Blow Your Mind

Steven Balbirnie talks to the developer of Braid, Jonathan Blow, about The Witness, independent video game funding and Games Jams

Between 2001 and 2004, Jonathan Blow wrote ‘The Inner Product’, a column for Game Developer Magazine. He wrote in-depth articles on subjects such as scripting languages, AI and animation. However, Blow’s rise to wider prominence came when his preliminary version of the experimental platformer game Braid won the 2006 Independent Games Festival’s ‘Innovation in Game Design Award’, two years before the release of the finished game.

Braid’s defining characteristic is the ability to manipulate the flow of time. When asked about the origins of this mechanic, Blow says: “Other games had done rewinding before, but I was frustrated with the way they had done it. I felt there were obviously big missed opportunities… A friend of mine suggested that all games should have rewind in an unlimited way; the way you can press a rewind button when watching a video. That was part of the idea and from there on, it was a process of exploration.”

While there was a lot of creativity and thought put into that aspect of the game, the decision to develop Braid as a platformer was a practical one. “I built Braid as a platformer because platformers can be very simple worlds with very simple rules. I knew that when I started messing with time, it would complicate things, so I wanted a simple baseline on which to build. That way, the player can clearly see and absorb the time manipulations affect the world.”

Following on from Braid’s success, Blow is developing a new game, The Witness, which is due to be released later this year. “The Witness is a first-person puzzle or exploration game. It is inspired by games like Myst, in terms of its setting and theme, but the actual gameplay is a very different thing.”

With The Witness, Blow intends to redefine a classic games genre in a modern way. “I don’t like the gameplay of traditional graphic adventures. When growing up I used to love adventure games; mainly text adventures, but later I played some graphical ones. But as the design of video games evolved and new genres were born, we developed ideas about what makes a game good, how games should flow, etc, that substantially contributes to the quality of games today. Classic adventure games never figured out how to adopt these ideas, for the most part, so the genre sort of died out.”

Blow’s explanation of his approach to the genre is straightforward: “The Witness goes back to the concept of the first-person graphic adventure and attempts to redesign the gameplay of that genre in a way that is aware of modern ideas of game design. In this case it ended up being a bit of a fusion between an abstract puzzle game and an exploration-based adventure game.”

An intriguing aspect of The Witness is the novel process that is going into the design of the game’s environments; architects used to designing for the physical world are part of a team creating structures in a virtual medium. Blow finds this process to be both intensive and rewarding. “It’s a fair bit of work because I don’t understand anything about architecture and they don’t know about game design, so a lot of back-and-forth has to happen, but the game is much better for it. There is a certain gravitas to the world now that wasn’t there before, and it intensifies as we flesh out the world.”

While Blow’s work has attained him the status of one of the industry’s most acclaimed indie developers, he is also a supporter of independents who are only just trying to break into the gaming industry. To this end, Blow is a partner in the Indie Fund, which was established in 2010. “Our main goal is to help developers become independent and stay independent. We do this by funding promising games under terms that are very friendly to the developer, much better than they could get from a publisher. Along with later developments like these big-budget Kickstarter campaigns, we help push counter pressure on publishers who would otherwise always be trying to push developers into ever-worse deals. Now developers know that if the offers from publishers are bad enough, and their game is interesting enough, they have these viable alternatives.”

The Indie Fund has already achieved some successes as well. “Two of the games we have funded so far have been released: Q.U.B.E. and Dear Esther, both of which were profitable. We have several more games we are funding that will be released pretty soon: Monaco, Antichamber, Faraway, The Swapper.”

Blow also engages creatively with his contemporaries in the indie community. Over four days in May, he participated in an intensive design retreat called the ‘Depth Jam’ with Chris Hecker, the creator of Spy Party, Marc ten Bosch, the designer behind Miegakure, and Daniel Benmergui of Storyteller. Blow believes events such as ‘Depth Jam’ aid young, up-and-coming developers, as well as those who have much experience in the industry already.

“There are a lot of Games Jams now, and these can be interesting places for beginners to learn or for advanced developers to try out crazy ideas. However, Games Jams don’t produce deep games. I feel that there is way more trying-out-wacky ideas than we really need, but very few people are working on making games deep. In the video game industry, overall, we have a crisis of shallowness. So this was our experiment in providing a setting where things can be explored in-depth. We think it was successful and plan to do more of them.”

Whether encouraging fledgling developers, jamming with his peers or experimenting through his own work, Jonathan Blow is undeniably one of the most significant figures in contemporary independent games development. This is a reputation that looks likely to be further bolstered, and deservedly so, by the forthcoming release of The Witness.

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