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. He has showcased Braid since 2005, building what became, by indie standards, great buzz. 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.
Though he did take three years to create an Xbox Arcade puzzle game, Blow can make things happen. He’s been a professional game programmer for over a decade. From 2001 through 2004, he wrote the “Inner Product” technical column for Game Developer magazine. As an example project for the column, he developed a Perl-like scripting language, Lerp. Blow runs the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, held each March at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. He participated regularly in the Indie Game Jam. He lectures frequently at conferences worldwide and, as what he calls “a point of principle,” posts the audio and slides from his talks on his website or on the Braid blog.
Blow is an engaging speaker who champions the nascent category of “art games”: meaningful, important games with compelling play that can change people’s lives. He urges designers to create art games that express their personal viewpoint and sincere feelings. (Blow doesn’t like the name “The Escapist” for a magazine that discusses games, because it automatically connotes frivolity.)
There are, as yet, few notable art games. In his lectures, Blow repeatedly cites Rod Humble’s The Marriage; Jonathan Mak’s Everday Shooter; flOw and Cloud by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago; and Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation. Blow wants to see a lot more. In his keynote speech “How and Why” at the August 2007 Free Play conference in Melbourne, Australia, he advised aspiring creators to worry less about how to break into the game biz and “just start making things.” If you’re an artist and can’t program, use Flash; if you’re a coder, use crude “programmer art.” Focus on making (and finishing!) a notable game that comes from a deep motivation. You needn’t even innovate, as such. Blow’s recent talks hardly mention innovation. Instead, as he said at a GDC rant panel in 2006, “I believe we can make games important, right now, by copying existing games,” such as the virtue system in Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV. “The problem is, nobody is really trying.”
Blow also pragmatically notes that a strong personal viewpoint can bring commercial benefits. It helps indie designers gain notice and, incidentally, good publication terms. Everyday Shooter, Flow and Braid, he says, all got good deals on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade. He asserts (perhaps jokingly, certainly with amusement) that American corporations, being legally enjoined to maximize shareholder value, are therefore technically forbidden to produce personal art games in-house. In that sense, an indie designer has a competitive edge.
Blow is also an unconventional critic. He has highlighted the internal contradictions, or “dissonance,” between story and gameplay in critical favorites such as BioShock. He points out how BioShock‘s much-praised ethical choice about whether to kill the Little Sisters is, in game terms, basically irrelevant. “The designers of this game are trying to manipulate your emotions in a clumsy way.” Nominally about altruism and humanity, BioShock‘s gameplay really teaches, “Shoot everyone you see without warning, from as far away as possible. Only care for women and pre-teen girls.”
At Free Play in August 2007, Blow claimed World of Warcraft and similar MMOGs are “unethical” and “predicated on a kind of player exploitation.” Through Skinnerian reward schedules, designers addict players to boring treadmills. Comparing MMOGs to cigarettes and junk food advertising, Blow said, “We convince [players] to pay us money and waste their lives in front of our games.”
This passing remark – two minutes of a one-hour speech – made headlines in The Sydney Morning Herald. Blow’s later interview with the MTV Multiplayer blog treated the same topic in more detail, drawing comments both thoughtful and patronizing (and, on Kotaku, typically hostile).
The hostile reaction betrays the soreness of the subject. Though Blow is ahead of much of the community here, eventually outside forces will compel the industry to defend its practices, and we may be vulnerable. After all, “addictive” is the industry’s highest praise. Game security consultant Steven Davis, on his Play No Evil blog, has often raised the addiction danger: “The online game industry would benefit from leading instead of simply reacting and focusing on the short-term financial aspects of these legitimate social issues. The endless battles over age restrictions and success of Jack Thompson (and he has been a success in putting the entire U.S. video game industry on the defense) … should show the costs and risks of letting government and society get ahead of the industry.”
In “Design Reboot,” a November 2007 speech at the Montreal International Games Summit, Blow developed his ideas further. “Games are going to be huge. Games will heavily impact patterns of human thought, and thus what it means to be human.” Yet the industry is unethically exploiting all these players, because we don’t think about what we’re doing.
“All we care about is whether a lot of people want to play our game. We don’t care why they want to play. We don’t show concern for our players’ quality of life. … Would they still want to play our game if we removed the scheduled rewards?”
“World of Warcraft says: You are a schlub who has nothing better to do than sit around performing repetitive, mindless actions. Skill and shrewdness do not count for much; what matters is how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, because to feel good you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”
He concluded, “Games right now are teaching a lot of the wrong things.”
On his website, Blow has posted several early game prototypes, such as Oracle Billiards, that experiment with shifts in time – or, more precisely, in player intention. Blow uses the term “somatics,” by which he means “shifts in player intention and proxied embodiment.” Your cursor or avatar in a game becomes a proxy for your self, in the same way your car becomes your body’s proxy when you drive. Braid employs the same idea in a more sophisticated and intricate way.
Designed and programmed by Blow with art by David Hellman, Braid is a 2-D puzzle platformer that lets the player “rewind” time. It’s like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, but far more powerful. When you can rewind back to the beginning of any level, standard platform deaths become irrelevant. Instead, Braid‘s gameplay offers a series of time-based tools, such as alternate-timeline “ghosts” of yourself that remain onscreen even after you rewind.
Each level’s puzzles require a different solution, a different way of thinking about the fundamental gameplay idea. You’re always exploring. Blow says he’s “trying to model enlightenment.”
Should we view Braid as a testbed for Blow’s ideas, and judge their merit based on the game’s success?
Another way to ask this is, “Does a critic have to ship product to be credible?” Here the answer is clearly “no.” Many of history’s most highly regarded critics, though they profoundly shaped the aesthetic of their field, were themselves indifferent creators. (When did you last read a poem by Matthew Arnold?)
Then, too, a pundit’s creative efforts can become misadventures that undermine, rather than foster, credibility. Chris Crawford’s “Storytron” interactive storytelling project has so far taken nearly twice as long as NASA needed to reach the Moon. With Braid, Blow has at least dodged that fate.
But among the things that make art interesting is the quality, the applicability of the creator’s thoughts and emotions. Blow’s lectures reveal little about this, because they aren’t really personal. In fact, his advocacy for art games, though exciting, is practically generic. The primacy of personal expression is a persistent current in the history of art from William Wordsworth to punk rock. It always needs to be said, and Blow says it well, but it’s already been repeated many, many times. Only with Braid can we start to assess his individual artistry.
Still, Blow’s own design process on Braid has shaped his philosophy. So – and here we rewind to the start – to the extent Braid has prompted him to make good speeches and get creators thinking, it has already succeeded.