Game Designer Jonathan Blow: What We All Missed About Braid

Game Designer Jonathan Blow: What We All Missed About Braid

The first time you play Jonathan Blow's rave-worthy new game, Braid, it seems simple: it's an elegant puzzler with clever ideas about time and some kind of a story about a princess. But the more you play, the more complicated it gets. Simple jump-here, catch-that tasks turn into mind-bending puzzles where you have to bend the flow of time in unnatural ways. Then you get to the last level, and all your assumptions about what the game means are happily tossed out the window.

Critics have praised the game, but they've also struggled with it. Different bloggers throw out different interpretations. Feministe.us gives us a feminist reading. A thread at rllmukforum.com explains why the whole thing's about the birth of the atom bomb. A discussion at Brainygamer.com prompted a series of sometimes heated responses from Blow himself. Other people hate the whole story, dismissing it as wordy or weirdly separated from the gameplay, which is what most gamers really care about.

Speaking by phone, Blow gave me an unprecedented explanation of the ideas and influences behind the game, from quantum mechanics and Daniel Dennett to Italo Calvino. One of the most telling details was the split between the literary side of the game and the system that underlies it. Blow explains that in college, he double-majored in English and Computer Science – and he puts the difference this way: "English is very much creatively-driven. It's mostly analysis and interpretation and history of literature. And basically, the entire bachelor's degree in English is all about bullshitting things. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about."

Although plenty of people have pegged Braid as proof that games can be "art," art isn't exactly what he's after. Braid isn't a subjective work of creativity: it's a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn't up to broad interpretation. If you think the puzzles are too rigid, or you hate the text – maybe it's because you don't understand the point. If you pull an interpretation out of thin air, it's probably wrong. And if that sounds arrogant – well, cut him some slack; it is a very good game.

Obviously, you should watch out for spoilers and probably take a crack at playing the game before reading this interview. But even if you never plan to play it, check out how Blow thought up the most innovative title of the year. It will change the way you think about games.

AVC: I've read that one of the ways you were thinking about Braid was that you were developing a billiards game [Oracle Billiards], that showed you the future of each of your moves. How did you decide not to pursue that?

JB: It was fine in terms of the technical standpoint. I was able to program it, and it worked. The problem though was a gameplay problem. Once I had done the technical foundations, it didn't play the way that I thought it would. Which is not a surprise. That often happens, whenever you're doing something completely wacky. But I didn't see how to go from where I was to an interesting and compelling game. I saw ways that I might be able to hammer on it a lot and eventually shoehorn it into something that might work as a game. But I didn't want to do that. That's just not how I do things. Especially by then, I'd reached this stage of thinking that I wanted whatever I work on to be the best thing that I knew how to work on.

It didn't work out, but it gave me some other ideas. And then I went off and did Braid instead, which has turned out pretty well, obviously.

AVC: You've said that in Braid, some of the worlds you experimented with didn't work out. I remember you mentioning one where the path you took going forward had to work the other way. You couldn't drop off a cliff that was higher than you could jump up coming the other way.

JB: With that bi-directional flow of time level, that one never even got out of my head, or off of paper. Because even on paper, I didn't see how to make it compelling. It's like an interesting idea to start with, but then it's like, "Well how is this as deep as I want it to be? How is it as interesting as I want it to be?" And it just wasn't.

There were some other levels, like a turn-based one, where the idea is that time is always paused until you make a decision, and then time goes forward by a second or two seconds based on what decision you made, and then time stops for another decision. So it's like a turn-based strategy game, but in the same platformer world. That one I actually got as far as programming, and making a couple of levels for, and there were some neat consequences to it. But there weren't 12 puzzles' worth of neat consequences that were of the same quality as the other worlds. And I just decided it didn't quite fit.

AVC: Some people have said the game feels short. But one of the things I liked is that it was more like doing a crossword, where you keep coming back to the clues you missed. You made a deliberate design decision not to repeat things, or repeat an action a few times just for the fun of it. It doesn't have "flow" – "I'm shooting three guys, now I'm shooting four guys."

JB: Those are two very different kind of games, right? One kind of game that I could've made is an open world [where you] explore the environment, travel a long way, go on quests – or move through an epic storyline and have a lot of adventures, right? From minute one, I knew that that was not what this game was. This game is a very focused, deliberate, puzzle game, where there are no extraneous elements in the game, aside from what helps to create the puzzles. There literally are none.

AVC: Even things like the puzzle pieces themselves turn into part of the puzzle.

