163: Jonathan Blow's Shifting Intention

Jonathan Blow's Shifting Intention

"On August 6, 2008, after over three years of work, independent game designer Jonathan Blow launched the puzzle platformer Braid on Xbox Live Arcade. Braid marks an inflection point in Blow's career, his first polished product as an indie; before, he had published only a few sketchy prototypes. Some players will eagerly assess how the game embodies the artistic principles Blow advocates. In contrast, a few bloggers, stung by his comments about the shady ethics of World of Warcraft, must secretly hope his game bombs.

"On that count, at least, they're too late. Whether Braid itself succeeds or fails commercially, it had already become famous before launch as a vehicle to highlight Blow's provocative and inspiring ideas."

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The bloke does seem like an arse do me, but after just playing the demo I hail Braid as the best game ever made (or maybe Portals, I can't decide). Never before have I seen a title that furthers artistic ideas, expresses emotion and is fun in the same way.

His thoughts about MMO's are interesting and true to a degree, they are designed to be addictive because that earns them more money, but I think he takes his critisism a bit to far.

The game industry can learn from Mr Blow by playing his game, not by listening to him.

He seems a bit arrogant yes, but his philosophy is sound and it's worth listening too, but should be taken with a grain of salt. It's sort of like Al Gore having an important message, even if he goes to far and is a bit of a hypocrate.

So, he doesn't think the game industry needs to create new games but he doesn't approve of alot(?) of the current games? Or, perhaps more accurately, he is just unhappy with the current thesis that drives most game design; interaction over entertainment. One could argue that theory is reflected in the title of this little publication.

While I do applaud his moxy, I think he may be sailing the wrong way in the storm. At best, he's going to make himself look valiant. At worse, hes going to sink the ship. Either way, he sure as hell isn't going to change which way the storm blows. If people didn't need the grind that WoW offers, they wouldn't play WoW. I can't really hold the designers responsible for identifying their largest customer base and catering to them. This is an industry, and any industry obeys the same law; profit. That doesn't mean that games can't be an artform, and that games shouldn't aspire to be so, but those games will always be more fringe than mainstream.

You could design a toaster that has flashy lights, an interactive toast-catching feature, and a "watch-while-it-toasts" window, but it probably would never sell that much. Why? Because people just want toast. And the mainstream gaming community just wants to escape. Still, a good article. Kudos.

Blow's philosophy of game design could work... so long as he doesn't forget that he's creating games and not art installations for the edification of future generations. It's all well and good to pooh-pooh the "grind" of MMOs today but people do play MMOs and are quite happy to grind, Skinner-boxing or no. Unless Blow takes that into account, and provides some substitute that satisifies this hunter-gatherer mode of play, he's not going to attract the players who seek that experience out.

I'm all for indie-designed games; it's great to have variety in the market. But I'm not terribly supportive of genre snobbery as it only hurts gaming as a whole.

-- Steve

Guys, play Braid, seriously. It's the Pulp Fiction of gaming. You will understand what he is talking about when you do.

From what I've read of him, he's not thinking he's going to personally change which way the storm blows, but what he is doing is pointing out that unless we start exerting some conscious control over where we're heading, the storm will blow us into the reefs and shoals of public opinion and legislation. Look at gambling and slot machines as perhaps the most relevant examples. We restrict gambling, for instance. Even though many people can handle it just fine, we recognize that some others can't, and end up losing a lot of their earnings and really hurting their own lives in the process. If you were to take that last setnece in isolation, could you really tell if I was talking about gambling or WoW?

Those are the types of shoals we're headed for. Unless the industry develops a conscience, it'll very likely have one thrust upon it, and that's in none of our interests.

Kwil:

Those are the types of shoals we're headed for. Unless the industry develops a conscience, it'll very likely have one thrust upon it, and that's in none of our interests.

I would argue that the legislation is unavoidable. As things become "main-stream" they also come under examination. If it so happens that WoW does cause serious problems in some people's lives, perhaps WoW should be better governed. His response instead seems to be "we must head in a new direction, so that we can avoid such attention." That's great, but the industry won't follow. It would be like trying to stop gambling, or more fittingly alcohol consumption. The market follows the desire, and a capitalistic government will follow the market.

