Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid

With art game Braid now a significant hit on Xbox Live Arcade, Gamasutra talks to creator Jonathan Blow on its long path to completion, challenging conventional pacing, and hopes for XBLA's future.

In the wake of its success on Xbox Live Arcade, Number None's innovative platform title Braid has majorly increased the profile of independent games on consoles.

Its creator, Jonathan Blow, previously a code columnist for Game Developer magazine and a contract programmer/designer for a number of notable games, from Flow through Phase and beyond, has always been an outspoken advocate of working outside of the orthodoxy -- in more ways than just going it alone as an indie developer.

Blow runs the Experimental Games Workshop at GDC, and is an advocate of creating games that challenge the conventional wisdom about how to make a game -- from their core design on up.

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, the designer talks candidly about the ideas that led to the development of Braid, and why challenging conventional pacing and gameplay is so important.

As someone who is doing all of the roles within the traditional development team, as one guy... you talked about how you're trying to keep from getting jaded and protect a bit of innocence in the whole process, as you're stretching yourself to do all of that stuff. How are you trying to keep some purity and vision?

JB: I don't know if there's any kind of technique that aids that. I don't know. The actual hard thing for me has just been to do the work. Three years is a long time. It's been about three years of calendar time working on Braid, but I actually started the game and did a little prototype, and then there were several months of break before I was able to really start development.

So it's been like three and a half or more, total, since I first conceived the game to when it was done for Live Arcade. And I still have to do the PC version, so it's going to be even longer. It's a long time to work on one thing, to not have any external validation for it. So I'm not making any money [during development].

I guess one of the reasons I showed the game at the GDC a few times -- not only because it was cool and I wanted to share it -- was because I knew from my history of getting burned out on long projects, I wanted to have at least some kind of communication with the outside world about this. Because otherwise, you just get nothing. You don't get nourished at all for that entire period, and it becomes very depressing.

I'm not a very materialist person. I don't feel like I really need external validation in my personality, but actually, the human psyche does, always. Even if it's not in your higher level of personality, there's something down there that wants that.

It's something, I guess, when you announce your game, and people start to get excited about it. It's like, "Oh crap, I actually have to do that now. I've got to deliver the goods." It's a super-real motivator.

JB: Yeah. In fact, I announced it very early. I showed it at the GDC in... I lost all track of time now, but I guess it was 2005, like March 2005, after I'd really only done a few weeks of work on it. So it was just a basic prototype.

But it was at this experimental game session that I run, so people weren't expecting more than a basic prototype, and they really liked it. I showed it in '05 and '06 and '07, like at various stages of development.

So that kind of process you were talking about, about how most development teams have become so process-driven, it's like a factory. You get your head down and list all your tasks to make the game, fulfill your tasks, and then you get onto the next one. That results in game designers becoming quite jaded and tired. Do you think that filters down to game players in any way?

JB: I think that everything that the developer does shows up in the final game, somehow. Or doesn't show up -- it shows up as something that's missing. Large-scale game development with big budgets has a way of polishing over that.

Like, "There's some kind of joy that didn't make it into the final game, but we're going to spend some money and have some awesome full-motion video animation on the main menu when you start up the game, and it's going to get people hyped." Gamers kind of commute to that, and that's what they expect -- that kind of production value.

Number None Inc.'s Braid

Indies can't necessarily do that. We can do a smaller amount of stuff, so our job is to just do it better, in order to be relevant to the player. With Braid -- and this is one of the things that doesn't come across -- people look at screenshots on the web and videos... I haven't put a good video of it up yet, but they look at bad videos on the web and they're just like, "I don't quite see what's good about this game." Part of that is because they can't see the gameplay, but part of it is because the game is about setting up a mood and instilling a feeling, and when you play it, hopefully...

Some people have told me that they do feel this way. If you do feel that the developers really cared about this game and really set it up for you to play and meticulously thought about everything... hopefully that's something they feel from the very beginning. That's not something that just happens. That's something that has to remain intact through all of development, from the beginning from when you're excited about the idea, and at the end, when it's just painful to work another day, but you have to, to get all the bugs nailed down and stuff.

I still haven't quite answered the question, but it's in what you do every day. You have to keep that certain feeling about the game. You have to know that it's important enough.

I also wanted to ask you about the phrase you coined: "dynamical meaning," which is something I've been hearing about quite recently, the whole idea of game mechanics communicating something emotionally and intellectually to a player, in a similar way that narrative does, through the very structure and interactions. Which is the first game that really brought that to your attention, in which those things were really there and important?

