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Richard Terrell, Blogger

April 18, 2012

23 Min Read

Jonathan Blow and I have a history (see here and here and here). He makes a suggestion, video game, speech, or offhanded comment, and I respond at length. If you haven't heard of the controversy surrounding Phil Fish at the screening of Indie Game the movie at GDC, basically Fish said that modern Japanese games "just suck." His opinion? Sure. Wrong way to express it? Yes. Apologies to follow. Indeed. But like I said in my GDC Reflections, the fact that someone voiced an opinion isn't what upsets me. It's that the opinions many do have and the way they express them reflects some deep, damaging, and disturbing realities about our industry and the gamers that populate it.

There are few as eloquent and intelligent as Blow in the games industry. In a video interview, he had this to say. Watch the video first here, then continue reading for my response. 



It's a common thing among game designers especially these days to get into discussions about fun, right? And they're difficult discussions to have because fun is a very amorphous word... What it means to you may not even be the same thing that it means to me.

Again, we know that Blow is smart. But what's not obvious is exactly what's being said here. And as I've claimed, a big part of the issue language. Fun is not an elusory far-reaching abstract concept. A big mistake people often make is thinking because people find different things fun that fun is an "amorphous" constantly shifting concept. I've already straightened out this language and concept issue in my series The Zero-Sum Funomaly. One of the big takeaways from part 1 of the series is a revised notion or definition of "fun" that I developed. Fun is whatever a person willingly puts their time and attention to unforced.

With this simple yet powerful definition, we can easily tell when a person is having fun playing a game. As long as they keep playing it, they're having fun. As soon as they stop playing it, they don't find it fun (perhaps because they have something else they'd rather pursue that's more attractive). This definition also avoids using one's biased or personal view of fun to judge others. 


I used to play counter strike quite a lot. I might offhandedly say, 'that's a really fun game, and that's why I play it.' But it is not a fun game. It is a grueling, grueling, punishing, brutal game.

With my definition of fun, we don't have to make weak distinctions like Blow does here. Of course Counter Strike is fun for those who play it. Even when players are upset, angry, and on the verse of throwing their keyboards, they're still having fun. The fact that games allow us to experience a range of emotions within a safe context where there are practically no real-life penalties, allows us to have fun being angry or experiencing other "less desirable" emotions. It's the same way that fiction works. It's the same reason why people go to scary movies. Yes, it's unsettling. Yes, it's uncomfortable at times. Yes, it can be frightening. But it's all safe, all voluntary participation, and all fun. 


I don't like to use the word fun too much to describe what I try to do.   

Obviously Blow has issues with the basic concept or definition of fun. And though he probably hasn't heard of my particular definition of the term, the basic dictionary definition still applies to the games and experiences Blow seeks to create. So I can only imagine that Blow's aversion of the basic use of a simple word is the product of the prolonged exposure to the discourse of gamers who have failed to use English to communicate effectively. 

I understand what Blow is saying here. He's saying that he tries to create games that create a range of experiences that aren't all "fun" in the sense of pleasurable, mindless, happy, entertainment. However, I'm pushing back on this notion that fun is limited to these types of experiences. Quite simply, fun can encompass all of kinds of experiences because people can find anything entertaining, attractive, and pleasurable. By respecting what others find fun/pleasurable/entertaining/etc., we simultaneously broaden our view and understanding of what fun is. 


I appreciate it if players find a game that I make enjoyable right, and hopefully it is...but it's usually not the point. Like I said, Braid is not really a fun game for many people, probably most people.

Braid is a fun game for everyone who plays it. And for those who find the game no longer interesting, worth their time, or if the game is too frustrating, the game is no longer fun. Trying to defend this idea that Braid is not fun only weakens Blow's already myopic position. It's one thing to state that most people who play Braid don't complete it. It's one thing to say that when most players stop playing Braid it's because of a period of frustration with not being able to progress through a puzzle. But these realities still can't prove that Braid isn't fun for these gamers as they played it.