JB: Yeah. And they serve other roles, too, like they help to connect the story with the game design. I think that one of the reasons that Braid is successful to the extent that it is is because it knew what it was trying to be, and wasn't trying to be both of those things. Like some people say, "I didn't feel like I had the opportunity for creativity as a player, to do things that I want to do. There was only one solution to the puzzles." And I'm like, "Well yeah, that's just what game this is." Would a lot of people really like it more, when it becomes more defocused, and doesn't really know what it's about, and doesn't have that clarity? I don't necessarily think so.

You could make a very focused exploration game, that was about player creativity and exploration. But then it wouldn't have these very meticulous scientific kinds of puzzles in it, that Braid has. And so, it was just about picking something and understanding what it was that was chosen, and sticking to it, ruthlessly.

AVC: The game has been discussed extensively on the web, and I'm curious if you think people "get" it.

JB: There are some people who get the game, or at least significant parts of it. And there are some people who don't seem to really get the game. What's interesting is, as the author, you don't ever necessarily expect the audience to get the same thing out of an artwork that the author put in, right? But there are definitely highly significant things that I've put into the game that have very specific meanings to me, and looking around on message boards and forums, I've seen individual people find most or all of those pieces, and say, "I see this, you know, and here's what this means to me, etc." I haven't necessarily seen one person put it all together. It's a very, I would say actually a very complicated text, and the way it works with the gameplay and the puzzles is very complicated and subtle. And so I wouldn't even necessarily expect to see that yet. And frankly, my goal is not strictly to have most of the audience play the game and automatically understand [it].

What's interesting to me is that in terms of people who I feel are getting what it's about – and here I'm not even talking about what the elements of the story mean, like, whatever symbolism and metaphors and things are in there. But even the structure of the game, like, there's a fundamental structure and reasons in the way things are laid out, and parts of the game that are meant to draw people's attention to certain things, regardless of what's contained in that structure. And what's interesting to me is that some people get that, and some people don't. But that's completely decorrelated from people's claimed positions in the sphere of commentary. By which I mean, there are lots of random blog posters on places like Gamespot or NeoGAF or whatever who show a clearer understanding of the game than people who are all, "I'm all about games, and narrative and meaning, and I write a blog just to tell you about how I analyze all these things." Those people have the same hit rate as your general forum poster. So that's given me a cynical response to that whole community, which is just that, "Guys, are you sure you're qualified to do this?" And that sounds asshole-ish, and mean and snarky, but that's just how I'm feeling right now.

AVC: In terms of catching a symbol, or catching a piece of text, or in terms of saying, "I understand why he brings up the A-Bomb during the epilogue" –

JB: Yeah, or even, "What is the epilogue about, and what is it for?" Regardless of the a-bomb section or any of the other sections.

By the time you get to the World 1 introduction [Ed: World 1 is actually the last world in the game], it starts to get kind of different. But if you're set in your interpretation, it's easy to gloss over that. But then the Epilogue basically requires anyone who's paying attention to reconsider their interpretation.

You know, in college, I never got either degree, but I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor's degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.

And so even prior to the release of Braid, I go back and I read – I've read a lot of these blogs, hoping to read good game criticism. And it was way too much of the English major, and not enough of the Computer Science major. … And in fact, often it'll be somebody has an agenda – like, there was a very feminist-oriented critique of Braid [on Feministe.us] and it was an author following her feminist agenda and interpreting the game. Which was fine, but it didn't have much to do with what I put in the game.

Now on the one hand, I did leave the game very open to interpretation. [But] I feel that a lot of people are a little bit too quick to take concrete bits of evidence that they find and that they recognize, and to use those to create a definitive explanation of everything and to bend all other facts to fit that explanation. Whereas, why didn't you take those facts that you found and bend those facts to fit other facts to make another explanation?

A long time ago, I used to write fiction, short stories mainly. And I reached a point where I had honed my style so that it wasn't totally atrocious, and I kind of knew what I was doing when writing, and then the question was just, "What do I write about now?" And I couldn't really find anything that I felt was important enough to write about. So I just kind of gave up on writing.

Finally, Braid was the thing where I felt that writing could enter into it. But the game design also is a different kind of writing. It's a different kind of idea communication. One of my main interests in writing stories was in finding truth, like fundamental truths of the universe, or finding important things. But the problem is that writing isn't a good venue for that. Because as I said, you can write anything the fuck you want down on a piece of paper, and as long as you're clever enough with your language, and your flow of logic from one sentence to the next – the better you are at those things, the more you can fool a reader into believing you. Even if what you're writing down is total bullshit.

