“A Higher Standard” — Game Designer Jonathan Blow Challenges Super Mario’s Gold Coins, “Unethical” MMO Design And Everything Else You May Hold Dear About Video Games

This post requires some extra focus on the part of the reader — partially because it is several thousand words long (!) — but I assure you it is worth it.

In fact, this post may forever change the way you think about games. And it’s not because of anything I did.

For starters, I have two quotes for you all to read.

The first, referring to the later worlds of an upcoming video game: “I think that a lot of people feel like the point of life is to be happy, or comfortable, or something like that, whereas I am highly suspicious of those things. All other things being equal I like being happy, but the problem is, all other things are not equal — probably happiness comes at a cost, possibly a great cost. I think this idea is very important in the background of the fiction, most solidly around worlds 5 and 6.”

The second: “If you think a game is ’Madden 2008,’ then hey, games probably aren’t art.”

Are you intrigued? Have you just read the thoughts of a kindred soul? Or have you just read something that makes you angry?

The quotes are from Jonathan Blow, the enterprising developer of the upcoming PC (and console?) game “Braid.” I first met him and played his game — both briefly — at Game Developer’s Conference 2006, where his game won the design innovation award.

Since that GDC I’ve wanted to play more of his time-warping side-scroller, and this weekend I did. I also wanted to talk to Blow more, and over the last 24 hours he not only let me, but showed me a generosity I’ve rarely seen in interview subjects. Via an e-mail interview — a format I generally dislike — he bared not just the history of “Braid” but, I think, a good deal of his soul as a game designer and as a person.

If the quotes above intrigued you, I strongly suggest you print the rest of this post out and give it a thorough read. While I excerpted from my exchange with him in my GameFile column at MTVNews.com (where I also explained a couple of the game’s levels), it’s really best for you to read his full, unedited thoughts on everything from his disappointment with “TimeShift” and the “unethical” design of most MMOs to his abandoned concepts for “Braid” and his fascinating vision for what games can be.

That last bit came in reference to a question I posed about his dislike of the name of the online gaming publication “The Escapist.” If you’re pressed for time, do a search and read that one. Trust me.

The interview begins after the jump.

(All images in this post are part of “Braid” screen-shots — world art by David Hellman; character by Edmund McMillen. Click them to see more of the game. And go to Jonathan’s site for more on the game.)

Me: Having played preview builds of “Braid” and “Everyday Shooter” in the last week — and having read the very personal creator’s notes attached to each — I’ve been thinking about how personal or impersonal games are, as they relate to the gamers who play them. What’s your take on this and on how gamers these days relate to or understand the creative vision of the games they play? Is the current situation one you think can or should change?

Jonathan Blow: About gamers these days and what they are thinking, I’m not sure. With those of us who have been in the industry for a while, it helps to be honest with ourselves that we are pretty far-separated from the viewpoint of the typical gamer. So I can’t exactly know what the general perception is about the creative vision of games, but my guess is, people don’t think that games are generally created with much of a vision at all. For me, the very existence of the “are games art?”argument is proof of this. It’s obvious — of course games are art! The entire argument just seems ridiculous to me. But it doesn’t seem ridiculous if you don’t have a certain kind of mental model about what a game is, and about the role of the creators’ vision in that. If you think a game is “Madden 2008,” then hey, games probably aren’t art.

I don’t want to get on the “modern game industry sucks” rant wagon, but that’s really a big part of the issue. When you’re gunning for the big bucks, you pursue craft, not art. So most of what gamers see is just craft. Sometimes it’s really good craft. But these days I don’t tend to have a negative attitude about the modern game industry; I just observe it as the natural evolution of things, and know that if creative expansion is going to happen, it needs to be brought by determined individuals, who aren’t too worried about money. Well, I can be one of those individuals, sure.

Definitely I think that older games, say from the 1980s, were often more personal, and I miss that aspect.

To name another indie game, “Space Giraffe” has a nice aspect of personal-ness — it becomes clear very quickly that it is what it is because that’s just what Jeff Minter wanted to do. Not because he felt such-and-such was the right way to conform to some notion of what games are, or appeal to certain demographics and sell a lot of copies. He just did what he felt like. It’s very refreshing to see that in another soon-to-be-sold-commercially game.

