same type of marketing gimmicks and hype building techniques, and in relying on pre-orders & day-one sales to make a game successful?

Michael Joseph
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"We all know the a-holes who only know how to build themselves up by tearing other people down..."

yes. we do.

Michael Ball
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It says a lot when you attack his character and not his argument, Michael.

Paul Furio
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Tell us how you really feel.

Daniel Cook
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Tino, is that you? I admit my main thought while reading this was "It seems like a life goal to be interviewed by Leigh Alexander."

Michael Joseph
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@Michael Ball

I'm not attacking his character so much as pointing out the irony (or blatant hypocrisy) of his statement given the content of his rant. Perhaps you didn't realize I was quoting him? He was doing exactly the type of thing he claimed to be against. That inconsistency was there whether anyone explicitly pointed it out or not.

Pallav Nawani
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Braid *is* an awesome game.
There is nothing quite like it that I have seen.

jaime kuroiwa
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For those comparing this game to Myst: Was comparing Braid to Super Mario Bros or the Prince of Persia reboot a valid criticism? It's almost impossible to take a non-linear approach to narrative without looking like Myst in some way.

Even if this does turn out to be a Myst clone in the end, it's about time someone paid tribute to a great game instead of cashing in on the latest gameplay trend.

Mathieu Brassard
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The colors and models are so clean and beautiful! Great job!

Thomas Happ
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I see why Leigh Alexander has a policy of never reading the comments. Anyway, I didn't get the picture that Blow is an egomaniac or whatever. On twitter he's positively reserved compared the the whirlwind of constant drama that's always going on there.

Artur Moreira
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I've read above about Blow being a egocentric bastard and all that.. Besides watching Indie Game: The Movie, I have absolutely no idea what/who Jon is like, can someone point me actual material to read on why he is so bad?

More on topic; Indeed it seems like there is some kind of Blow-worshiping cult going on in the so called indie scene.. Still, Braid was a pretty interesting game. I can't say I am the biggest fan but I recognize his merit and work on it (of course, if he actually did the thing himself..). On The Witness, I have no idea what to expect, but I believe there is 99% chance I will not like it at all from what I've seen. Still in love the visuals tho, they instantly convince me the game looks awesome and will definitely try to implement that kind of graphics myself one of these days :D