Jonathan Blow is a video game developer whose critics call pretentious and grouchy.
He once had the audacity to wonder aloud why more people don't make video games for adults who like reading books.
That was some time after he had the temerity to criticize the game-making of the geniuses at Nintendo. That was also some time before he told me, just last week, that he'd be depressed if he did what anyone else was doing in game development. He has to do his own things, he said. "I have to be pioneering."
It would be so easy to misunderstand Jonathan Blow, to cast him off as a blow-hard, to miss his doubts and ignore his excellent ambitions. It would be unfortunate, because Jonathan Blow is the kind of righteous rebel video games need.
Physically, Blow doesn't stand out: white guy, trim build, glasses and a shaved head. His voice is pinched. His gestures, though, are a little different. When I sat with him last week, to discuss his newest game after he'd let me play it almost undisturbed for two hours, he'd lean forward and tilt his head to the side, parallel to the floor, as if to consider the world differently as he organized his thoughts and prepared paragraphs of answers.
He wants to do unusual thing. He'll tell you, as he told me, that he wants "to do a game that is a little more adult in the sense that it is a game for people with long attention spans." And the impression I get is that Blow himself is a game developer for people with long attention spans. Sure, he's good for a quote or a soundbite, good for a quick knock on "unethical" design of reward-centric games like World of Warcraft or a poke at the clumsily complex starts of Assassin's Creed or Prototype. But the truncated take on Blow is off.
In an attempt to explain this willfully critical creator, we could condemn Jonathan Blow as a game designer who doesn't play video games. Because he rarely does. I suggested to him that we could go to a GameStop and I could point to a wall of games and he'd find nothing he cared to play. Not quite, he said, giving me a perfect Jonathan Blow answer: "I could find a bunch of games to buy and take home and play for an hour." The insult is implied.
(The Atari 2600's Air-Sea Battle | Magnum Arcade)
Blow may be an outsider to gaming's mainstream, a bright, sharp-elbowed indie guy who appropriately lists among the few categories of posts on his blog "engine tech" and "ill-advised rants." His gaming origins, however, were common. He grew up the way many gamers born in the '70s did. He had an Atari. He played Air-Sea Battle. He played what everyone else was playing. "When I was a kid I just loved games and saw the potential," he told me. "At some point my interest in games did not go away, as it has for many people."
He cared about video games a lot. He still does. "I can't explain to you why," he said. "I wonder if sometimes I'm fooling myself and don't care about them as much as I think I do and need something to believe in and this is it. But one thing that has always appealed to me is that I've always wanted to do something in life that is productive or meaningful that, if I wasn't doing it, probably wouldn't get done."
There is an outside world that sneers at video games. There is a large batch of people who play video games who don't but think of them as nothing more as a good vehicle for tossing angry birds or fighting in virtual wars. Games are a past-time to many, a means of expression to fewer. I seldom hear the creators of games tell me they're in it to be meaningful. But that is Blow.
In 2008 he made what he considers his first game. He hints that that there was a game before all that, a game that doesn't count because he wasn't serious about it. Braid was first, a 2008 Game of the Year contender that was a sort of reinterpretation of Super Mario Bros. that gave the player unusual methods to manipulate the flow of time.
"What I thought of myself as a designer back then was that I'm going to be someone who does new gameplay mechanics that are interesting and explores that," he said. He'd found some great mechanics for Braid. He let players rewind time. He let them set up bubbles in the playing field inside which time flowed at a different rate. His first game, which was a downloadable hit on the Xbox 360 in the summer of '08, brimmed with new gameplay mechanics. For his next project he originally sought to find more. "But I wouldn't be satisfied with that being the point anymore," he realized. "For me, there is a deeper thing happening. There is, through the art of game design, some kind of observation about that universe that is not accessible in the same way from other media. If I can get that, then I don't even care about the game mechanic. If I can do that in a first-person shooter that looks exactly like Doom 3 then I would do it."
Blow's current project is a team effort called The Witness. I've written about what it is, based on what I could glean from a two-hour session with the unfinished work last week. The short version is that it's an evolution of the 1993 PC hit Myst a successor to a genre of graphic adventures and a specific call-back to that original phenomenon of solving non-verbal puzzles on a curiously uninhabited island.
"I liked Myst and other games of that era but what I really liked were games that never existed," he said. "It's like there's some really fucking awesome game like Myst that nobody ever made because it was filled with all of these illogical puzzles and stuff, right?" I didn't follow. He was inspired by an imaginary game? "I can picture in my head what that game would be," he said. "I'm letting that inspire me. I'm not saying [The Witness] is that game either but this is sort of like if those games… if, instead of people making a thousand shitty Myst clones, they actually successfully improved the genre over time. This would be inspired by those. But as it stands, actually, a lot of those games are an anti-inspiration." He explained that the successors of Myst were full of obscure puzzles and confusing graphics that made it hard to determine what was a puzzle and what wasn't. They played by strange rules.
In the Witness you're solving line-drawing puzzles that are clearly presented on blue terminals that are set up throughout a lush, lonely island. The game is entirely about looking at things closely, discovering patterns and systems, learning a language of solutions while grasping still-mysterious larger ideas that Blow wants to convey.