Me: Please tell me more about the making of Braid. I was wondering when you started it, what your initial idea was, and how the development of the game has fit into your daily routine.

JB: I started “Braid” in December 2004; I was on vacation in Thailand, and I get really inspired on trips, so I made a prototype of the game. It took about a week to make, and I sent it to my friends and they liked it. In mid-April 2005 I started developing the game for real; by December 2005 the first version was done as a complete game (it had the same number of worlds and puzzles in it as the current version).

However, all the graphic art was placeholders, and it looked extremely amateur. But, I felt that this was the right way to develop the game — I wanted to focus on the gameplay and make sure it was good, and the graphics could come later. This is the version of the game that won the [Independent Games Festival] game design award at the GDC in 2006.

Over the course of the game’s development I had many false starts trying to find a good “artist” (graphic artist) for the game. It’s actually very hard to find someone who is talented and willing to sit down and really understand and care about your game, even if you are willing to pay a lot of money. Eventually people referred Edmund McMillen (who did all the current character art) and David Hellman (who did all the world
art) to me.

There is not too much character art, but the world art is a big job, and David has been working on that for more than a year, mostly half-time. We spend a lot of time talking about what a particular world’s art should be like; what the mood should be, how the colors will reinforce that mood, how those things will interact and emphasize the story that introduces each world, and how all those things will work together and be appropriate for that world’s gameplay hook. When you are about things like this, it takes a long time. Furthermore, all the world art is broken up into pieces so that eventually people can use them to make their own levels.

While this art process has been going on, I have been doing the art direction, but also am constantly reviewing the game design and making tweaks and improvements (since the version you have played, already one of the puzzles has been refined to play better), and doing programming that supports the art additions, and taking care of all the business concerns. The puzzles in the game have all been revised a lot since the original December 2005 version, and I feel the game is much better as a result.

It seems like the game has been in development for a long time (3 calendar years by the time it’s released), but it’s really not so long; development really started in April 2005, and there were a few periods of 1-3 months each in which I didn’t work on the game at all; so it is probably closer to 2 years all together. Still, 2 years is a long time, and I am hoping my next game will go faster. Even though “Braid” looks kind of simple on the surface because of its gameplay philosophy (very few types of player actions and enemies; all the variation coming from the time-based gameplay tasks and interesting level design), it really was kind of a beast to program and design because of all the little concerns that go on. The time stuff is pretty complicated, from a programmer’s-eye view, when you are about the minutiae of all the different individual puzzles and how they feel.

And actually, even over those two years, I didn’t work 8-hour days. My average is probably something like 3.5 hours a day. I have all the time I spent working on the game recorded in a text file, down to 5-minute accuracy. But I haven’t added it up yet.

I have some other interests that are existentially important to me, and that feed back into my game design philosophy, but also take a lot of time; stuff like kung fu and tai chi training, and dancing contact improvisation. Also, these days I do a lot of consulting work in order to have some income. I think it would be great if Braid sells reasonably well, because then I could drop the consulting work and focus more effort on upcoming games. I have a file full of the ideas for all the games I want to make, and there are 50 things thing there. It’s hard to even think about making an appreciable number of those while I am also working for other people.

So the picture there is, I don’t really have a daily routine; I just juggle all this stuff around so that things mostly work out, week after week.

The original idea for “Braid” was to have a bunch of worlds, each of which explored some different aspect of space/time/causality. That sounds like the game that is there now, but the original idea was pretty different: each world was going to have separate special controls and play in a very different high-level way. For example, one of the ideas I wanted to explore was the fact that, when you look at the rules of quantum mechanics, there is no arrow of time; whether time goes forward or it goes backward, things follow the same rules. That is a weird existential problem, because if you really take it to heart, what does it mean for your daily existence? I wanted to try and make some gameplay that explored that idea, but the best things I could come up with were relatively weak. So for example, when you go to the No Arrow of Time World, you need to get from one end of the level to the other, but in order for that path to be valid, you need to be able to retrace your steps backwards. One way for this design to work would just be to do it with the normal player controls, which means the player when traveling forward would have to choose a path where he never fell from a height higher than he can jump — otherwise that path is invalid in the other direction, and he fails. Another way to do it is, for that world, to give him a powered jump, where you hold down the jump button for a while, and the duration you hold it down controls the height of your jump; so if you fall a long way on the way forward, you need to powered-jump that on the way backward.