JB: It's hard to say. This is something that games have been doing forever. I don't remember the sound effects from Pong or anything, but in an early game like Space Invaders or whatever, the game mechanics are communicated to you in various ways. You can read the rules on the cabinet, but really, there's sound effects in there. There's an ominous sound to the invaders, to help you realize that they're dangerous. It's a bad sound when you get hit, and a good sound when you hit the enemy and blow up the boss UFO. Those kinds of things are so simple that people weren't thinking of them that way.

But that kind of nonverbal communication... it wasn't in the gameplay rules yet, but it was in what I was calling the... I don't remember what I was calling it, but the core audiovisual elements of a game, like the symbology of a game. That's the kind of thing that a lot of academic game people have talked about, so there's probably a standard term for that, like... communication through the sound effects and stuff, that I don't actually know, because I don't read enough about it.

But over time, back then, games got more complicated. You had games on the PC, or on home computers before the PC, that you needed a manual to play at some point, because it needed a lot of keyboard controls, or if you had a lot of time to figure it out, you probably could. Then from there, everybody was like, "Okay, games need to start having tutorials." That was something that the industry was doing in the '90s. I remember when I started, which was in '95 or '96, it was like, "Oh yeah, you need to put in a tutorial so people can figure it out."

And from there, tutorials became more elegant. If you look at a modern game like Portal, you start the game and you're kind of in the tutorial, but you're playing. And the level design is set up to communicate things to you as you go through the game. Valve are very clear about that. In the developer commentary, they describe that sort of thing.

Which is not to say that Portal was the first game to do that sort of thing -- not even close -- but for a long time now, games have been using more and more things to communicate to the player. They're using the structure of the world, where things are located... you come over this hill, and you see this castle on the other hill, and you know that you should probably go there, in an open-world game. Things like that. The gameplay rules, on the one hand, are kind of a new thing. Like the art games that I was talking about have popularized that, or made it popular or more well known.

Like The Marriage.

JB: The Marriage was a breakthrough game for me, because it was the first game to really do that. That might be at least a good half-answer to this. Before The Marriage, I didn't quite see it that way. Rod tells me that The Marriage was a little bit inspired by Braid, actually, because there's a last level in Braid that does some things about telling a story through gameplay and not through text, as it does in the rest of Braid.

Rod Humble's The Marriage

But what The Marriage does is very different from what I did. What I did was set up a gameplay scenario -- basically a level that behaves a certain way, that tells you something. What he did was more lower-level. It was built in to the bottom-level rules of the game, which is what Braid does a little bit, but The Marriage made it clear. The Marriage was like, "This is what I'm doing. This is all." Something about that clarity really helped, and it inspired a lot of people.

But games have done that for a long time. Chris Crawford, the guy who founded the Game Developers Conference and then got kicked out from it, has been doing that kind of thing for a long time. For the past 14 years, he's been working on interactive stories. That's different. But way back in the '80s and stuff, he was making serious games -- games about nuclear reactors or the Earth's biosphere or Balance of Power, which is possibly his most famous game, and is pretty much a message-based game.

It had this theme where you just can't bully people when you're a world power, and all these things are at stake. I don't want to say that he was pedantic about that, in a way that a lot of message-based games are now, because it was definitely a game, but it was in there. Right down to when you lose -- he made a public statement like... when you lose that game, he didn't want a cool nuclear explosion to happen or anything, because that's an audiovisual reward.

He understood rewards and penalties a lot earlier than a lot of game developers did. He was like, "No. You just get a black screen saying 'You Failed,' because I don't want to encourage failure." That was a thing where the rules maybe had the message, or the tuning of the parameters maybe kind of had it, and that was from the '80s. It's been a long tradition slowly building. That's a long answer to a short question.

I liked when you were talking [as part of Blow's Develop Conference lecture] about developer standards like, "Okay, we're going to make a really big, triple-A title. We'll start with the scenario first, then the characters, and the story." And you were saying, "Why don't we find a new way of doing it, where we start with the messages in the gameplay mechanics, and then move on to something larger?" The challenge is always going to be how you start from that position and then make a game that's not just an indie game but a mainstream blockbuster. Is that even possible?

JB: It's not just starting with the gameplay mechanics, because a lot of games do that. A lot of games say, "We're a first-person shooter. Maybe it should be World War II. Maybe it should be in the future. Have the concept and some decent things and we'll figure it out."