But, you cannot do that in a game – or at least it's much harder – because in a game, you have to create a simulated universe that works according to some rules. Especially the way Braid is constructed. It has to be intact as a place that has laws, and consistency. And because of that, there has to be a kernel of truth in Braid. I can't write down any old bullshit that I want. I can't make any puzzle that I want that has any arbitrary answer, because it won't work in the context of the rest of the game.

Because in fact, I do have a very specific meaning behind everything in the game. Everything has a purpose, not just in the levels, but in every word. Like to give an example – a lot of people start out reading the game, and they're like, "Oh, this prose is terrible, it reads like a 12-year-old wrote it." But it's actually – and I'm not going to say that my writing is necessarily awesome – but maybe it's for reasons that they don't necessarily get yet. One of the first sentences is, "The princess has been kidnapped by a horrible and evil monster." Which sounds like twelfth-grader prose because one aspect of bad prose is that you have repetitive adjectives and adverbs, to try to reinforce a point and amp up the magnitude. But the point being made in that sentence is actually that "horrible" and "evil" are two different things, and that that's why both of those words are required. And especially in the context of the ending, something can be horrible and not evil, right? Or evil and not horrible.

Maybe the mindset that the player is in at the beginning, and the mindset that the thinker – the main character – is thinking these thoughts at the beginning of the game, maybe that's not clear yet. But it becomes clear over the course of the game.

AVC: You referred to "the thinker."

JB: Well, as I was saying that, I realized that it may be the wrong way to phrase it. But you could – (laughs) – one way to interpret the screens of text is that they're like little meditations or little ruminations that the main character is having prior to embarking on each of these journeys through each world. So things that he's thinking about, or things that have been happening in his mind. But again, I don't feel that that's even a very important point –

AVC: But it goes to one of the things that you could interpret, and especially after reading some Calvino, is that these worlds are mental spaces, or memory spaces.

JB: Definitely the fact that they're mental spaces is one of the core design elements of the game. But paradoxically, they're also physical spaces. One of the aspects of dreams, for example – if you read literature that's trying to be about dreams, or even some games that are trying to be like dreams, like the La La Land series – La La Land 4 is very much like a dream, in that you're doing something, and it turns into something else, and it turns into something else, and there's not logic or consistency, but they still blend together in that way that a dream will change from something to something else. Braid is not like that. It's a mental space, but it's a cognitive mental space. There are laws of a universe here, and they hold. And I'm thinking about them and understanding them and analyzing them, but they are nevertheless irrefutable laws. So it's a different kind of mental space than maybe some people explore, but it is a very Calvino-sort of space.

If you read Invisible Cities or some of his other books, like T-Zero especially is a very analytical, mathematical kind of [work] where he puts forward some kind of postulate about how something could happen, and then the rest of the story chases that through to its conclusion.

But yeah, I've even been criticized for that. People criticize me for everything now. Because the game, once it's something that people talk about, it becomes the focus of attention, and everybody with something bad to say hits you with it.

Some people are like, "Oh, this prose reads like a twelve-year-old wrote it, it's just way too unthinking and – it reads like goth poetry in a high school notebook." But then other people are like – I think in the Brainygamer.com blog discussion, and this wasn't the first time I heard it, someone was like, "Wow, this prose is lifeless. It doesn't spring from the heart of the writer as blood from the pen," or whatever. "It's too cold and analytical and engineered." And I'm like, "Isn't that the opposite of what the other guy just said? What does that mean, that people are regarding this in such different ways?" But it was funny, because then I was thinking, does that mean that analytical writing can't be good? Are you approaching this with the mindset that writing has to be purely emotional, like its value is proportional to how emotional it is?

AVC: The emotional gotcha moment everyone sites is the end of the gameplay, when you've gotten through the last level in that crazy run to the princess' house, and then you see the big revelation. That was a gotcha moment that wasn't in the written text.

JB: Oh sure. And that was definitely designed to be an emotional or revelatory moment. But at the same time, it's intended to be interpretable and analytical, in the way that the text is. It's not supposed to be purely emotional.

Actually, people's reaction to that reminds me a lot of people's reaction to Jason Rohrer's game Passage, which has all these interesting rules, and it's got what Ian Bogost would call "procedural rhetoric" inside it. But what everybody talks about is, you get four fifths of the way through the game and your wife dies, and that's a very emotional moment. Which is true. But it's not the point of the game.

AVC: You called me out a while ago for referring to that game as "sappy," and I can see why that was unfair. But I've also noticed that many art games have a tendency to be self-absorbed, and personal, as opposed to taking a broader view of the world.

