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Jonathan Blow: The Next Phase

After the success of the time-disrupting Braid, Number None's Jonathan Blow sits down with Gamasutra to discuss the state of indie gaming, his next projects, and 'meaningful' games.

Last year, Number None's Braid for Xbox Live Arcade became both a critical hit and a commercial success, proving that creator Jonathan Blow's views on experimenting with gameplay concepts can have real relevance with the wider gaming public in a concrete way.

Does this open the door for more experimentation? Where is the medium headed? Blow, who was previously a code columnist for Game Developer magazine and a contract programmer/designer for a number of notable games, from Flow through Phase, talks in-depth to Gamasutra in this post-Braid interview.

Among other things, Blow discusses his thoughts on PC as a gaming platform, the importance of PR to indies, and the new game ideas he's working on, as well as the role of story in today's biggest games:

What have you been up to since Braid shipped?

Jonathan Blow: A little bit working on an updated version for Xbox Live Arcade, because there were a couple of bugs in it. There were some more minor things, just little, tiny gameplay glitches. I've been doing that.

I have been talking to people about Braid on other platforms, like the Mac and PC. What's going on is that I took some time to do that originally, and then we hit this season where there were just a zillion PC games out. And I didn't want to release it in the middle of that, because probably nobody would notice.

You indicated at one point you were talking to Valve about Steam.

JB: A long time ago, I was talking to them, and it didn't really work out. Since then, they've come back and contacted me, and they are interested in putting the game up. So it's just a matter of me having a PC version ready that I feel is good to go with.

Would you be looking to distribute across multiple digital distribution platforms?

JB: Yeah. I don't think that locking down an exclusive agreement with one online distributor is a good idea. And a lot of people are willing to do non-exclusive publishing, so I'm just going to do that.

There are different schools of thought on that. Some people who would like to see it become almost more console-like, where it's just, "I want to be able to go into Steam and everything's there." Conversely, there's the principle that the PC should stay totally unlike consoles, a completely free market.

JB: I think both those things are true. I definitely like Steam, in that I can buy a new computer and bring it home and turn it on and install Steam and I have all my new games on there. And pretty soon, they're doing the settings and stuff now [via Steam Cloud, which allows users to store save game and configurations server-side]. That's pretty cool.

At the same time, I definitely want to be able to play games that aren't on Steam, right? I definitely want access to services that are not Steam and that are competing with them, because maybe they'll do something better. Maybe they'll do something in a different way.

So I'm in favor of both. And I realize that that introduces some amount of chaos into the thing. That's okay, though, because the PC is the place where that can happen.

If you want a very clean system where there are no alternatives, then that's consoles. That already exists. So, if we were to take that away from PCs, then what happens? What if somebody wants to do something new, and they just can't, because there's no longer a platform? So, I like the way it is now.

What I don't like about PCs is how hard it is to make a shipping-quality game on them, in terms of it not crashing on people's machines, or sounding and looking consistent, or whatever. It's nearly impossible.

Well, actually, it is impossible. What is possible is to do a job that doesn't screw up on that many people's machines. I think that there's no inherent reason for that anymore, so that needs to get fixed. But I don't see anyone working on it seriously.

Microsoft is trying to take stabs at it with Games for Windows.

JB: They're not doing a very good job. And I don't think many people would dispute with me on that fact. [laughs]

As an independent developer, there's another thing about the PC, which is there are a very large number of games -- independent games, even -- getting released on the PC.

I'm not the typical gamer, but a typical gamer only has a limited amount of attention. What should they be paying attention to? It's an open question.

And for me, as somebody who didn't have a big advertising budget, how do you communicate to people that this is a game that you actually want to be interested in?

Having it be released on a console, you don't have that problem, because, for example, on Xbox Live, there are only a limited number of games in the pipeline. If a game comes out on a given week, it's notable at least because it's the game of the week that week, right?

From there, if it's well-received on the console, I can still come to the PC and say, "Well, look, this game, a lot of people liked it." Whereas you could release a really good game on PC, and maybe just it never gets word of mouth, even though it's good. I was very concerned with that.


It's interesting going through Steam, and seeing lists of games I've barely even heard of, particularly from a lot of Eastern European developers, who presumably don't have a lot of money to throw around for marketing.

JB: Well, even on the Xbox, that happens, too, though, which is crazy. There are certainly some games on Live Arcade that are just bad, and shouldn't sell that many copies, in my opinion.

But there are some games on Live Arcade that are not bad that didn't really sell. And it's just because you do have to do a certain amount of getting the word out about your game, whether it's traditional marketing or just talking to people.

If you make sure it's a game that people want to talk about, then do interviews with them or whatever, or just anything.