That could be a little interesting but in general this idea did not seem too deep, so I just never pursued it. On the other hand, as soon as I started programming the rewind, I knew that it could be mined for tons and tons of good material; so I did so. Very early on I managed to put together some puzzles that made philosophical points about game design, or that felt magical-and-transcendent. So I just kept going and going and going, and kept finding stuff. There are a few worlds that I experimented with back in 2005 that ultimately got cut from “Braid,” because they didn’t turn out to be interesting enough; the ones that are in the game now were the best.

From the very beginning I had the idea that there would be this fiction to the game, and it would be structured like Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” which was one of my favorite books. (Alan Lightman’s book”Einstein’s Dreams” is a clear homage to Invisible Cities that is about worlds where time behaves differently in each one; but I didn’t actually like what “Einstein’s Dreams” did very much, so whereas I respect that book, it also served as a marker for territory that I didn’t want to go into). Luckily, I realized that the fiction shouldn’t to clutch too closely to Calvino’s model, because here it’s part of a different thing, and is happening at a different scale. So the “Braid” fiction became its own thing, but I think some of the influence can still be felt. Another big influence on the fiction is David Lynch’s film Mulholland Dr., which I think is the greatest film ever made; and also, maybe just a little bit, Robert Heinlein’s book “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” (though only in a vaguer, more impressionistic sense, since I read that book 18 years ago).

Me: What kind of impact are you hoping “Braid” will have? And who do you hope will most feel that impact? Gamers? Developers? Publishers?

JB: This is a difficult question, because behind it is the “what motivates you to make games” question, and the answer to that, if I am honest, I don’t fully know. I want “Braid” to be mind-expanding, and I want people to get experiences from it that they have not gotten from anything else. I want it to inspire people to go out and do other strange things that I wouldn’t have thought of. Also there, very strongly, is the artist’s inherent desire to communicate. There are a lot of things about my personal reality, and my day-to-day thoughts, that I feel alienate me from most people — or at least, alienate me from the societal projection of what people are usually like. So I just wanted to put some of them out there — not too many of them, and not in a very extreme way (since the focus is on expression through gameplay, not through words, so to an extent I had only limited control over what could be said. When writing fiction you could say anything, but game design needs to stand the test of reality, which is a hard constraint. It’s like architecture — you can design this fine mansion and be very artful about it, but it also has to stay standing while people are living inside.)

Me: In your note you criticized the “flawed” time systems in “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time” and “Blinx.” You also talked about creative ruts in game design. What do you think is causing such ruts and such flawed game designs? I’m curious if you can share some of your experiences or anecdotes about how commercial development currently works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

JB: Getting stuck in ruts is, I think, the natural way of any kind of design, when you look at things on a societal scale. If you know about some things that already work, it is much easier to do those than to come up with something very different, where you don’t even know if it*can* work, and if it can, you need to do all that extra figuring out of how it can work, on top of all the stuff that the guy just doing the regular design has to do, in order to make it function.

So with “PoP” and “Blinx,” they had this idea that it would be cool to have rewind in the game. But they didn’t want to deviate from their core idea of what a game is about (you have a limited number of lives, and you fight guys and jump over traps, and if you get killed too many times it’s game over). So in those games the rewind was just this sort of
superfluous thing. Yeah, it was kind of cool, but they didn’t allow it to be really meaningful inside the game design. Because if they did that, it would have destroyed the rest of their design, removing all the consequence from the fighting or the puzzles.

One of the things that made “Braid” different from the beginning was my determination to strike out in a new design direction, and just have faith that I could make it work. Rewind was going to be the basis of the game. If rewind conflicted with some other element of the design, then I would throw away that other element — regardless of how traditionally necessary it was. And I was glad I had that faith, because it paid off.

