Jonathan Blow is known for two things: creating time-altering indie platformer Braid, and being a very outspoken game designer. Soon he might be known for a third thing, as development gathers pace on his exploration puzzle game, The Witness.
At this year's GameCity event in Nottingham, I sat down with Blow to talk about The Witness, how he's avoiding the design flaws that killed adventure games in the mid-90s, and why, in his opinion, social games are evil.
PC Gamer: You described The Witness as an adventure game modernised?
Jonathan Blow: Yeah. I used to really love adventure games back when I first got computers. One of the first games I ever played was an adventure game. Turns out it was not a very good one, but I still liked it, and I used to play the old Infocom games all the time, those were my favourite things.
And then some time much later I became a professional game designer, like in the nineties, and learned by doing a lot of things about game design. Now when I look back I realise that game design has improved a lot in the past couple of decades.
If you go to conferences, designers are always talking about how they're doing things and how to make games more fun. And that's true, it's pretty obvious. If you go back, get an emulator and play some games from the eighties on home computers, they're kinda unplayable. You know, people say, “Games were just as good then as they are now.” It's just not true. Things are way better design-wise.
PC Gamer: I assume there won't be a lot of combine item A with items B through Z then?
Jonathan Blow: There will not. Right. This is what I'm trying to get to, though. It's that, for most genres of game, gameplay has really been streamlined. A lot of problems have been fixed, things are better.
So, if you play Super Meat Boy for example, it's a lot like an old-school platformer, but it's refined. That game could have been made in the early nineties technically, but the design sensibility is very modern. So, it's a product of modern design ideas.
That happened to all the genres, but it never quite happened in adventure games. The core gameplay of a racing game, for example, has been refined. It's way more interesting than Pole Position was in the arcade, you know. Much more sophisticated. A first person shooter is a lot about knowing what's happening on the map. Especially if it's multiplayer, like, who is where? And all this stuff. It's been iterated and refined.
Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It's going to be cool puzzle solving. There's going to be a story and stuff.” But really what's actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don't know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don't know if this is a puzzle” or “I don't know if I need an item to solve this that I don't have yet, or if I'm just not thinking.”
Adventure games are all confusion. If it's text, it's “Why doesn't the parser understand me still?” So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that's true with modern [versions]. All the episodic stuff that's coming out. And there's a whole community that makes modern interactive fiction games and all this stuff. And it's true for all these games.
So the long-winded way of getting to the point is that one of the design ideas behind The Witness is that it is inspired by games like Myst and… even text based adventure games, even to an extent of the feel of the world. But adventure gameplay is fundamentally broken so if you're going to take modern design ideas and modern design sensibility and change adventure so that they're playable by modern standards, what does that genre turn into? And there's a bunch of different things that it could turn into and [The Witness] is just one of them.
PC Gamer: A lot of fans of old-school point-and-click games would probably take instinctive offence – not at refining the genre – but at assuming that they are broken and inaccessible.
Jonathan Blow: Yeah, but it's true. And I'm sorry, you know. I love those games. I grew up on adventure games. Even graphic adventures I don't love as much as the old text adventures, but there are a few like Loom is a really compelling game in a lot of ways, it was a really ground-breaking game.
But there's this whole thing that happened in the mid-to-late nineties. Adventure games kind of died, commercially and a lot of people felt really sad about that. Like, “Oh, I'm nostalgic for the days of adventure games. They died. It's such a shame.” It's not an accident that they died. It's absolutely not. If you look at it as a modern game designer there are obvious reasons why adventure games are not played by as large an audience as these other genres of games. And it has to do with that core gameplay of what's going through their head.
PC Gamer: You said in a recent lecture that your goal is to make games that “speak to the human condition.” If Braid did that in terms of Time and Memory – in terms of those themes – in what way do you hope The Witness does that?
Jonathan Blow: Well, Braid isn't about Time and Memory or anything like that.
PC Gamer: It is a little bit. Come on.
Jonathan Blow: The time thing. Yeah, it's the mechanics of the game-- Sorry, I'm choking on this croissant. It's very dry.
There's some level where you could say Braid is about Time stuff. But at a deeper level – and this is only slightly deeper – it's about you going into world after world and there's a rule set that's different. Like, the laws of the universe are different in every world. It happens to be Time that changes a little bit.
But at a slightly deeper level it's about looking at and understanding those new rules and those differences and using them to do things that you couldn't do before, that maybe looked before looked impossible. You could make a statement about what Braid is about that doesn't even have the word Time in it. That is less immediate because the immediate thing in Braid is that you're hitting the button and you're rewinding, but I think it's closer to the core of what it really means.
With The Witness it's about asking oneself that kind of question that I was talking about. Like, why am I in the world? What's the world for? Why is it that there's this universe with light bouncing off objects and things in 3D space and this seeming progression of time and what am I doing here and what could be the reason for all this existing?
