Jonathan Blow Interview on MTV

Just yesterday, I had a very serious discussion with Daniel Renkel about.. well just about everything. We got into a very heated debate about what we both expect from our work and inevitably what we expect from our lives. Without getting into details one of the raised questions was how important money is and how important the “message” of your work is. It seems like the old art vs. money debate but I really think this is just too simplistic. But rather then explaining my point again, I will use other people to do that for me.

As if ordered, I just found this interview indie game designer Jonathan Blow. I really begin to like this guy because increasingly I find him doing lots statements about things I find extremely important. Here are some quotes which illustrate my point in the mentioned debate:

When you’re gunning for the big bucks, you pursue craft, not art. So most of what gamers see is just craft. Sometimes it’s really good craft. But these days I don’t tend to have a negative attitude about the modern game industry; I just observe it as the natural evolution of things, and know that if creative expansion is going to happen, it needs to be brought by determined individuals, who aren’t too worried about money.

There are several points in here I already raised. First of all, the designer’s understanding of what a game is defines the way it is perceived by the audience. I mentioned that in the article where I posed the question “What games are good for?”. Secondly, I like the way he thinks about the industry today not as something malevolent. I would go even further and call it a good thing: it is the breeding ground for new and different models. I teased that in my article about the 3rd generation games. Finally, not putting money as a goal can be a way to truly distinguish yourself from the industry which is basically part of the “Heart Beats Innovation” argument from a recent post. Remember that distinguishing yourself form the industry is can be considered a strategy to pick up the kind of audience which is unsatisfied by them. By addressing that audience you will earn money in the end but in order to do so you have to exclude monetary reasons from the design process and focus on values beyond that. This involves finding out for yourself what those values are.

It is also funny how he mentions Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” as a source of inspiration. I too found that book amazing.

One of the things that made “Braid” different from the beginning was my determination to strike out in a new design direction, and just have faith that I could make it work. Rewind was going to be the basis of the game. If rewind conflicted with some other element of the design, then I would throw away that other element — regardless of how traditionally necessary it was. And I was glad I had that faith, because it paid off.

I totally agree to that kind of approach. It basically means understanding what is best for your project and consequently removing everything, which doesn’t fit into that vision – even if you really like it. It means putting the well-being of your work first. Of course this means that you need to develop a strong vision of what you want to achieve.

I do think there are a lot of bad habits in modern 3D games. As for how to solve them, well, I think the best solution is just to hold a higher standard about what games are about, and what games can be. When you do that, all sorts of smaller concerns just fall away. Lots of things that are taken for granted about games right now, when you take this kind of viewpoint, appear counterproductive.

I really enjoy how he decided to use 2D technology because, again – it was the right decision to achieve his goal. This fits well to the previous quote. Having a deeper understanding of what your work is supposed to achieve really allows you to guide you design process. With that kind of guidance, thinking outside the box becomes easy. This can be a very economical thing, too! You are suddenly able to amazingly cut corners to deliver simple solutions to complicated problems and still make a huge impact. I mentioned that in my 3rd Generation post and more explicitly, I described how that worked on a visual level in The Tone Rebellion.

So if games are about escapism, then how are they different from movies or books? Why would anyone ever play a game, if they play games to escape, but they can escape with movies or books instead? Those things are way cheaper! The answer of course is some people like games better, or want to play them sometimes, but what that really means is that what they get out of games is different from what they get out of a movie or a book. [...]
Film is a significant component of what modern people are (because we are products of our origins and of our environment, and film is a big part of the mental environment).
So it must be for games; when (if) they are developed to a reasonable part of their potential, they will have effects like this on people too; effects that we don’t really understand yet. So the way people act and think 50 years from now will, in significant part, be determined by the games we create now, by the path to which we set this medium.

The way Jonathan talks about the potential of games perfectly fits into my post about “What games are good for?”. Identifying and developing the potential of the medium obviously is the most important kind of work a game designer could do today.. or at any time.

Games can provide this kind of mental, emotional and spiritual expansion, and they can push it in a different direction than movies, or books, or music, or whatever. In his new book “Persuasive Games,” Ian Bogost coins the term “procedural rhetoric” to talk about one of the core qualities of games: that they communicate ideas via the way things work, through behavior. I think that is sort of the right idea, but I think the “rhetoric” part is somewhat the wrong idea. I think the richest things that games have to show us are sub-verbal, maybe even sub-intellectual.

