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.