But what I was after is starting with whatever the thematic, meaning content of the game is -- that could come from the story and it could come from the game rules -- to start with that content and then make sure that coming from both sides, you can get there. You can communicate that in a way that doesn't conflict with itself. So is the rest of the question like "How do you do that?"

Yeah. How do you scale that up to a blockbuster title?

JB: That was kind of the big question. I don't know how you scale that up. Even the idea of scaling it up is not something that I thought about concretely until the night before I wrote that lecture. You look at these smaller games and you take it for granted that it's a smaller game and it's different from a big game. It's different in so many ways, it's hard to see a path from one to the other. How do you go from Gravitation to Gears of War? I don't exactly know.

But because I don't know, I can't see it clearly, but I also don't know that it's not possible. I just feel like we should start exploring in that direction. Actually, there are some games that are sort of doing that. There's a lot that I cut from that lecture, but one of the games I was going to mention was Far Cry 2, where they have this dynamic story situation, and there's a core gameplay mechanic that supports that about how friends that you have in the game are relationships that you maintain that come in to the action gameplay and interweave with that.

Of course, I haven't played the game, but I've talked to the designers about it. So it's too early to see how that's going to work. And it's still not quite the same level of thing that I was talking about, starting with these really low-level, abstract rules. But it is a step in that direction, from the top down. Starting with the given, "Hey, we've got a big-budget first-person shooter. How do we make it more meaningful?"

When you were first designing Braid, did you have a metaphorical meaning in mind that... I guess you didn't want to push it on the player, but wanted to leave enough clues there to find that kind of thing?

JB: I did. Even before I wrote any of the code or anything, I had a full idea for the game. It would've been an okay game, both in terms of gameplay and in what the story was about. Then I started doing that, but even in the first day or two, it changed when I saw how the gameplay was turning out and as I saw how the mood of the game was developing. That kind of changed my idea of the story, and it went in a different direction.

I started the game with some very strong literary influences -- Invisible Cities is a book by Italo Calvino. It's a series of very short, three-to-four page pieces about different fictional cities that have different kinds of reality and different ways that they work.

Then there was another book written by Alan Lightman called Einstein's Dreams. He's a physicist, actually, and he wrote this book which was very much like Invisible Cities, but was about Albert Einstein thinking about... he still hadn't quite figured out relativity, and he was still working as a patent clerk during the day and was very busy, but he would go home and think about how time behaves in the universe. Like Invisible Cities, the way that he was thinking about time was linked to how people are in the universe. Because if the universe is a certain way, it's going to determine what's in it and if people are in that universe, what they're like. That was never quite a satisfying book for me, but it was definitely a strong influence on Braid.

But I wanted to take that and go in a different direction. The initial idea was to do something like that, but with gameplay. Go to different rules, have different rules of time, have that relate to humanity somehow, and just speak to what it means to be in our universe. I didn't know the details. I had ideas for details. Then I started filling in the details and that took the higher level idea further. So the game is still about that, but it has a lot more to it now.

I started out by stylistically imitating Calvino, and I moved away from that as I saw that there were better things for this work. There are a lot of details in the game that I hope that people notice or they at least feel at a subconscious level. There are a lot of things, even in screenshots and stuff on the web, that no one has noticed. I follow forum discussions about the game, and it's cool that nobody's noticing them, because that means that they really are not obvious, and I think once people start discovering those, they'll enjoy the game even more.

I was excited about the game when I started, but what I ended up with was much better than the original idea. I don't think that happens very often in game development. I got lucky there. Usually, you have a great idea for a game, and you can't do all of it. You can maybe do half of it. And it's still kind of cool, but it's not quite what you thought. This is way better than what I had originally written. I don't know if I'm going to be as fortunate in my next project, but I'll take what I can get right now.

You've talked about how when you've got like a gameplay potion that you've made up with those elements, as soon as you drop something else in there, then the meaning and metaphor changes. With Braid, I think I'm right in saying that the time travel came later? That way you could rewind and fast-forward -- was that always there?

JB: That was the very first thing in the game. What happened was I originally had the idea that it would be about time, but I had other ideas about what it would be. The rewind was something I wanted to try.

There was a mailing list discussion with me and a bunch of designer friends about Prince of Persia and Blinx and games like that. It was kind of cool that you could rewind, but they don't use it very well. I've given this thread in lectures before. So that was kind of in the back of my head. "Hey, I want to try out rewind."