I don't know where this great fear of government intervention comes from. I'm not sure what experience, exactly, has inebriated the public conciousness with fear of government control. Perhaps we should fear speed limits and stop signs soon as well? If it was arguable that video games could never be dangerous, then sure, go crazy. But I don't think that the scientific opinion leans that direction, nor does my own experience. And if it is dangerous, then the only thing that will regulate it is the government. The market will never regulate itself because the market isn't in control. The consumer is.

Sammyfreak is right in that we have to play Blows games and think, rather than just listen to the sounds that come out of his mouth. Braid is a fantastic game in terms of emotiveness as well as fun and its thought-provoking qualities. The only other games that have done that to me are Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

In regards to the Matthew Arnold joke, I was skimming Rasselas by Samuel Johnson the other night. I particularly like the joke about the lighthouse keeper who believes that because he is predicting where the weather will go, he is in fact controlling where the weather will go. I like it because Johnson was making a rather sharp satire about critics who think that what comes out of their mouth is controlling the medium's direction as opposed to just observing its fluctuations and problems.

The thing that irritates me about Blow is that he crosses that line sometimes. Still need to play Braid though...

There are some of us out here that don't want our games to be "art" or to be life-changing experiences. You know what I miss the most about the games that were around when I was a little kid? Fun. Dosen't matter to me how pretty it is, or how innovative it is, or how the designer wants it to change someone's life, or make them think or expose his personal (asshattish) philosophy...I want to have fun. I go home, and I turn on my PS2, simply so I can get over the feeling that I want to firebomb the houses of the people I deal with all fucking day. I don't want a game to be "important", I want it to be a game. When this discussion of "art above all" starts, consideration for people like me always seems to go right out the window (usually to the tune of "you're not real gamers!")

Yeah, games need to stay games. I mean, look what contemporary artists did to art!

I wish I could try this game out, but I don't have a 360. I read somewhere that Microsoft's exclusivity will eventually end and it will be released for other systems. I hope they figure out a way to bring it to the Wii.

I think he speaks the truth about many things. Shareholders don't make anything but money (and whiney phone calls to the the board of directors complaining "where's my money?"), artists on the other hand have the ability to enrich our lives. Video games could be more artistic with compelling stories and gameplay but not if it means a shareholder might miss out on a new set of titanium golf clubs. Not to say we haven't had video games that are highly artistic, visionary, and emotionally moving just that compared to other forms of entertainment video games still have a lot of maturing to do. It's unfortunate that video games are so technology driven and subsequently expensive and time consuming to produce, otherwise they could really hold their own against artistic expression in film, music, art.

Braid is a great game, and it's fun to play the whole way through. I played WoW for a long time, but got really sick of it as the end-game portions were just constant grinds as your guild slowly pushed forward. It is quite annoying when you have to kill the same bosses and trash over and over each week to work on the next guy. Not exactly the kind of "fun" I expect from a game. I see what he's saying about it, and it does seem that the MMO's do get watered down to little grinds for meaningless items, but I think the sad thing is that many people just stick with their MMO because they have spent so much time with it.

(Maybe the same could be said of marriages as well?) =P

The problem here is that Jonathan Blow and Roger Ebert seem to share a similar mindset- they want each and every release in their chosen field to be "different", to make us think and challenge our ways, to "change our lives" somehow.

The thing is, sometimes we just want loud explosions while we eat popcorn, you know? I like art in my entertainment, but I also like ENTERTAINMENT in my entertainment.

... or, in other words, what Thais said. That'll learn me to read.

I'm all for games that attempt to say something, so no complaints here. We need all sorts of video games and we need all sorts of critics.

I think hes right on one thing. I cant think of any entertainment or art medium where the word "clone" is used so casually, often & derogitively to describe something. Theres nothing wrong with copying good ideas that have already been had; & while games do "copy" good ideas, they often seem to get vocally bemoaned by sections the community for doing so.