The word fun has a clear definition which I have made easier to grasp with my version. If Blow is trying to say something that doesn't fit the definition of fun, then he needs additional statements to make his thoughts clear. I don't think Blow is trying to say something very meaningful here. I think his understanding of game design and fun clash as evident from examples I'll explain below. 


And [Braid is] not designed to be fun.

In this context, this statement does more harm than good. Here at Critical-Gaming we do not consider authorial intent in our analysis. It doesn't matter how Blow thinks about Braid or how he intended to design Braid. I don't think Blow intended for this statement to be a valid premise of his argument. Rather he's trying to make a distinction between different notions, or definitions, of "fun" though there is only one. 


[Braid is] designed to be interesting and designed to provide the player with difficult mental challenges. To me that's the meat of that game and what' makes it different. You can call that fun in the same way that we might call Counter Strike fun, but that leads to discussions that are hard to have I think. 

Blow unknowingly contradicts himself here. At the top of the conversation, Blow essentially states that people find different things fun (assuming for different reasons). We all know this to be true from general life experience. But what he says here doesn't match up. Take me for an example. As an aspiring puzzle master (see list of puzzle games I've played here) I can state with absolute confidence that I love interesting mental challenges of all kinds. I think about them, design them, solve them, and seek them in the games that I play. Therefore, it's clear that being puzzled and puzzling solving are fun to me. 

I also find competitive multiplayer games like Counter Strike fun, but for different reasons. Yes, both Braid and Counter Strike are fun to me. I have no problem calling both fun. It's not the classification of "fun" that makes the discussion hard here. It's that without a critical-language and an understanding ofgame design 101 (genre, skill, emergence, etc.), one would have a hard time comparing the design of both games. But the issue here is not identifying if there are parts of Braid's design that is analogous to the design of Counter Strike (for the purpose of finding the "fun" that both games share). Because different things can be fun for different reasons, such an investigation tends to be less fruitful. The real issue here is one of pride and perspective, which, at its heart, is about accepting that other people find different things fun.  



In movies we have all these different genre of movie. And when you go to a different genre of movie you have different emotional expectations, right?  They are still these commercial experiences in that you feel that I paid to go to this comedy so it better be funny... but that is not the expectation that you would have going to see a drama or going to see a documentary or whatever, right? In games we don't seem to have that, right? Everybody expects to have this fun thing out of all genre of games.

When I pick up a new Professor Layton game I expect to participate in an experience that will be mysterious, puzzling, and light-hearted, yet with some more somber emotional notes. This is analogous to my expectations going to see a mystery movie/play. When I played some of Heavy Rain, I expected a more gritty, dramatic experience similar to the ones that populate film and TV. When I bought Rhythm Heaven, I expected a whimsical, musical experience with a wacky synergy ala Seuss. And yes, I expect all of these experiences to be fun. But being fun doesn't say much in itself. All it means is that I expect these experiences to be interesting enough to hold my attention. And because I find a wide range of experiences interesting, there's a good chance that they will. Maybe not through to the whole game, but that's another issue. So when Blow makes the generalization that all gamers expect their gaming experiences to be fun, he's not saying much either. And if Blow means that all gamers expect their games to be highly simulating and pleasurable in a limited set of ways, he's generalizing to a fault. And he certainly glosses over the fact that games already provide a wide range of experiences and emotional experiences already. 


Like right now our genres are more along mechanical lines rather than emotional likes. We have an RTS versus a FPS. Like maybe we ought to have a different categorization. Like fun game versus ... we would have to invent these category names...like I feel happy while I'm playing this. Or I feel like I'm confronted with grueling choices while playing this.  I feel powerful while playing this versus I feel helpless and I'm always trying to scrabble along. 