JB: I think there is at once a very specific reason for that, which is that that's what's sorely lacking in games. As game development has become bigger and more complicated, and as teams get bigger, and as budgets get bigger, games are always becoming less personal, and less human. And more overproduced and engineered. And so, part of that movement is as a reaction to that. It's distancing itself from that by doing something that's as personal as possible.

So, I agree that there are ways in which one might find those things overly cloying, or something – but at least it's doing that in an interesting and new way, that people hadn't really thought about before. And you know, these games like Passage and The Marriage – they're not necessarily viewed as full works. They're more like concept works.

In Braid, I was trying to do both things. I was trying to write about issues that are very meaningful to me, but at the same time – those aren't the surface issues. People say, "Braid is about a break-up," or whatever. I've had break-ups in my past, but I wouldn't go so far as to spend three years making a game about a break-up and forcing everybody to play it. It means more to me than that. A lot more.

AVC: Are you saying the reason you want to share this is that urge, that when you see an exciting idea, you want to share it?

JB: That's what drove part of the game. The part of the game that is deepest buried in the puzzles was a process of exploration for me. Like, when I was starting to design the game, I was thinking of this science stuff, and I was very excited by what I saw. And I saw that it was really cool, and then my design process was, how do I put this into puzzle-form, to illustrate these ideas as clearly and as minimally as I can? So that was a sharing-cool-ideas kind of thing.

But at the same time, there's a question of why are the cool ideas about time, and about laws of these make-believe universes? Why aren't they cool ideas about something else? Why didn't I make Seven Cities of Gold, about exploring the new world and talking to the Indians, or something? I could've made any game, and found cool things to show people. And the reason for that is actually tied up in the narrative.

For me, the meaning of the fiction is very, very closely related to what you're doing from minute to minute in the game. And I think that somebody out there will understand that. Most people don't seem to understand the story to that degree. But maybe I'm okay with that, right? But it's personal in a different way, I guess is what I'm getting at there. It's important enough to me that I spent three and a half years of my life trying to express it.

AVC: Is it about the idea of traveling in time, or the idea of traveling in these spaces?

JB: Well, both of those things. Whether you're traveling in a space or traveling through time – one of the worlds in Braid is intentionally about conflating those two things. Traveling through space is traveling through time in World 4. And the reason is, it brings to light again some of these existential questions that really bother some people who are up on the latest physics and things, that don't seem to bother the kind of people who are doing the literary bullshit, again. Not to get too – I mean I know you're in the AV Club, and you're firmly grounded in that world.

But to totally pull out of my ass a quote that I read a long time ago, and that stuck in my head, but I have no idea where I read it: at some point we had philosophy, and then a couple hundred years ago, that started changing, and this thing called science was born. And a lot of people didn't want to think in the scientific way, and thereby excluded themselves from the most relevant discussions of the meaning of our world that are possible right now. Because those discussions are grounded in scientific observation, and experiments, and empirical validation. And it's a different kind of rhetoric than what now happens in philosophy, and criticism of literature and art. And what [this person] said was, that he felt that there was perhaps even a kind of bitterness between the art people and the scientifically grounded people, because perhaps the art people felt that they did end up on the wrong side of the discussion, that they were missing something.

So philosophy for all of time has concerned itself with existential issues. Like, what should we be doing in the world, and what does it even mean to exist? And the thing is that we have evidence that may bear on some of those questions now. And some people are paying attention, and some people are not. And Braid is trying to occupy that middle space, where it's paying attention, and also not paying attention.

To give you an idea: we started this interview with the idea of the bi-directional arrow of time, and this level where you would have to traverse a path that is valid in both directions. That was my early idea of how to explore a fundamental law of quantum mechanics that appears to be true, which is that there is no arrow of time at the quantum mechanical level. And that is a conundrum that physicists still haven't solved. We don't know exactly where our current perception of time comes from, and why it seems to flow in one direction. Like, there are ideas that it has to do with entropy, but nobody exactly understands, and we don't know why there didn't evolve a mechanism that can remember what happens tomorrow as well as what happens yesterday. [According to] the fundamental law of the universe, there doesn't appear to be any reason why that's impossible.

But if you think about what that means, it starts to threaten our very existence. Because everything that we think about, everything that we do every day, is predicated on this idea that we can choose things. And that the future isn't written yet. Kind of like, arguments that used to happen in religion about, "Is existence pre-destined? Or do we have free will?" The free will question has been abundant in philosophy since the beginning of time. But now there are observations of the universe that are not disputable, that can be brought to bear on the free will question.