I used to play WoW, and I agree with his criticisms of it. I was into it for a few months, then the repetitive "gather this 30% drop rate item 60 times from this mob of identical baddies" started to bug me. The expansion further turned me off, and yet when I have nothing to do over the summer I reactivate my account or just play on a friend's account for a few weeks, then remember that the game stopped being fun for valid reasons. It tells you that it's more fun now, that it's easier to hit level cap (which I've done twice...the /played on those characters make me want to break things), that there's more adventures, new quests that are fun, etc.
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I think I've probably spent more time thinking about Braid's message rather than playing the game. I think Blow is a brilliant, exciting indy developer, but his warnings are pointless. Change just isn't where the money is at right now. The money's in making more of the same with better graphics.

I take exception to some of the comments posted here. Jonathon speaks forthrightly and very bluntly, and often people take his comments personally and become overly defensive. Personally, I feel they are completely missing the point.

There will always be pulpy games. There will always be summer blockbusters like Halo. Anybody who derides his views by saying "they like their games to be fun" to is adopting an extremely narrow view of the world. It's like saying "I like my movies to have action in them", and then taking that to mean the only movies that have any merit are Michael Bay movies.

The audience Blow is trying to reach are game developers, and his message is that developers have an opportunity to look beyond their genres and "stated customer expectations" and push the field. They have an opportunity to address this "cognitive dissonance" between mechanics and narative, once they identify it and understand how it affects the audience.

Everybody is full of praise for games which push genres or redefine gameplay rather than simply have prettier graphics, but when you ask ordinary audiences of what they want, you nearly always end up with a laundry-list of features culled from other games, with vague terms thrown in like "more focus on gameplay" or "better innovation". It's little wonder that so many games are simply new variations on familiar themes. But is this really want audiences want? If audiences knew what they wanted and were able to express it, why is Wii Sports so phenomonally successful? Or Brain Training?

There is a reason film or book critics and creators speak a completely different language to average movie goers. It is because they understand the medium and are able to identify what works or doesn't work in much greater detail than simply saying "That film sucked". And their message is important, because it allows other creators to learn from those lessons and apply it to their own work. In exactly the same way, the traditional gamer demographic are not in a position to help inform how to make games better. They simply don't have the critical framework to assess a game in the same way, and so simply phrase their feedback in terms they know: blanket statements and feature lists.

As both a software developer and game critic, I am keenly interested in what Blow is saying, because it helps me develop new viewpoints and frameworks to analyse both what I build and what I play. He may not always be right, and his examples may sometimes suck, but his point of view helps me become more critical (not negative, analytical if you prefer) and as a result, helps me develop my own skills. The fact that his game is so successful is just icing on the cake.

Treffster:
If audiences knew what they wanted and were able to express it, why is Wii Sports so phenomonally successful? Or Brain Training?

I agree. People say that game developers are just giving the players what they want, but the fact is - at least to some extent - they create their own demand. And Blow is right: It's easy to give customers what you think they want; it's much riskier to give them what you would want.

I guarantee there are plenty of developers out there who have ideas about game design as unique as Blow's. The problem is getting paid to implement them :)

dukeh016:

I don't know where this great fear of government intervention comes from. I'm not sure what experience, exactly, has inebriated the public conciousness with fear of government control.

Well, the regulation of comic books in the 50s (which fucked that industry over for decades) and of the music industry in the 80's would be good, obvious points to start.

Perhaps we should fear speed limits and stop signs soon as well? If it was arguable that video games could never be dangerous, then sure, go crazy. But I don't think that the scientific opinion leans that direction, nor does my own experience.

So you're deliberately joining two very different ideas (speed limits/stop signs + videogames) to prove your danger index. Except that the consequences of not having the former very obviously can be shown to have harm, where as you admit yourself that videogames do not seem to have the same level of threat to life and limb.

Regulations and rules are required in some places if we don't want to dissolve into some kind of brutal 'survival of the fittest' or 'shit happens, too bad' mentality. The question is: where?

And if it is dangerous, then the only thing that will regulate it is the government. The market will never regulate itself because the market isn't in control. The consumer is.

The idea that the consumer is in control is...not so supportable for me. Because the consumer with the most money will dictate a lot more to and about that market than hundreds of poorer ones, and poorer consumers certainly do not have the power to force the market into doing things for them. On top of that, regulations can pretty much bankrupt a business, if done right (see what happened to EC Comics). I'd recommend The Commanding Heights and Shock Doctrine to see how governments interfere (for good and ill) in markets, and how that can be relevant.