But that wasn't even the major idea, since a couple of other games have done rewind, and I wanted to be Mr. Experimental Gameplay Guy. I want to do something totally different that nobody's ever done. So I had some ideas about... there was this idea in quantum mechanics about how time doesn't actually go forward at a small scale. It's called the arrow of time.

It's an obvious fact about our macroscopic world. You can remember the past, but you can't remember the future, and you can't predict the future. But on the quantum mechanic level, that doesn't exist. The rules go the same in both directions. So where does that come from? I wanted to explore the idea of what if that is actually illusionary.

So one of the worlds was going to be trying to conceptualize that somehow. Maybe I go through the level with whatever powers I have -- maybe it's just running and jumping and opening doors -- and then time reverses, and I have to follow the same path in reverse, and I hope that I did something that's actually possible to do in reverse. It can be a puzzle like, "Hey, if I went down somewhere that's too high to jump up again, then it was invalid somehow with the bidirectionality of time." That was one idea that I had.

The other one was, maybe I can do something -- it's a 2D game and has always been conceived as a 2D game -- where you run around a level that gets extruded into 3D. Like, you stack the different frames on top of each other, and you can see a cube from different [angles] and then you can maybe do something with that, to visualize this hyper-gameplay thing.

I tried both of those to various degrees, and other things too. The quantum mechanic thing or the bidirectional time thing, I mean, just on paper really, and I didn't come up with enough compelling... I thought the theme was cool, but the gameplay wasn't living up to it. I didn't see why that would really be compelling. I ended up programming the cube thing later, and it just didn't... that came later, and it was harder to program, after the rest of Braid, and it didn't add enough. It's like, "Okay, I'm rotating this graphical thing and I'm seeing the future and stuff." I was like, "The rest of the game is strong enough. It doesn't need that."

But the rewind was the first thing that I actually programmed. Because I'm the programmer and the designer, this is one of those things that might not happen with a bigger team. As the programmer and the designer, I instantly saw, because of the way I programmed it, that certain things were possible.

All of the ideas were mixed around in my head, and I had the idea without knowing where it came from, which is just, "Oh! I made it so you can rewind, which involves storing all the memory about where everything was in the world somewhere so that the game can go back later and retrieve it. Obviously, I can do that to only some of the objects. I can have some of the objects always go forward in time."

I didn't logically plan that idea out or brainstorm it. It just happened. From there, the rest of the game just exploded. Originally, it was going to just be rewind and a bunch of things unrelated to rewind -- maybe time-related, or universe or quantum mechanic-related things. But from there, as soon as I had that idea, the game was about rewind centrally, and everything else was as minimal possible changes as I could make to that core rewind that would still be very interesting.

There was just no end of ideas from there. It was like, "Oh yeah, I can do that. I can have time tied to your position in space." That idea happened within five minutes of the first one. The other ones came a little later, but right there, that was enough for a full game. I programmed those little levels, and I knew that this was the best game that I've ever been working on.

I don't know if I was just the designer and there was a different programmer if that idea would've happened. This level of idea mixture doesn't happen on a team. It might've happened. I don't mean to say that Braid is somehow a brilliant idea that only I could conceive. Given enough time, all ideas are going to get explored. But I don't know, it might've been a while before anyone made this game otherwise.

One of the things I found interesting while playing the game is that it's kind of like a series of logic puzzles. Each room you get to, you've got a logic puzzle. You work out what to do, and then you can move onto the next one.

I don't know if you saw Jonathan Smith's talk about the springy path, so you could get through the game and generally get through the game without too much resistance, but you can see all these other things if you go back and look again.

But the bit about being in a room and trying to work out what to do in a room kind of reminds me of point-and-click adventures. It's something that's been kind of left by the wayside, that way of doing things. Obviously, it's in no way a point-and-click adventure, but that active process that you go through as a player is similar.

It's one of those games where one person might get it straight away. They'll walk into a room and go, "Okay, I get it." And then someone else will be there for an hour. I've seen that with your game. Some people do it straight away, and some people take forever. How on earth do you balance something like that? It depends on the minds approaching the game in a much more exaggerated way than in most games.

JB: Early on, once I had all these ideas and was really hyped about the game, I decided that this is going to be the best game I've done so far. It's going to be like a philosophical pursuit for me. So I'm going to abandon all the other traditional ideas about game design that I've had.