Blow has "a twinge of nervousness" that The Witness might be bad. I don't, but he did get amusingly mixed reactions when he showed people the game last spring at the Game Developer's Conference. "The biggest correlation that I saw was, as the conference went on, people's opinion of the game went down, because they were tired. They were grumpy. They were overstimulated from too many other things in the conference. People at the end were getting antsy about it. People at the beginning were like, 'Fuck, this is awesome!'" That's why Blow let me play his game alone for two hours last week while he sat in an adjacent room. That experience went much better than when I tried to play a rougher version of it last year at a noisy expo. "This is kind of a game where you want a clear mind," he explained, "so the parts of your subconscious that tell you how to do things bubble up to the surface."
Jonathan Blow may be known in some circles for knocking other people's work, but I discovered, as we chatted last week, that he almost committed one of the very game design sins he opposed. It recalibrated my take on what he criticizes about games. He's not criticizing people or even games but trends, currents even he can be swept into. It happend about a year ago. He's vociferously against rewards-driven game design, what he sees as a Skinner-box approach to game design that compels a player to keep playing by perpetually offering a trickle of rewards for minor actions. That's what he was knocking when he criticized the fealty designers had to littering gold coins into their game worlds, Super Mario Bros.-style, to keep players going. That's what he was referring to when he knocked the eternal treadmill of achievement that is almost every massively multiplayer online game. When you engineer a game to foster those constant reward compulsions, he told me, "there is a lack of faith in what is the core game." The game designer doesn't trust that players will find the playing of a game to be rewarding enough, so he or she adds all these baubles and unlocks to keep the player playing.
Blow publicly railed against that rewards stuff when he was making Braid. And then, in the early stages of The Witness, as he thought of how he'd deposit small radios in his world that could be discovered and, optionally, reveal parts of the game's storyline, he planned to give people a reward for collecting them. Then he caught himself. "It felt like pandering and a betrayal of the subject matter." And yet he came so close, thinking that that's what gamers wanted, to being the game designer he doesn't want to be. He concluded: "the only way I can make a game is not trying to maximize my audience." (It is through the game's specific combination of gameplay to the ideas of its story that Blow mentioned, casually to me, that he is "attempting to be profound".)
There is much to share about a conversation with Jonathan Blow, but let's end with one of those long head-tilting Blow paragraphs, the one he spoke to me as he explained why he doesn't play many games anymore, the one that takes a left turn into Thomas Pynchon, veers through Metacritic and ends, well… you'll see.
It starts with him saying he doesn't play many games these day. "The reason I don't is they don't ask much of me as a player. They're very pandering. 'Press A to win' or whatever. So, in some sense, I'm making a game for people who might like games I might like…"
A game that asks something of you, I asked?
"Yes, but in a way that is more that is bigger than games in the past did. The coin-op games of the '80s generally asked a lot of you. You generally had to perform or get kicked out. But we sort of charted that space. And there can still be really nice games in that domain, I really like Space Giraffe, for example. I know many people do not. But it's really sort of a game where it's skill-based: do this stuff or you lose. Coin-op games were difficulty-based where it's usually difficult actions that are being tested.
"Over time, games got a lot less difficulty-based. As they got focus-tested, they got like, 'Oh, we sold this game to somebody for like 60 bucks. We can't kick them out all the time. We want to let them get to the end so they feel satisfied.' But, because all that we knew how to make were games where the point was to surpass the difficulty challenge, then in subtracting the difficulty track out, we kind of took away the reasons to play the games. So these fake reasons have to come in and take their place, like, 'Oh, there's a story now with all these milestones of the story to drag you along or there are various other reward schedules.' Those have to be there. I think they would be there regardless because they are powerful mechanisms, but they especially have to be there once you've drained the rest of a point of a game out of a game.
"What I'm interested in... one of the things I think is interesting is finding other things besides difficulty-based challenges to be the meat of the game, to be interesting... going back to Gravity's Rainbow, there is some kind of meat to that that is about it's a difficult book and it's challenging to read. But that's not the majority of it. We have figured out in literature how to put stuff in there that is worth reading for its own sake. I'm interested in that. And so with this game I feel like I have at least been able to see... my process was about going out and investigating. I didn't really know what the gameplay was going to be, but I investigated all these situations and I found these little puzzle phenomena. It's almost like math, where you have these things that behave in a certain way and they combine in a certain way and that's interesting and maybe beautiful, if you think of it that way, and that existed before I found it. I just picked which ones to find and which ones to put together in this game...
"And even if people don't like the game, if it gets like a 5 Metacritic—which I don't think it would—but let's say 6.5 if everybody hates it, I know that this stuff is in there and other people will notice too and that gives me the confidence to not worry about it, because it's there. The better a designer I am, the more accessible I can make these things without diluting them. Because that's the important part. The games industry makes things accessible usually by dumbing things down and diluting them. The extent that I can do that without sapping the essence of golden stuff that's here, then maybe the better that is. But even if I fail at that stuff and I turn out to be a sucky puzzle designer— for the record, I think the puzzles are actually quite good—even if I design kind of bad puzzles I know that the foundation is a quite strong."
That's Jonathan Blow, gamers, for those of you with long attention spans.