It's worth being very, very cautious of any governmental control over personal expression, and videogames do fall under this umbrella to me. If enough people become afraid of that expression, it will be regulated, make no mistake, and probably regulated by people who have no interest in, as Blow hopes for, pushing the industry to do more for us, and have a lot more interest in making sure Madden XX is safe for everyone and making a fuckton of money.

The thing that Thais and Rogue Wolf overlook is that games really do teach us something-even games that they insist are just 'fun'. We learn by doing, and games give us puzzles to work out. If solving that puzzle merely means: Invest 30 hours into the game to win, that's fine for some, but if that's all we get (and most of the time that is exactly what we get) then there is a problem, and I'd say pointing that out is a good thing.

The idea that games are fun, and fun only (or at their best are only fun) is exactly what Blow is saying is wrong, and I agree with him. They don't have to be more, and certainly fun is a great baseline for a game, but to ask for nothing more is a problem.

Treffster:

The audience Blow is trying to reach are game developers, and his message is that developers have an opportunity to look beyond their genres and "stated customer expectations" and push the field. They have an opportunity to address this "cognitive dissonance" between mechanics and narative, once they identify it and understand how it affects the audience.

The problem with that is; who gives a fuck about developers?
Other developers. If all you do is speak in a language that your own clique can understand, then how can you get your message out there?

The audience Blow is trying to reach has to be everyone, otherwise people won't actually investigate or ask for more from their games. While your point about audiences not knowing what they want is well taken, there are obviously SOME people who want more from their experiences beyond developers, (even if it's newcomers who play for 10 minutes and say: this ain't it) because as you point out; Wii Sports is successful.

But isn't that based on the thrill of seeing someone play DDR years ago?

And where did that come from, I wonder?

Guys, I never said that the game has to be "just" anything. A game can be innovative, it can teach you new ways to think (play is the most effective way of learning new skills, after all) a game can raise important issues and new philosophies and be very pretty and artistic and everything else Blow's saying he wants...

What I said is that it needs to be fun. Perhaps I should have said "too" after "fun", but my point still stands. I don't want to turn on a game and feel like I'm being lectured or sermonized at by it. And you know what? Most people, whether they openly admit it or not, probably feel the same. The thing that ticks me off about this interview in particular is that Blow's comments sounds like he's advocating everything else...oh, yeah...and then "make it something that people want to play. But don't discard any of all the stuff that I think is more important that giving people a game they want to play."

After all, it's a videogame...it has to be high art and philosophy rolled into one. And then maybe someone can convince themselves that it's fun to play...so they don't look like an ass for spending all that time not enjoying thier hobby. /sarcasm

Ice-Nine:

Treffster:
If audiences knew what they wanted and were able to express it, why is Wii Sports so phenomonally successful? Or Brain Training?

I agree. People say that game developers are just giving the players what they want, but the fact is - at least to some extent - they create their own demand. And Blow is right: It's easy to give customers what you think they want; it's much riskier to give them what you would want.

I guarantee there are plenty of developers out there who have ideas about game design as unique as Blow's. The problem is getting paid to implement them :)

I bet you that if people actually implemented every great idea they had, they would realize how much they all actually suck. Forget the mainstream - good luck making something YOU would enjoy! it's not easy. talk is cheap, folks.

Having said that, the only way to realize that a great idea is actually great is to implement it. Nothing more nothing less. That's part of Blow's message to aspiring developers: Just fucking implement it and see. Yes, it'll be tough if you don't know how to do it. So learn, or get a friend to help you. But don't think people are gonna give you money just because the game is awesome in your mind.

Action over thought.

I think Blow's message is pretty simple: If you want to make more innovative games, do it. Prototyping is easier than ever these days.

If you don't have time to do it, well, that's why you're not doing it: you don't have time, or you don't really have the motivation to. Nothing wrong with that, but that's why. Deal with it.

His message is a call to action: There is much unexplored (or rarely explored, or haven't explored in a while) territory in video games, so if you really care about innovation and the health of the medium, go forth and explore - there's plenty to find!