And so, that's where the philosophical discussions ought to take place. There's a way in which anyone who's postulating about free will, who doesn't know quantum mechanics, is just talking out their ass. Because they don't have the facts, [and] we have a lot more facts now.

The reason [Braid] is an exploration of time and space is because there are things that seem to be facts about time and space, that threaten our very existence. Or that at least raise questions about – if this is how things are, why would that be? And at the same time, as humans walking around in the world, there are all these things that feel very important to us. Like, the relationships that we have with people. Not wanting to jeopardize the relationships that we value. Or having someone who we're infatuated with, or who we're in love with, or who we're pursuing, with a kind of feeling of urgency that maybe gets confused with the kind of feeling of urgency we might have if we're trying to understand the world and what the world's about. And maybe those two things become mixed, and it becomes hard to separate the human existence from the scientific existence.

That's why both of those things are in Braid.

AVC: Well, how does it make that leap to a scientist pursuing something, or what we should pursue as human beings with scientific questions?

JB: Well, for me: I am not actually a scientist. I actually started college with my major in Physics, but I changed it very quickly, because I just like the computer stuff better. I just felt called in that direction. But there's a way in which people who are scientific – you know, it takes a lot of work to do good science. You have to understand a lot of things, like whether it's physics or chemistry or even computer science, anything like that. There's a lot of stuff you have to know, and a lot of things you have to study. And you have to be determined to get to that borderline of current knowledge, in order to go past that.

There is that personality that has a burning desire to know, to pursue what is the truth of the universe that we live in. And so one of the juxtapositions in Braid is that pursuit of the emotional, of the human level – whatever we are driven to pursue as interacting, emotional beings, and what certain people are driven to pursue as physical, mental, scientific beings that inhabit this universe that we're in. And how do we resolve those two very different kinds of existence? How do we make sense of them?

… One belief that a lot of people have is, "Oh, I'm just born, and there's somebody out there, there's the one who's meant for me. And I'm going to meet them in my life, and then we're going to be happy forever." But you could start being scientific, and start debunking that. If the one for you is a random person and they're born anywhere in the world, then you're never going to meet them, right? Or they're going to die of scurvy or something. (Laughs)

But then you start making excuses. Like, "Oh well, there's God, and God made that person born near me, and then makes sure that neither of us died, so that we meet each other." But then it's like, how heavy of a hand is God supposed to have over your existence? And what about all those people who don't ever meet "the one" – is it because they didn't deserve to? Or because God didn't like them? What's going on?

There's this worldview called the materialist view, which is just that there is a mechanical universe, and you might as well be a really complicated machine of tinkertoys or whatever. People are just machines, and they happen to be complicated enough that they think and they have the illusion of being conscious. It's kind of the Daniel Dennett point of view.

On the one hand, myself as a computer scientist, I don't find that plausible. I find aspects of consciousness that are incompatible with that. But again, that materialist point of view seems to have a lot of evidence behind it, right? There are all these scientific findings that I was talking about before that seem to support that view. And I say "seem to," because I find that there are other pieces of evidence that don't really support that view, that people conveniently ignore. [And] if it's true, then all this stuff about human love, and even the drive to be spiritual and things, is basically completely meaningless. So if you're just data, if you're just atoms, then what is the point? And then at that point, in order to not be depressed and jump off a bridge – well, you don't need to be depressed, because what's the point of being depressed? It doesn't matter, right? (Laughs)

Which is not to say that this is all what Braid is about. But all these ideas that I'm talking about are heavily invested into the game. This is the sphere of thought that the game came out of, which is, how do we resolve the fact that we exist, and what appear to be the higher-level properties of the world – emotionally and physically – with these facts that seem to say we can't really exist, or that it's a great mystery how we exist, and that if we do exist, it doesn't mean what we think it means?

AVC: It's intellectually fascinating, but when did this become, as you've described it, personal?

JB: Well, it's very personal to me, because I have that kind of personality. The same sort of thing that drives somebody to study physics for 30 years, so they can discover a new particle. Just so they can know something more about the world. I have that same personality, but I didn't end up in physics. I ended up in game design. What does that mean? What is my outlet for that?

I have gone on record as talking about game design as a practice, like a scientific study, or like a spiritual practice, like yoga or tai chi. And that's part of what I'm doing when I design a game, is that I'm exploring the universe in a certain way. I'm trying to understand true things about it, or to uncover things about it, in ways again that are less bullshitty than just writing words on a paper. Because somehow, and I could be totally fooling myself about this, but I believe that somehow, there is something more meaningful about creating a system. Because the universe is a system, of some kind. And writing is not a system.