But if you put something up, either on XBLA or Steam, and people don't have a reason why they might be interested in it, it could just disappear.

Have you learned anything about PR or kind of getting the word out? I imagine as a one-man shop you may not have lots of time to think about that sort of thing.

JB: Well, my strategy for Braid was just, I was going to make the game as interesting as possible. I don't like marketing, in a lot of ways, and I really don't like trying to sell people stuff.

So my strategy was just, I'm going to make a game that I think is really interesting, and that hopefully other people want to hear about, and then I'll talk to people about it, just saying the things that I think are interesting about it.

And if that helps get the word out, then great. But I won't ever feel dirty or guilty about having to say, "Oh! Come play my game, please!"

Certainly, for that game, it seems to have worked, because it has several things about it that people thought were cool, for one reason or another, and they wanted to hear about it. Next game, I don't know. We'll see.

The other thing that I learned is, of course, the classic internet thing that everybody learns, which is that if you do an interview or give a lecture, people will take the one sentence that they like the least and make it the headline, and everybody will flame you for being stupid and saying something that you didn't actually really say.

But that's just the peril of publicity on the internet. And the way to get around that is to never say anything substantive, right?

If I go to a PR training class, every question you ask me, I'll say, "Number None Incorporated is very interested in providing the best experience for its players."

Then all the interviews are going to be shit. And why should anybody listen to them? I wish that people on the internet understood that by engaging in that carnival, they're actively discouraging the content that they want, which is people being straight with them and saying useful stuff.

But not that many people realize that. And you can't, ever. That's never going to happen. People are never going to curtail the way they respond to things. So I just have to be cool with it. When controversies explode over something I didn't really say or didn't really think, I just say, "Okay. Great, guys."

Well, there is the attitude that all publicity is good publicity.

JB: I don't quite agree with that. It's easier to think that as a big company, but when it's your game and it's just you and another dude making it, it's about you.

If I was CEO of somewhere, 10 years later I could say, "Oh, that was just the company." But no. This is what I am doing at this point in time, and 10 years later it's still my own thing.

They are personal opinions ascribed directly to you, as opposed to an ambiguous entity that has any number of people employed.

JB: Exactly. So it's different. But I don't know that I would change the way I do anything. It's just that I have a much more acute picture of that whole process, of the way that the public reads things and responds to things.


So aside from the other versions of Braid, presumably you're working on another game?

JB: I am. I don't really want to give much detail about it, though. And the reason is that I've had three or four different games that I was convinced was the next game I was working on, and I'd work on it for a little bit and decide I could maybe do something better.

My newest game I started is looking very promising. I'm very excited to do it. But if the patterns of history continue, then I may not be working on it a month from now, so I don't want to start telling people about it.

Is it that RPG-ish thing you alluded to in your blog, where you mentioned you were interested in conversation scripting systems?

JB: Yeah. It's an RPG right now, a 2D RPG that I'm working on. You never know. Next month, it could be a Pac-Man clone or something.

Braid had hardly any dialog, so to speak. It was all narration, or prose text.

JB: It had a very small amount of dialog. It had four words or so.

One of the things you seem to attempt to do is include mechanics that are fundamentally tied to the larger theme you're trying to express in the game. Some traditional video game interactions would be difficult to handle that way, I'd think. Most dialog interaction, for example, is very transparent mechanically, moreso than the world interactions at the heart of Braid.

JB: Right. When you play an RPG, you usually go and try to exhaust the whole conversation tree, just because you know that there might be something that you get. That's true.

The way I'm thinking about it for the current game is that what goes on in those dialogs is actually very closely related to the core mechanic that you do in the RPG. And I can't really say more about it. But there is more of a tie, like you were saying is going on with Braid -- a tie between the game mechanic, or the core ideas and themes, and the things that you do.

That said, though, if in this game, people do the, "Oh, I'm just playing with the dialog tree" thing, it's fine, because the way the dialog is used is not necessarily in a straight, dramatic, linear story sense anyway. I think that you just have to be aware of those things and design with them in mind.

Do you think that mentality is something of a nonrenewable resource for a designer? I can't help but feel that the time-control mechanic as it relates to telling a story where time is a central theme, as in Braid, has now been "done." It would be tough for another designer to want to also make a game that does that without coming off as derivative, as opposed to just making a game where time control happens to be a mechanic.

JB: Yeah. I know exactly what you're saying. I think that, interpreted very narrowly, that is true. And that's one reason why I'm not sitting down and doing Braid 2. Because what would it be other than what it already is?

But in a broader way, about trying to make games that are somehow more meaningful, I don't necessarily prescribe exactly what method by which that should be done. There are a lot of ways to do it. And what I did in Braid is maybe one way.