While I agree with most of what Blow said, I think there is a lot more room for reform. For example, Braid had me jumping on generic enemies and reading the story in text. These are the wrong kinds of traditions to uphold. Games should try to avoid the traditional abstractions and trust their own strengths.

I absolutely hate it when people repeat the words "fun" and "addictive" like they're a mantra. No one thinks that adding nicotine to cigarettes to make them more addictive is a good thing. Fun on the other hand is completely subjective. What is fun for some can be absolute torture for someone else. I could name a bunch of popular games I hate as an example.

On escapism I disagree with Blow. If you are not religious, everything we do, that is not directly contributing survival, is escapism. We are all trying to escape from the feeling that there is no purpose for living, except procreation.

Good read. I don't agree with Blow on everything, but he makes a convincing argument, I'll give him that. As for Braid, it was a fun, good game and I liked it when it didn't frustrate me (I'm terrible at platformers).

Thais:
The thing that ticks me off about this interview in particular is that Blow's comments sounds like he's advocating everything else...oh, yeah...and then "make it something that people want to play. But don't discard any of all the stuff that I think is more important that giving people a game they want to play."

It's weird that you're "ticked off" by this guy's comments. Since one of the defining parameters of a successful game is that it is fun (by someone's merit anyway), failing that standard would mean that you've made an unsuccessful game, even if it does include some kind "higher artistic purpose".

After all, it's a videogame...it has to be high art and philosophy rolled into one. And then maybe someone can convince themselves that it's fun to play...so they don't look like an ass for spending all that time not enjoying thier hobby. /sarcasm

It sounds like you're protesting too much. "Don't forget that it has to be fun!" I don't think anyone, least of all Blow, would suggest that people start making games that are work.

World of Warcraft aside.
/I kid!

The fact of the matter is; there are plenty of games to be made out there that can and probably ought to strive to do more, even if what we have now works great for some people. If those games want to be successful, then being fun will have to be a part of them but there is still plenty of room to grow.

@Finnish(ed)-that's an interesting point about escapism.

Oh don't start with me Smokescreen. A sarcastic comment isn't an additional "protest".

Thais:
Oh don't start with me Smokescreen. A sarcastic comment isn't an additional "protest".

Uh, once again, your response is disproportionate to the discussion.

You aren't being attacked. At worst, you're being asked to explain. You taking that tone with me is not only odd, but antagonistic, and there's really no reason for it.

So what precisely is the message behind Braid? I don't personally have the inclination to purchase the game in order to find out; the lack of replayability and expected game-life of around 6 hours have put me off at the price it's currently being marketed at. This is a particular sticking point as there is presently no intention of further development vis-a-vis additional levels or a sequel.

Arrogant? He has a vision, and I agree with him on his views of MMOs. They are terrible. 10% of game and 90% of Satan.
About the art thing? I don't know, it's more a question of putting emotions on the foreground, since I don't buy that art stuff.
The other claim, which is approximatively "use old to make new good with style and spirit", is a good one. If you eventually find new game mechanics, all the better.
That doesn't mean you should refrain from digging for more crazy concepts!

dukeh016:
While I do applaud his moxy, I think he may be sailing the wrong way in the storm. At best, he's going to make himself look valiant. At worse, hes going to sink the ship. Either way, he sure as hell isn't going to change which way the storm blows.

You have to consider the context. He's in the indie industry, and there's been a thought going on for a couple of years since the end of the PS2 era and the beginning of the next gen, is that indie games should be looking for innovation.
Innovation was used willy nilly like magic words, and that's a mistake.

If people didn't need the grind that WoW offers, they wouldn't play WoW.

Grind offers nothing. You just have such an impression, but it's ultimately hollow. It's an appeal to the most basic materialistic instincts and toeing cleptomania.
I don't really see why people need those kind of experiences, especially to such an extent. They really look like mid-to-hard drugs to me. Negatively compulsive, empty and dumb stuff which can be played in a semi-coma state.

sammyfreak:
Guys, play Braid, seriously. It's the Pulp Fiction of gaming. You will understand what he is talking about when you do.

I had fun with Braid until I found out about the secret stars, then I felt ripped off. But Braid is a deconstruction of sorts so maybe that is the point and I am not smart enough to see that. But Mr.Blow is still much better at teaching by example than by words.

 

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