Video games are essentially systems that output answers to the questions that a designer feeds into them, and we need to learn to better listen to those answers. So said Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and the forthcoming The Witness at a Gamasutra-attended lecture delivered at GDC Europe today.
"Contemporary game design is so often about dictating, rather than listening," said Blow. "Before Braid I believed the game designer's role was to have an idea and, through code and assets, seek to bring that original idea into being."
"However, Braid and The Witness have taught me something different to that," he continued. "Designing to a preconceived high concept is a process of presupposing the answers to the questions posed by a game system. We are not then letting the system do its job, or express itself to its full potential. "
Blow explained that he was "getting at a design philosophy that is rarely seen at the moment. ... Usually at events like GDC you hear about the 'Seven Steps to Design a Game,' lectures that teach how to configure games into a structure that allows you to iterate and make the design better," he said.
"I'm proposing a different way of looking at game design," he continued. "It's no longer about creating something from nothing. It's about sailing a ship on a journey of discovery. This analogy still allows for the role of authorship, as you can have captains that steer ships in very different ways. There are still many authorship decisions in this process."
Blow gave numerous examples of this metaphorical journey from his experience creating Braid, which he called "a fascinating development experience."
"It became very clear that more ideas came out of the development process than I put into it as a designer," he said. "It was more like discovering things that already exist than it was to putting themselves together arbitrarily. Which is another way of saying: this is a game that designed itself."
"I did have an authorial hand in creating the world," Blow admitted. "For example, I chose the fiction, what it looked like, the nuances of how the world behaved. But my role was knowing what questions to ask of the system."
"The question I asked right at the start of the process was: 'What happens if I gave the player the chance to rewind time in an unlimited way?' I asked that question in code and then watched what happened. There was stuff that came out of that which could not have been foreseen. The answers were not generated by me. I instead had a curator role, cleaning up the answers and presenting them in such a way that they could be enjoyed by the players of the game."
Blow explained the feeling he got by uncovering a game that, in some ways, already existed. "As I saw the rules of the game unfold, I felt like I was piecing together truth," he said. "This wasn't something I was making up or concocting. I don't know how to concoct truth."
Blow was quick to point that the techniques he was talking about are easily applied to more conventional games. "If you drill down far enough into any mechanic you will eventually strike a fundamental truth of our universe that the game designer did not create," he pointed out. "The key is to brainstorm around these basic ideas, to refuse to be satisfied with the first level of ideas and choose to dig deeper in order to find novelty and innovation."
"As games designers this is a power that people working in other mediums don't have," Blow said in conclusion. "We can build systems and then listen to those systems in order to arrive at our creation. You can become a very effective designer this way."