The purpose of the game is not to provide an answer to that because I can't give you the definitive answer. But it's about the process of asking the question seriously. And it's about different ways in the modern world that we've refined the process of asking that question and about different approaches that people have asked this question very seriously, different approaches they can take.
PC Gamer: So, it's almost a game about philosophy.
Jonathan Blow: A little bit. It's a very specific part of philosophy. It's a very existential game. It's about the question of what am I doing here? Which is a very old question.
PC Gamer: That's presumably why Myst is an inspiration?
Jonathan Blow: It's a classic video game trope. I mean, you start the game. You don't exactly know who you are –
PC Gamer: Or you've got amnesia.
Jonathan Blow: Yeah, or you have amnesia or whatever! And then through the course of the game you find out who you are. Like, BioShock did that. Tons of games do that. This game does it but in a very self-conscious, self-referential kind of way.
PC Gamer: About that lecture you gave recently. I wanted to ask you about social games. And I know you don't like that as a title.
Jonathan Blow: Did I say that in my speech actually?
PC Gamer: Well, you called them evil.
Jonathan Blow: No, I mean the name “social games.”
PC Gamer: I think you said you don't like it being attributed to some of those games?
Jonathan Blow: Well, they're not very social. A game like World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike or whatever is way more social. Because you actually meet new people in clans or guilds. You go do activities together and help each other out, right?
[With certain social games] it's about the game exploiting your friends list that you already made, so it's not really about meeting people. And it's not really about doing things with them because you're never playing at the same time. It's about using your friends as resources to progress in the game, which is the opposite of actual sociality or friendship. Maybe not exactly, but it's not the same thing, right? They're really just called social games because they run on social networks but they're way less [social] – like sitting down and playing a board game with friends at a party is a way more social game. That's an intensely social experience, right? So, like whatever. I hate that name.
PC Gamer: Do you still think social games are “evil” then?
Jonathan Blow: Yes. Absolutely. There's no other word for it except evil. Of course you can debate anything, but the general definition of evil in the real world, where there isn't like the villain in the mountain fortress, is selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world. And that's exactly what [most of these games are].
PC Gamer: Do you blame the player? I mean, is it the player's fault for getting involved? Even if they don't realise they're being harmed?
Jonathan Blow: One of the things that we have to deal with in modern society is this duality. We want people to have personal responsibility, right?
But the thing about these games though is they're made to look really light and friendly or whatever. So it's very difficult especially for someone to think about games and how their design affects the world – which is most people in the world, they don't think about that, right? It's very difficult for them to see how this could possibly be detrimental in any way. They're just like, “Oh, I'm clicking on the items, I'm having fun”. You know, whatever.
It's like I was saying in that talk, I don't necessarily like to approach it from that question “Is the player having fun or not,” because I'm usually talking to designers at these lectures. I go at it from the designer's side and I ask “Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?”
Some kinds of games are very clearly made [to give something] – like Dwarf Fortress is definitely trying to give the players something and not exploit players. That's very obvious to me in the way that it's made. [Most of these social games are] the opposite of that. It's trying to take the maximum amount while trying to give the minimum amount. So that's an ethics of game design question. To me it doesn't matter if people feel like they're having fun or feel like they want to play the game, because the designers know what they're doing.
PC Gamer: Some might say it's a bit paternalistic to say that people playing don't really know what's good for them?
Jonathan Blow: No, because it's true. If you go up and you say that to somebody, then you're just kind of being a jerk, right? That you don't know what's best for you. I'm not trying to be that strong about it. I'm not trying to say “I know what's best for players and they shouldn't play these games”. It's okay to play social games to an extent. Like it's probably okay to smoke cigarettes to an extent, but what these designers do – and this is why I always go to it from the design standpoint – they very deliberately design the game to not give the player everything that they want, to string the player along and to invade the player's free time away from the game.
Designers know what they are doing. They know when they show up in the office – “My goal is to degrade the player's quality of life”. They probably won't think about that exact phrase. But [will think], “My goal is to get people to think about my game and to put more money into my game and get other friends to play my game to the exclusion of all other games and all other things that they might do with their free time.” That is the job description of those designers. And that's evil. It's not about giving people anything. It's about taking from people.
PC Gamer: Would you say then that the indie community is sort of the antithesis of this?
Jonathan Blow: Often, but not by necessity. Most indies are into games because they like it and not because they're trying to IPO with the social game company. But some indies are definitely very money driven that way.
PC Gamer: The indie gaming scene is obviously young when compared to indie music or film, would you say that the word indie is still a good way to describe the scene? If you defined “indie” what would it be?
Jonathan Blow: [Laughs] I don't like getting into that discussion. Everybody's like, “Does indie mean this? Does indie mean that?” I don't know and I don't care that much. What I care about really is people that are being thoughtful in game design and are making interesting games. They might be indie, they might be funded by a publisher with tens of millions of dollars – even though that's kind of rare. But sometimes that happens. I just like it when people are making interesting games.