I think Blow complicates his thinking by conflating "fun" as a narrow emotional-experiential category. Fun is more than feeling happy. Again, because people can find may things fun (especially in a safe environment), feeling "happy," "confronted," "powerful," and "helpless" all can be fun experiences. If Blow is suggesting that video games should push past the safety zones and actually threaten players so that they're actually confronted are actually helpless to prevent real-life consequences, then these kinds of experiences wouldn't be fun. Remember, play is an important part of fun and play must be unforced. And some would argue that a game ceases to be a game when the stakes are serious or grave. I don't think this is what Blow is suggestion, but I do think his notion of fun is too narrow and conflated. 


Those are very different emotional places to play. We're only just really getting started exploring those as game designers. And I think that there is a lot of interesting work to be done there building these interesting things and seeing how people feel when they play them.

I really don't like it when people say that video games are only starting to appeal to a wide array of emotional experiences. Video games have been doing these this for years and years now. Blow may have a point with mainstream games, but such is the nature of anything mainstream. There will always be this balancing act between what appeals to people in general versus what appeals to smaller groups of people with special and selective tastes. The niche will never be mainstream. And if it does grow to such levels of popularity, then it will no longer be niche. There's a diametric opposition between these sides. 



So I don't play very many Japanese games anymore and ... but the reason is that I've concluded that I don't like modern Japanese games.

This is a strong statement to open up a discussion with. And whether you're for or against the design trends of modern Japanese games, in cases like this you should demand clarity and specificity. Before I say anything more, understanding that I'm quoting Blow from a gamespot interview and that I'm not blaming him for any lacking support to his claims. However, I will point out that without this support and clarity, Blow say little that is meaningful therefore. Because Blow is vague my responses will be somewhat general.

It would be ideal if Blow backed himself up with a list of all the games he's played Japanese and otherwise. It would be great if he could point out Japanese games that he liked and pinpoint approximately when the design of Japanese games changed to the point of him losing interest. We just don't have enough to go on to even understand Blows position let alone respond to it in detail.


What i strive to do with my own games which you can see in Braid and is carried over in the Whitness ... is to respect the player as an intelligent person who can figure things out and who wants to discover things or come to understand more things that they knew at the start of the game.

First, I'll say that as a game designer I respect the player too. Though I've only made a few small games so far (download here), I see myself becoming the kind of game designer who will put the player first in hopes that the player will give me a bit of time and patience to deliver a truly unique and interesting experience. With that said I think that all players are dumb. We're about as equally dumb or equally smart if that's how you'd rather phrase it. Giving hints, tutorials, and other ways of scaffolding the player's learning process doesn't disrespect the player's time or intelligence. I'm working on a grand thesis/model for learning that should prove this. So, for now I want to focus on the two elements of being a player that Blow respects; 1) players can figure things out; 2) players can discover/understand new things.

Of course the player can figure things out. From blind trial-and-error to problem solving methods that take much more cognitive ability, players bring a variety of learning abilities to the table. And in a goal oriented challenge, being able to figure out how to reach the goal without much help can be very important experience. Also, players are bound to discover and understand new things about the game as they progress through it. This is how humans work. We remember and eventually memorize experiences from our lives. While these elements of being a player are natural, Blow did not explain in the video how he goes about respecting these elements. Instead of the Do's we go immediately into some Don'ts. 


I want to respect my player's time. I don't want to give the player like a lot of filler just because I feel like gameplay ought to be 60 hours long.

I am currently writing an article called Infinite Undiscovery. In it I debunk all objective definitions of grinding and filler gameplay challenges. I also go on to talk about design spaces, meaningful variation, and how understanding human learning limitations can give us the framework with which to evaluate pacing in video games as well as excessive content. As you may have gleaned, it takes quite a sophisticated argument to get around the highly subjective components of terms like "filler" and "grinding." Basically, as it's used now, filler is just an opinion. To see beyond one's own biases it's important to understand what it means to Embrace the Abstraction, a concept I explain in my article. And because Blow doesn't give any specific examples here, which are necessary to focus the discussion and support his claims, we're left to draw connections between what Blow says and the video games video clips that are paired with his words. 