Those include stuff like, "You need to have danger in order to keep the player interested." It started as an action-platformer, and it moved to puzzles when it was like, "Well, I don't want to kill the player or have lives, so how do I make the game interesting?" It's about thinking about where you are, and not just jumping over monsters.

Another part of game design that I just threw out was the idea of balance, or even the idea that everybody should be able to finish a game. That's certainly something that's come into prevalence. It's not something the industry does very well. People still don't play through most games.

But it's something that designers try to do. I was like, "No." This game is like a meditation or a kind of study -- a fun kind of study, hopefully. But it's about understanding the answers to these puzzles, and if you don't understand them yet, you just haven't finished the game, and that's okay.

Now, I did design the game because... not only are different people going to have different ease at solving this kind of puzzle, based on how much they've thought about weird time stuff or if they've read science fiction as a kid. I don't know what it has to do with. Not only that, but different people find different puzzles harder than others. There are definitely some puzzles that are easier and some that are harder, but among the ones that are harder, you just don't know.

So the game is designed so that it doesn't actually block you in a room almost ever. It does that a very little bit at the beginning in order to make sure the player understands the rules of the game. It starts out with just rewind, and then rewind with exceptions, but once you understand the exceptions... well, you can get through that level without really understanding it by failing, but once it's been shown to you, then the game is actually open. All you have to do is walk to the end of every level. You don't actually have to solve a puzzle almost ever. There's boss monsters that lock you in until you kill them, but that's it.

And that was just to provide some pacing and not make the game totally feel like a cakewalk to get to the end. That was actually a case in which I didn't throw out traditional design wisdom, which has been hard-earned over many years. It's like, if there's a hard puzzle that you just can't get because you can't read the designer's mind or whatever and it's frustrating, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to play the rest of the game and then come back to that later. I wanted to allow that.

In fact, in Braid, sometimes there will be a puzzle that's pretty hard. It's almost like dynamic difficulty adjustment. Sometimes you'll have a puzzle that's hard in some way. "I don't get it." And then you play on, and maybe there's another puzzle that has an easier aspect of that that you can solve that will remind you of the earlier one and give you an idea. "Oh yeah, that puzzle that I was stuck on might work like this!"

So if you're a more hardcore player who wants to grind through the game, you can attack that puzzle and not give up, but if you don't do it that way, it might be a little easier, but you're still not being given hints. The game never gives you hints.

I think Microsoft wanted a hint system early on and I was like, "No. There's no way that there's going to be a hint system in this game, because it's opposed to the fundamental philosophy of the game, which is about actually understanding." So yeah, I think I talked that one dry, but I don't feel like I've quite hit the end.

When you were testing, did you balance anything as a result of that? Or were you like, "No, there's no room for balancing. Either you get it or you don't and come back to it later, but that's just how it is?"

JB: Yeah, most of the puzzles are just the best puzzles that I've found through interpretation. It so happened that there was a good difficulty variety.

That was another thing. One traditional idea of games is that a game starts out easy and then gets harder toward the end, and it ramps up, because you've got to have this challenge that ramps up. I didn't find that to be the case when I really questioned that for Braid because of a couple of reasons.

One is that it has this parallel structure. Every time you go into a new world, there's a new rule that wants to ramp up from easy to harder, at least. But then also, it's just nice to have pacing. It's nice to be playing something hard for a while and then have something easy and then hard.

If you go see an action movie, it doesn't ramp up the action until it's solid action for the last hour, necessarily. I guess some movies do that, but it's kind of exhausting. It's like, maybe you open with a big scene, then you have a rest period, then you have another big scene. Things like that.

Kind of like comic relief game mechanics.

JB: Yeah. I've had lectures about rewards -- artificial rewards and natural rewards -- and it's kind of a natural reward to work on something hard and figure it out. First of all, that feels really good, like, "Dude, I am smart. I figured this out. I didn't think I would be able to. It took me an hour of just staring."

Because Braid is not like one of those 13-puzzles or whatever where you're moving something around, or a Rubik's Cube, or anything. It's like, there's two things on the screen, and you're like, "What? It's not possible to get that thing," and then like an hour later it's like, "Oh yeah, I actually just do one action and I can get it."

That's another reason why it feels good, because it's not arbitrary. It's not like you've stumbled your way through a complex series of motions, usually. There are a couple of puzzles in the game that you can get that way, but there's always a better solution. The speed run at the end of the game that unlocks after you win it encourages you to find a better solution

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