Another game I would add to this list is “TimeShift.” I played the demo at E3, and they have rewind, but it just feels like a gimmick again. They took the extra step of making rewind not affect the player (which I don’t think was true in earlier versions of the game), but they didn’t seem to really know how to exploit that in a compelling way. And to me,
it looks like that’s because it conflicts with the rest of their game design, but they held on to all that other stuff.

Me: In your note, you talked about how fun and use of the player’s time are fundamental concepts you’re addressing in “Braid.” You’ve chosen a side-scroller to provide your commentary, in interactive form. Given that today’s major commercial games are primarily in 3D, do you feel like there has been a whole new wave of bad habits in game development introduced through 3D games? And, if so, would it take a 3D game to tackle them?

JB: This was a significant part of the presentation on “Braid” that I gave at GDC 2006. The issue isn’t strictly 2D versus 3D — since you could use 3D rendering and still present the game from a side-scrolling viewpoint — but about whether you use a perspective view (1st person, or 3rd-person over the shoulder), or that detached-from-the-character side view. Most people designing a game “with cool time stuff in it” would pick the 3rd person or 1st person views, for perceived marketability reasons (“PoP,” “Blinx,” and “TimeShift” are all like that). But a lot of what “Braid” does would just be impossible in a perspective view; or in cases where it’s possible, it would have been a lot more muddled. Certainly the end of the game would be basically impossible. If I had designed “Braid” as a 3rd-person game initially, maybe it would have just sucked, the puzzles would not have been very good, and I wouldn’t have understood why.

I think 1st and 3rd person games cause a lot of design problems, especially with console controllers; I think if someone is serious about game design, and wants to pursue the best design possible, they should at least consider a non-perspective view. Because it does remove those perception and navigation problems, and can potentially simplify the
situation enough to let the game design flourish.

I do think there are a lot of bad habits in modern 3D games. As for how to solve them, well, I think the best solution is just to hold a higher standard about what games are about, and what games can be. When you do that, all sorts of smaller concerns just fall away. Lots of things that are taken for granted about games right now, when you take this kind of viewpoint, appear counterproductive.

So many of today’s games seem so boring. As an example, I bought “GRAW 2,” played it for a few maps, and was pretty much done — I didn’t feel like the game had much to offer me, and it was basically a bad use of $60. (And I didn’t even play “GRAW 1!“) I don’t mean to pick on GRAW too much, because most games are like that for me, these days.

Me: Finally, can you share the latest publishing information about “Braid”? When can readers of my article play the game, and on what platforms? (It does say “Achievements” in the menu of your preview build curiously enough!)

JB: Unfortunately, I can’t give complete details about the game’s release yet. This may happen soon, but who knows. There will definitely be a PC release, and there may be a console release. The release dates depend on various business concerns that haven’t been ironed out yet. I would say, expect to be able to play the game sometime between November 2007 and February 2008.

NOTE: Inspired by his May 20th, 11:58 AM comment to the a post here, I had also sent Jonathan the following question:

Me: I’ve mentioned to you before that I was intrigued by your complaint about the term ’Escapist’ as it relates to games. You said it implied that games are primarily about escapism. Can you take a moment to clarify what you think games are really about?

I don’t think this is necessarily something that I can explain very well, if only because I haven’t tried to explain it very often. But I’ll give it a go here; just keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily the greatest conveyance of what I think.

I’ll come at escapism from two sides, “what is” and “what should be”. The “what is” part is just objective observation, and I want to separate that out because when I start talking about “what should be”, it’s very easy for people to disagree and start arguments and etc.

The “what is” part: Saying “games are about escapism” is a nearly content-free statement; it just provides some kind of pat answer so that you don’t have to look any further into the subject. But it’s obviously, at its core, woefully incomplete, and I think people who really understand games know this implicitly. For example, movies and books provide escapism too. So if games are about escapism, then how are they different from movies or books? Why would anyone ever play a game, if they play games to escape, but they can escape with movies or books instead? Those things are way cheaper! The answer of course is some people like games better, or want to play them sometimes, but what that really means is that what they get out of games is different from what they get out of a movie or a book. And of course you have a good idea what those things are, since you are very familiar with the medium of games. But even for someone who doesn’t understand games, it should be clear that if people get things out of games different from other media, then those things obviously can’t be pure escapism. They must be something else.

