Post Script

In­ter­view: Jonathan Blow, founder, Thekla, Inc


“As far as I’m con­cerned, I’m de­sign­ing a game where peo­ple will get out of it as much as they’re ready to get out of it”

With only a few panel so­lu­tions still elud­ing us, we speak to The Wit­ness cre­ator Jonathan Blow about his am­bi­tions for the game and how he feels about the way things turned out – some­how avoid­ing spoil­ers in the process. The way you teach the game’s me­chan­ics is sub­tle. It’s kind of amaz­ing that that ac­tu­ally works, right? It de­pends what school of thought [a game de­signer is] in, but if you play a Nin­tendo game, there’s a lit­tle char­ac­ter telling you ev­ery ob­vi­ous thing over and over again for hours, right? And that’s not the way that I like to do it, gen­er­ally. When I de­signed Braid, I had the be­gin­nings of this same idea. The puz­zles in Braid mostly have a spe­cific way that you solve them, and in the process of solv­ing the puz­zle that idea is com­mu­ni­cated be­cause oth­er­wise how else would you have solved it? So that non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion idea be­came very in­ter­est­ing to me, and in this game I wanted to see how far I could push it. Are you happy with the re­sult? On the one hand the for­mat of the puz­zles is very uni­form. You come up and you see a panel and it’s al­ways the same in­ter­face – it’s just a panel you trace some­thing on. But that sim­plic­ity and clar­ity means we can vary things a lot in other di­men­sions. Some of those puz­zles are triv­ial and other ones are very hard, and that means we can build a ramp be­tween them, and be­cause that ramp starts out very, very easy we can start by say­ing noth­ing at all. By the time you get to the end of the game, or even the end of any par­tic­u­lar area, you prob­a­bly have a very so­phis­ti­cated idea of what you’re do­ing. But if some­one comes up and asks you, ‘What are you try­ing to do to solve that puz­zle?’ and you try to say it, it’s prob­a­bly a para­graph or two of in­for­ma­tion. All of that was im­parted with­out any ver­bal in­struc­tion what­so­ever. It’s in­ter­est­ing to me that games can do that, you know?

How many it­er­a­tions of puz­zle ideas did you go through? Were there many ideas that didn’t make it? I don’t re­ally re­mem­ber ex­actly, but a lot of puz­zles were cut. Cer­tainly hun­dreds were thought about to some level or an­other, and de­signed to some level or an­other, and then didn’t make it into the fi­nal game.

How did you go about con­struct­ing them? Usu­ally I don’t have a spe­cific path in mind, in part be­cause I wanted this to be a game where there are mul­ti­ple so­lu­tions to things. Al­most the en­tire game I hand-de­signed, be­cause ran­domised puz­zles don’t usu­ally feel that good to me. They feel like they came out of a ran­domiser, even though that can be in­ter­est­ing. There are two puz­zles in the game that get ran­domly re-rolled ev­ery time you try them, though. For those we ran­domly gen­er­ate some­thing, and it might even be un­solv­able, and then we crank all our rules on it, and if the com­puter can find a so­lu­tion then it gives it to you, oth­er­wise it throws it away and gen­er­ates a new one. The game en­cour­ages you to think lat­er­ally, but was it a chal­lenge to then de­sign around the po­ten­tial for play­ers’ cre­ativ­ity? Play­ers will think dif­fer­ently about dif­fer­ent puz­zles, and that’s what a puz­zle game is for: you’re sup­posed to be hav­ing ideas about how to solve them, right? We have to be very care­ful in what we can con­trol and what we can de­sign for, to keep things clear. I think that’s some­thing most puz­zle-game de­sign­ers don’t re­ally do, ac­tu­ally, and it makes a big dif­fer­ence when you do it. The game’s dif­fi­culty ramps up quickly. How do you feel about the fact that some play­ers sim­ply won’t be able to progress be­yond a cer­tain point? Here’s what I think about that whole thing… [The in­dus­try has] a very weird idea about game de­sign. I mean, I guess it de­pends on what your in­ten­tion is as a game de­signer, but – es­pe­cially for the past few decades – we’ve had this idea of game de­sign as a branch of con­sumer prod­uct de­sign. If you think about it that way then, OK, the more peo­ple that your con­sumer prod­uct works well for then the bet­ter prod­uct it is. So from that stand­point, it would be a bad idea to have some of th­ese harder and sub­tler ideas in The Wit­ness be­cause some peo­ple might not get them, so why don’t we make them more ac­ces­si­ble or some­thing? On the other hand, if you look at other ac­tual art forms and look at the works that peo­ple re­spect, they tend to be things that are ac­tu­ally very deep and that you don’t com­pletely get ev­ery­thing out of on first brush with them. And I feel that as we try to de­velop games as an in­ter­est­ing art form and as one that reaches its po­ten­tial, we should have peo­ple go­ing that way. I don’t think there’s a prob­lem with peo­ple de­sign­ing games as a con­sumer prod­uct. But again, if that’s the only thing that’s go­ing on, or if de­sign­ers don’t make the dis­tinc­tion be­tween that and do­ing some­thing else, then maybe it’s a prob­lem. But as far as I’m con­cerned, I’m de­sign­ing a game where peo­ple will get out of it as much as they’re ready to get out of it, and if some­body is good at puz­zles and is go­ing to no­tice all of th­ese things, and is go­ing to play ev­ery­thing and like it, then that’s great. I’d rather make some­thing that those peo­ple can fully ap­pre­ci­ate than scale it back so that more peo­ple can feel like they got ev­ery­thing.

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