As you can see, there are already different opinions on the unique potential of games. The sub-intellectual property Jonathan is referring to is what I already highlighted in Will Wright’s presentation of Spore. I also discussed that with Danc in my critique of his “Chemistry of Game Design” article – I compared it to Tacit Knowledge at that point and already pointed out it’s significance for the potential of the medium. Jonathan goes on by giving an this great example:

There are things you understand very well because you learned them via activities you do all the time. Let’s say, driving a car. (if you live in NY maybe you personally don’t drive much, but hey, most people do, so for the sake of argument). There’s a certain feel to what it’s like driving a car, how things accelerate and slow down, how that feels, how turning happens, what the higher-level flow is as traffic lights go green or red, etc. The activity of driving a car gives you a very intimate understanding of these things, in ways that are more accurate and deeper than we know how to do with words. I could write a whole novel full of words about what it feels like to drive a car with 10 years of experience, but those words wouldn’t be very effective at really communicating what it’s like to someone who never did it. It’s just something you have to do. I am going to call this intimate state of familiarity driving-ness, and apply it to other things.

Games let us author experiences. I can give you a game about something in reality. Maybe it’s about driving a car, in which case you come to understand a little more about it than you would get from a book (though not necessarily as well in some areas as others; the video game would not be as good at communicating the feeling in your body of being accelerated). The driving-ness that you get from the game version of driving is different from the real version; but it is its own thing that is there. That’s what that game has to communicate to you.

This is a longer quote but I had to include it here because I really think he nails it with this one. That’s why it is so great if games can be about things, you could never experience otherwise. Because then they can really give you a glimpse outside of the confines of your limited existence.

I actually think that Skinnerian reward scheduling in general (which you see in most modern game design, MMOs being the canonical example) is unethical and games should not do it… scheduled rewards, to keep the player playing, are a sure sign that the core gameplay itself is not actually rewarding enough to keep them playing, and thus you are deceiving your players into wasting their lives playing your game. But I digress.

The cool thing about Jonathan is how swiftly he is able to switch between high-level concepts into the nitty-gritty of gameplay mechanics. His critique of Behaviorism is also spot-on and I couldn’t agree more. Again, in my critique of Danc’s post (and I think on other occasions too) I also mentioned how I find Behaviorism less and less suitable to be used as a model for game design. This quote also echoes the “World of Warcraft Teaches the Wrong Things” article on Gamasutra we all enjoyed.

I think that a lot of people feel like the point of life is to be happy, or comfortable, or something like that, whereas I am highly suspicious of those things. All other things being equal I like being happy, but the problem is, all other things are not equal — probably happiness comes at a cost, possibly a great cost.

That last one is a bit more personal and I think it also has a lot to do with my position in the mentioned discussion. Having a nice income is useless to me if I know I gave up opportunities to do things which are important.

Now I’m more interested in Braid then I was ever before.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Jonathan Blow Interview on MTV”

  1. Yu-Chung Chen

    Good stuff here… too bad I missed your discussion with Daniel Renkel.

    Re: a strong vision leading the process
    This is actually a big problem I’m having with the “let’s experiment and see what works”-approach. Yes it works out in the end, but in a way, what works — or rather would end up working — is also arbitrary.

    This is also the reason why I’m not satisfied with my eternally-work-in-progress Gravity. While I did end up with something which works more or less, and I have even reasons for those elements. But I didn’t manage to get what I want to explore about the fundamental ideas in the core mechanic.

    One part of that exploration concerns also the point about “what good are games for”, which is the translation of an experience. Part of the vision for Gravity is that I want to tweak the game to express “dilemma”, “sitting on the fence” and “indecisiveness”. While you can illustrate this in a narrative and make the reader sympathise with the character(s), I’d like to believe that interactivity can enhance that to empathy.

    That is what I meant in that earlier comment, and JB just wonderfully put it in a very meaningful way and context.

    What do you guys think? Am I mis-interpreting JB? Am I being too naive and romantic?

  2. Krystian Majewski

    I don’t think you are being naive at all. I agree absolutely. Until now, the mentioned sub-intellectual level of games is pretty arbitrary and often has little to do with the rest of the game. You can literary see that it developed accidentally and not with a distinct purpose in mind. It always struck me that the experience of Settlers (Serf City) was more like designing electronic circuity then the actual ideas, concepts and challenges behind the growth of medieval settlements. Realizing how exactly games convey meaning goes hand in hand with putting that theories to the test and trying to use tap into that resource. I certainly do hope that you find the time to finish “Lovely Dilemma”. Even if you feel you didn’t quite archive your goal, it should provide us with valuable lessons how to tackle that problem.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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