Most modern Japanese games that I play take the opposite stance completely. They take the stance that the player is afraid of your game and if you're not very careful holding the player's hand through everything, then he player will run away or just won't be able to handle it.

Again I find it hard to take anything meaningful from this statement because Blow has not offered any specific examples. We all know that all Japanese games aren't the same. We know that though there are trends, there are many examples that buck the trend. So without having a specific game to talk about here, we can't get any more insight than we can from Blow's previous generalities. 

I find it hard to accept Blow's exaggeration here. To claim that there's even a small trend in Japanese games where they explicitly teach and guide the player through "everything" is ridiculous. Tutorials typically make up such a small part of a game's overall content. However the player is taught, the point is that they take those lessons and skills and apply them to progress through many challenges. A game with more tutorial than non-tutorial content would be more of a satire than a game. To say that modern Japanese games push the balance so far as to become satires is just ignorant. I also find it hard to accept anything that Blow says here when he stated up front that he doesn't play many modern Japanese games.


I don't think that's an actual cultural difference, right? I think it's just ... sometimes industries get an idea about the right way to make game and they sort of get the wrong idea. There are lots of things that western... industrial scale game designer like EA or Activision ... that they've concluded are the right way to design game that I think are totally wrong. So this is like the Japanese version of that.  

Often there is a fine line between what is a cultural influence and what is not. And though Blow doesn't explicitly detail the design decisions he speaks about, I think I may have some idea. I'm certainly not going to put words in his mouth then argue against them. What I will say is that I've been keeping track of western (American) and Japanese design trends and have devised different cultural explanations for their popularity. Soon I'll present part of my research. Until then, I can only say that I find it unlikely that what EA/Activision are doing is "totally wrong." That's a bit of a strong stance. 


[Japanese games] don't just give you a simple situation and let you work it out, they explicitly tell you what to do and then says it's not hard, don't be worried, go ahead you try now, you know. And then you try and you do it, and half way where you're in the middle of doing it, it stops you and it says now remember during the next part, you know, rotate the block to the right. Once you've done that  it eliminates the joy of discovery which, like I said,  I really value. I really value that click that happens in your head between  you see something that you don't quite understand and suddenly you do understand it. That is a fundamental part of human existence in the world, is that kind mental growth; that kind of expanding my mental sphere of of the world.

Perhaps some of you have been waiting for me to talk about Zelda. Though Blow didn't give any specific examples, the video shows clips of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword while blow makes the statement above. In response, first I want to state that I think Zelda is the hardest game to review, critique, and talk about. I've explained why under the Zelda section in my 2012 GOTY article

Blow's bias for puzzle games is obvious. And his inability to talk about, I assume, Zelda and other Japanese games is clear. In nearly all Zelda games there is a gradual acclimation or tutorial process. At the beginning of the game players are lead to learn about the world, story, their role, the controls, and the general Zelda style experience. As the game progresses, the challenge increases as well as the openness of the gameplay. By mid to late game players have access to many areas and side quests and story quests that can be done and layered together in different orders and combinations. This kind of overall game progression meshes nicely with how stories typically develop, player skill develops, and the particular style/themes of coming of age stories or adventure stories where the hero leaves home. Home, in this case, is a more structured, simpler, and instructive environment while the dangerous world beyond is more open, challenging, complex, and with no instruction. 

In some ways it is foolish to think that Braid is any different from Zelda in this way. Braid has mandatory challenges that, after some point, can be done somewhat in different orders. Braid has tutorial like challenges that help the player learn very core concepts through very linear challenges. Braid has explicit tutorial information like on screen button prompts and some text/images to help the player along. And despite these things, Braid also lets the player experiment, discover, and solve things on their own. 

