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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow
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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow

December 6, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

How do you strike the balance then? Because while I understand exactly where you're coming from, the challenge is then trying to explain to your potential players why they should play this game when you're not willing to say what it is.

JB: Yeah.

You're kind of relying on your pedigree a little bit.

JB: A little bit is definitely walking a tightrope. For sure, as the game comes closer to completion, we're going to go around to the press and provide copies of the full game and let them play it and...

I don't know if we're just going to ask really nicely that they don't spoil these things. I don't have like... you know, someone like Ubisoft or EA who publishes a lot of games can say, "You know, we're embargoing this information and if you violate it we're gonna blacklist you." or something. I'm not a giant, fascist corporation like that, so I simply...


JB: Well, that probably will never be the way I do things. And so, you know, I just have to do it a different way and what... I'm still figuring out what that's going to be.

So with Braid, I think what you maybe tried to achieve was creating a few different worlds that worked under different rules to our reality and playing with that. With that in mind, what are you trying to achieve with The Witness?

JB: So the core idea of the game is exploration and puzzle solving, right? And puzzle solving itself is a kind of exploration, it's like a thought exploration; like, "What happens if I were to do this?"

There's a space in your mind that you're moving around and looking at a puzzle from different angles. But then both puzzle solving and exploration have this element of perception, right? Like for a puzzle you want to be aware of all the "What are the relevant things?", "Am I missing something?", "Is there something right in front of my face that I'm not seeing here?", right?

With exploration it's like that but it's kind of tuned in a different way. It's like, "Oh! I see something way out there! That looks really cool!", you know, "I want to go over there and explore that", right? So it's perception driving what I want to go do, so perception is at the core of the game.

And there's this idea of surprise where if you pay attention to something in the right way, whether it's solving a puzzle or something else, you may be surprised by what you find. And so, you know, like "a-ha" moments where in Braid... Braid had puzzles where, you know, they're just really simple, minimalist level design and there's not much going on and it's like, "I don't understand how I could ever get that puzzle piece up there because there's just not much for me to do."

And then people play with it a bit and then they're like, "Oh yeah, I get it now!", and it's something really simple that they just had to do. Those are the most magic kind of puzzles there.

And so taking that kind of thing, that little bit of epiphany and doing it in what I hope is a little bit deeper way, and closer to the everyday world by putting it in 3D -- being a world that's closer to the one we walk through everyday. So that's kind of the core of the game.

On top of that, supporting that kind of feeling and that kind of experience are more traditional game design elements; like, "Hey, here are puzzles that you solve. Here are objects that you can manipulate." and whatever. But those puzzles that you solve and the objects that you manipulate are not the core point, they're just ways of getting there.

From what I've seen of the game so far, it's not very prescribed to the player; you're just exploring and discovering. Even though Braid was couched in the story, it was still very much like that. You were kind of just dumped there, and then tried to feel out the boundaries and rules of the game through trial and error. You seem attracted to that way of doing things. Why is that?

JB: Part of it may be as simple as that's just my personal style. Actually, certainly The Witness is more non-linear than Braid. Braid was structured sort of as a traditional left-to-right platformer with some non-linearity... like, you can choose to walk right by things if you don't want to, and then sometimes the levels would open up and you could pick which ones you want to go to. When you're playing it, you kind of know what the preferred route for things is, right?

In The Witness, it's much more like... I mean, the actual gameplay is nothing like Fallout 3, but it's something like that where there's just this big world. And once you gotten out of the training steps area, you have total freedom to go where you want and to pursue the ideas that you want to pursue. That, for this game, certainly that has something in common with Braid.

And for this game, it has something to do with those themes that I was talking about earlier, about perception, right? If you're going to make a game that's about perception and about surprise, then people have to be free to look at something, or not to look at something, or to go somewhere, or not to go somewhere.

If you're doing a very linear style game, like if I'm doing a first person shooter like through corridors all the way to the end of the game, I don't really have that much choice about what I'm doing. So there can't be this kind of mechanism where I get an idea to do something that isn't obvious and then I do it and it pays off in a way that wouldn't have been obvious.

Because with those games, the player has to know what they're doing at all times or they're stuck. So it just allows for a different kind of mental space to happen. I don't feel like that was a very good explanation, but... it's what I got for you right now.

Okay, so looking at Fallout 3 as an example, you do step out of the vault and then you've got freedom, but at the same time you've got a core storyline. You can visit all these offshoots, but you still kind of know what you've got to do. How are you going to communicate that kind of that main path through your game? NPCs?

JB: There's nobody that you talk to in this game. There is right now a story, and I use that word very loosely, which you find audio recordings, like you might in a game like BioShock or something like that. So there are characters involved in this scenario that you're in, but you don't meet them.

And aside from production values and requiring a lot more money to do characters well, interacting with live characters is really not what this game is. It's about the opposite of that, it's about being in a kind of an alone, isolated space. So I wanted this feeling that people had been there, but they're gone now. And who were they, and why are they gone, and why are you here, and are you going to leave, right? That feeling of loneliness in a beautiful space.

So there is a kind of like through line of a story-ish theme, but it's very non-linear. You might find elements of it in a different order than another player might, and so you put them together in your mind possibly in a way that's influenced by the order which you found them, and that might make it different from what somebody else puts together.

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