Obviously, in fact, movies provide something besides escapism too (by induction… why would people go to the movies when instead they could do some other form of escapism?) Of course there are genres of film that aren’t escapist at all (people didn’t go see Fahrenheit 9/11 as escapism), but for now I’m just talking about big popular movies. Well, there are a lot of things movies do. They provide emotional exercise.

They can give you at least a taste of experiences that you wouldn’t have any other way. They feed some of the mind’s hunger for discovering the answers to mysteries, for seeing what happens next. They can convey ideas and emotions wordlessly. So many people in modern society have seen so many movies that that cinematic language cannot help but have heavily impacted the way they think about things, the way they visualize stories or more abstract images; it has heavily influenced the emotional archetypes that we carry with us. Film is a significant component of what modern people are (because we are products of our origins and of our environment, and film is a big part of the mental environment).

So it must be for games; when (if) they are developed to a reasonable part of their potential, they will have effects like this on people too; effects that we don’t really understand yet. So the way people act and think 50 years from now will, in significant part, be determined by the games we create now, by the path to which we set this medium.

Which is part of why “games are about escapism” f—ing pisses me off. [Note from Stephen: I have to keep the blog clean for the kids]

Now the “what should be” part. A lot of what you get out of a movie depends on what intention you bring to the viewing experience. You can go to a movie just as escapism — and be swept up by the visions and emotions, or whatever. Or you can attend a movie with a more expansionist mindset: you want to experience those same visions and emotions, but you’re doing it to connect those things to the rest of your life, to bring them back; not to escape from the rest of your life. The goal is, maybe, to expand yourself into perhaps a greater, more experienced person. Even just a little bit.

Dogs play-fight because it gives them the experience to fight more effectively when they need to really-fight. etc. So this isn’t some quirk of human-exclusive behavior I am talking about.

Games can provide this kind of mental, emotional and spiritual expansion, and they can push it in a different direction than movies, or books, or music, or whatever. In his new book “Persuasive Games,” Ian Bogost coins the term “procedural rhetoric” to talk about one of the core qualities of games: that they communicate ideas via the way things work, through behavior. I think that is sort of the right idea, but I think the “rhetoric” part is somewhat the wrong idea. I think the richest things that games have to show us are sub-verbal, maybe even sub-intellectual.

There are things you understand very well because you learned them via activities you do all the time. Let’s say, driving a car. (if you live in NY maybe you personally don’t drive much, but hey, most people do, so for the sake of argument). There’s a certain feel to what it’s like driving a car, how things accelerate and slow down, how that feels, how turning happens, what the higher-level flow is as traffic lights go green or red, etc. The activity of driving a car gives you a very intimate understanding of these things, in ways that are more accurate and deeper than we know how to do with words. I could write a whole novel full of words about what it feels like to drive a car with 10 years of experience, but those words wouldn’t be very effective at really communicating what it’s like to someone who never did it. It’s just something you have to do. I am going to call this intimate state of familiarity driving-ness, and apply it to other things.

Games let us author experiences. I can give you a game about something in reality. Maybe it’s about driving a car, in which case you come to understand a little more about it than you would get from a book (though not necessarily as well in some areas as others; the video game would not be as good at communicating the feeling in your body of being accelerated). The driving-ness that you get from the game version of driving is different from the real version; but it is its own thing that is there. That’s what that game has to communicate to you.

Imagine a future where you have that driving-ness experience for a whole wealth of things — geopolitical negotiations, or marital infidelity and deceit, or calculus. And you didn’t get that by running a bunch of tedious programs in school, but rather, by engaging in activities created by skilled authors, that were compelling in their own right? If everyone had the same intimate understanding of propaganda dissemination as they do of the way buddy cops interact in buddy cop films, would we be at war in Iraq? Who would be President of the USA right now? etc.