But the biggest mistake Blow makes here is thinking that all games should be like puzzle games. It's clear that Blow likes puzzle games, has a puzzling mind, and seeks to make experiences that reflect these two facts. As I've explained thoroughly on this blog, puzzle game stress knowledge skills almost exclusively. And deep puzzle games, that are built around understanding concepts, putting them together in new ways, reading, and possibly double reading, in particular suffer from what we call the spoiler effect. Once someone tells you the answer to a puzzle like this, it becomes nearly impossible to unlearn the solution and solve it on your own. The puzzle is effectively ruined. So for all such puzzle game experiences, explicitly telling the player everything would detract from the experience.

In general, Zelda games do not spoil puzzles by forcing the players to read or watch the solutions. Though there are hints, they are almost all optional. And certainly, Japanese games in general don't explicitly tell the player what to do throughout the entire game. It would be much wiser for Blow to compare Braid, a puzzle game, to a Japanese puzzle game of the same ilk like... Pushmo, one of my GOTY of 2012. 

Also, Zelda is a massive game that's made up of 3 main gameplay types, adventuring/exploring, puzzle solving, and combat. Basically, Zelda games run the gamut of play experiences with puzzle challenges that mainly focus on knowledge skills, exploration that relies on a bit of knowledge and the other real-time DKART skills, and combat that relies mostly on the action skills. It's clear that for a gameplay challenge that relies only on knowledge and figuring things out, telling the player is a bad idea. However, real-time challenges (which make up a very large part of the Zelda experience) stress the entire DKART skill spectrum. Sometimes you have to figure out how to win in combat. But even in these situations, execution is where the player experiences the most diversity of skill and engagement.

So, to focus the real-time combat gameplay on execution, which is a legitimate type of experience to focus gameplay around, it helps to inform the player of certain things. Yes, players can use trial-and-error  to figure out how to get through any gameplay challenge eventually. But, it's more important to consider how easy the game makes figuring things out (scaffolding) and what kind of experience the game focuses on with its design. 

That click or what I call the Eureka moment, is a fundamental part of problem solving. But problem solving isn't a fundamental part of gameplay experiences or all human experiences. 


When you build that kind of game where ok I'm going to tell you what to do and then you do it... you're not going to lose the player, but you've prevented that player from having any joy of discovery at all. I don't play games that are like that. As I said during IndieGame the movie panel not all Japanese games are like that. You can certainly find exceptions. There are some notable exceptions that came out recently. But when I think Japanese games that's what I think.

In a game such as Zelda Skyward Sword there are many different types of experiences and gameplay challenges that the player can explore. Being told about one aspect of a challenge or experience doesn't prevent the player from discovering something great in a related aspect. Like I explained above, getting help with your knowledge skills might make the discovery of the dexterity skills happen more quickly or more effectively or more memorably. 

It seems that many gamers don't realize that though the skill floor for many games may be easier with modern games, the skill ceilings and the diversity of experiences is still very high. There's a lot of room in many games for the player to adjust the difficulty up.

Blow claims that the kinds of Japanese game he likes are the exception, but I think it's the opposite. My gaming history is public, so you can judge for yourself how many modern games I have direct experience with. I'm always looking to expand my list and my tastes. But based on my experience, I can't help but walk away from this discussion thinking that Blow isn't trying very hard.  


I feel like it's important to have these conversation if our cultures have value to each other, part of that value is communicating what we perceive in other cultures. It's easy to be too afraid of that. I don't know if the controversy ought to be the focus, I think that there is actually an interesting design discussion to be had there, and I would like for that to be the focus. 

Before we can "perceive...other cultures" we must first understand our own perspective. I'm not impressed with some of the things I heard at GDC or in this video. Yes, there are deep and interesting discussion to have here about design, learning, and culture, but I don't think Blow is making any meaningful steps toward that goal besides stating that we should have these discussion and being a thoughtful guy in general. If Blow or anyone else wants to have a real conversation, then feel free to contact me. I've been working on the understanding and language to talk about game design for years. My blog is an open book of my thoughts (literally it's two 800 page books sitting on my table). You can see all the places where I've been wrong and have grown over the years. All of the specifics and support are here. 

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