I think that we don't even have a very good picture of what all the ways are that things can be done, just because, if you look at how many people have seriously been trying anything remotely like that in games, it's been a couple years or something, right?

You can't expect to even have a good map of what's possible in a medium after just a couple of years.

I think that Braid serves as one data point. "Hey, here's a thing that somebody did. It's a technique that is possible." Maybe somebody in the future applies it to a different subject or whatever. Maybe they could apply it to a time-rewind game and have like a different theme that they're hooking it up to, and that could still be refreshing, too. I don't know.

It sounds almost crass when you put it that way, when you strip it down. [laughs]

JB: Yeah. It's hard to talk about it. I mean, you know that that's not the way that I feel about it. But I just hope to serve as an idea like, "The bulk of what we're doing in games now is this over here. Then there's this other thing over here."


Can you point to just any examples of recent games you've found to be meaningful?

JB: Well, there are the art games that I talk about all the time, like Passage, The Marriage, and Gravitation. In terms of bigger games, it is kind of rare. I think Everyday Shooter was definitely a very expressive game, in a very different way from Braid. I talk about that one all the time, too.

The reason I talk about these games all the time is because it's just not often that I see new examples of that. I played a bunch of games from this wave of Christmas games. I haven't played them all.

But I played Fable II, Fallout 3, stuff like that. And in Fallout 3, there's one section of the game that people comment on that feels kind of personal and emotional, and it's not the stuff that's supposed to feel that way. It's not the stuff with your dad at the beginning, or trying to find him. That all feels generic.

It's when you find this abandoned camp that's now got monsters in it, but there are these stories of this nurse trying to hold it together right after the bombing.

And you think, "That was really a touching story that I just found out there." And it wasn't actually the game. [laughs] It was just this little pre-authored story.

BioShock had a fair amount of that outside of the critical path.

JB: In the little dialogs, yeah. I can't really count that as an example, though. It's a neat thing that they did, but it's not the game.

The gameplay in Fallout 3 is shooting a guy in the head and watching his blood fly everywhere, right? Or the dialogue paths, of which it seemed there weren't that many.

As you suggested, it still isn't clear what even the basic framework for expressing meaning through a game actually is. At this point, if you're trying to deliver a story or message through a game, most are still doing it in a filmic way. You have the gameplay, and then you have the presentation layer, but they usually aren't intrinsically tied.

JB: We have a model that's somewhat successful now, right? We have these story-based games, like Fallout 3 or Gears 2.

And we know how to put a story in the game in waypoints, and you play between pieces of the story. And there's a certain kind of structural way in which that works well.

You want to know what's next. The stories act as a reward for playing through certain areas. So that's your reward structure.

But it's a problem, because there are things about the fact that it's a game at all that interfere with the kind of story that you can tell and what you can do.

Stories in games are typically not good, right? We just know that. I think part of that is because we don't try very hard, or we don't really have people that competent doing it.

But part of it is that even if we did -- even if we had really, really good writers doing this stuff -- it's still really hard to do a good story in a game, because of the game part.

To give a really simple example: almost every game we make now is challenge-based in some way, right? Unless you're talking about Wii Music, there's some goal that you have to meet. The player is here, and wants to go this way. The game's challenge pushes back on him, adding some friction. You want the player to get through the game eventually, but that challenge slows them down or makes them go in a circuitous path.

That's half our game, this challenge element. In story-based games, the other half is the story. And the problem is that story needs to go [the opposite direction challenge does]. Because stories have pacing. They have an order of events that happen.

So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other. You try to balance them, but usually one of these is going to be more strong than the other, and that's the direction you'll feel more of.

Often in games, the designer says, "Oh, we don't necessarily need challenge. We need the feeling of challenge, without actual challenge." So then, if there are puzzles, we make them really easy, or if there's combat, we make it really easy. So then the strength of the challenge force gets smaller and smaller.

Those lead to experiences that don't feel that worthwhile to me. God of War, for example, is a game a lot of people like. I don't really like it, because I just feel like I just started mashing buttons and all the enemies die.

Fable II is the same way. Fable II's combat is not actual challenge. It's just there to feel like combat. But I don't feel like there's a reason to do it, because I know that I just hit these guys with the sword a few times and they'll just die.

I think this is a problem because, in terms of what games have to offer us, we're not giving people the greatest stories ever told. What we can give them is experiences that challenge them or invite them to do something that they haven't done or whatever.

But we're decreasing this challenge element more and more -- challenge being the new thing that we have to offer over other media -- in order to try and increase this story element. And I think that that might be the wrong trade-off.

If we eventually become no interaction and all story, then we're just a bad movie, right?

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