This is part of the reason why I feel games can be important. Should be important.

To rant about the magazine for a second. When a publication comes along trying to be some beacon of discourse about games, but emptily apes a print format despite the huge inconveniences caused by that (which they have recently changed, finally); and they call themselves The Escapist because by gosh, games are about escapism and they didn’t have any better ideas than to rip off some guys who got the Pulitzer for writing about a ghettoized medium that we had best not emulate… well, none of that is happening at a level of intellectualism that I would consider exemplary.

I don’t want to come across as saying that all escapism is bad. There are people who are traumatized, or sick, or just depressed sometimes, and escapism can be a good therapy for them. In moderation, sometimes.

But I also think that the pat answer of escapism prevents us from seeing the other things people get from media. For example, hope. Even mainstream Hollywood movies try to deal in hope pretty often. Hope is inherently not an escapist emotion, because to have meaning it has to connect back to your regular life. Feelings of aspiration are the same way. I think we live in a society that feels sort of dirty about spiritual yearning, that doesn’t really like to acknowledge it. Media help people with that, sometimes; but if we call it escapism then we don’t see it.

NOTE: One of Jonathan’s answers really intrigued me (well, they all did!), so I sent him a follow-up:

Me: Could you elaborate on this answer you gave me, possibly providing an example of what you’re talking about and how it emerged in the game? “There are a lot of things about my personal reality, and my day-to-day thoughts, that I feel alienate me from most people — or at least, alienate me from the societal projection of what people are usually like. So I just wanted to put some of them out there — not too many of them, and not in a very extreme way.”

JB: It’s hard to point at too many specific examples, because my mode of communicating for this game was more subconscious than that; it’s about the place that things come from, rather than the ideas themselves.

Some of it I would say is clearly visible in the gameplay. For example, I feel like unearned rewards are false and meaningless, yet so many people spend their lives chasing easy/unearned rewards. So there is a very conscious decision that you only get collectibles in “Braid” when you solve a puzzle, and you only get one per puzzle. Some of the puzzles are easy, some are hard; but you did something very explicit to get the reward. It’s not like “Mario” and every other game since then, when there are gold coins sprinkled everywhere, and you get them just by walking along a path or jumping up to some blocks, and that satisfies your reward-seeking reflex for now and pacifies you into continuing to play the game. I actually think that Skinnerian reward scheduling in general (which you see in most modern game design, MMOs being the canonical example) is unethical and games should not do it… scheduled rewards, to keep the player playing, are a sure sign that the core gameplay itself is not actually rewarding enough to keep them playing, and thus you are deceiving your players into wasting their lives playing your game. But I digress.

I think that a lot of people feel like the point of life is to be happy, or comfortable, or something like that, whereas I am highly suspicious of those things. All other things being equal I like being happy, but the problem is, all other things are not equal — probably happiness comes at a cost, possibly a great cost. I think this idea is very important in the background of the fiction, most solidly around worlds 5 and 6.

From a very early age I was determined to find out the truth about life, and not to accept living for lesser things. Even when very young, as a relatively smart kid, you can look around and see that a bunch of what all these adults are doing is pretty stupid — and because you’re so detached from it, you’re not yet enmeshed in that adult world, the lameness is even more obvious. That made a huge impression on me. The problem is that if you refuse to accept easy answers, if you keep digging and insisting on understanding the truth, it becomes very difficult to exist. Because people only manage to get by in their lives, from day to day, by being at least a little bit stupid, by not thinking about this or that; because if they really cared about the answers to certain things, everything would fall apart. At some time in my early twenties I made a deal with myself, that I would let this relentless truth-seeking part of me go inside for a while, so that I would be able to exist and not go crazy; and maybe it could come out sometime in the future, when I would know better how to pursue the truth, and when, maybe, I would be emotionally strong enough to keep going. I think all of this is embodied in the Tim character. The story of rescuing the Princess has a literal interpretation, as well as a metaphorical one; and then there are other small-scale levels of change to the interpretation, too. I don’t intend for any of them to be the sole truth; the story I am trying to tell is something like the quantum superposition of all these things.