Jonathan Blow is an indie game designer most well known for his time-bending game Braid. In this episode Jonathan describes his journey from a kid fascinated with playing video games in arcades to a game developer concerned with game design as a spiritual practice.
This is part one of a two part series.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m really happy and excited to be joined today by Jonathan Blow. Jonathan, awesome to have you on the Buddhist Geeks show. Thanks for taking the time.
Jonathan: Thanks for having me here.
Vincent: Yeah. Just a little intro so people kind of get a sense for what your background is. You’re an independent video game developer and designer. I think you’re probably best known to most people as the creator of a game called Braid, which came out in 2008 and received a huge amount of acclaim for being a really kind of unique game. And we’ll talk about that I hope. And you’re also now developing a new game called, and for most people they’ll be familiar with this term on Buddhist Geeks, called the Witness. And this is going to be I think you’re hoping to release it next year sometime, 2013.
Jonathan: Well the original hope was 2011 and it became 2012 and now it’s 2013. But I think this time we’re really just about done. So it should be fine.
Vincent: Awesome. Awesome. And I wanted to start of just by asking you about your personal background and in particular how did you get into this field of game development and design. Because it’s pretty clear looking at the work that you’re doing that you’re doing something kind of unique. You’re not creating like this typical first person shooter games or stuff like that. There’s a real contemplative dimension to your games and to the way that you’re approaching this. So if you could also maybe share how you got into that more contemplative or spiritual side of things as well.
Jonathan: Yeah. It took a long time for that to happen actually. When I was a little kid, 7 or 8 years old or something, it was a time in the 80’s when, or I guess the late 70’s, when video arcades were a thing and you could go find arcade games. I really enjoyed them. There was just that youthful like being really excited about something and I was really excited about games and I just like to go play them.
And then also at a young age, when I was around 10 years old, I was fortunate enough to have a programming class in middle school like in 6th grade, which was kind of crazy. I guess not many schools back then had such a thing and I just really enjoyed programming. And when you have two things that you’re really excited about like that it’s natural for them to combine.
And so when I was a kid up to high school I would write little programs at home that were sort of game like but not really because I kind of didn’t know what I was doing. But it was a good way to, still good practice. You know I got better at building programs. And then that sort of took a detour when I went through college and sort of learned computer science for real.
You know I still had little hobbies and projects in college but they tended to be more interesting computer sciencey things like hey I’m going to design a programming language now or whatever. And I started my first game company with a friend after college in around 1996. And it wasn’t particularly contemplative.
Our first game was, it was a multi-player science fiction war game where you drive hover tanks around and try take over some territory. But it was still thoughtful in a certain way that I was trying to come in and do something design-wise that had not been done, that was ambitious.
And that was sort of my angle for a long time coming to video was I sort of saw that they had a lot more potential than was being exploited by people who make them generally. There were just a lot of ideas, obvious ideas that were not being done and exciting ideas that were not being explored. And so for a time that was the way that I thought of things.
And I would not only try and do independent projects that had avant-garde design like that but I would also host sessions at conference. For 8 or 9 years I hosted something called the experimental game play workshop, which was a little miniature game development event inside a large conference where I would invite people who were doing experimental work to come up. I would curate the show and just try to show people, “Hey, look at all these interesting things that are going on and not necessarily making it into mainstream games.” That was the way I approached video games for a long time.
I’ve always had a very contemplative side to my personality also. But there wasn’t an obvious way for that to combine with a game making thing for a long time. But simply because I was doing this focus on avant-gardeness or something. Right? But eventually they sort of naturally folded together and about the time that I started this game Braid, it just was time to do that kind of a thing. You know it’s funny. It’s one of those things where prior to doing that project, you look back at what you’re doing and you don’t exactly understand what it is or where it’s going. But then after it, you look back and you see exactly how events led up to where they were and what the point of some of those things was if that wasn’t obvious at the time.
Vincent: Okay. Interesting. And I’m curious on, let’s just call it the contemplative side of the street, was there a particular time at your life that that became more of the foreground or the kind of more of an important area where you began to actively seek out certain practices or approaches to kind of investigating the human experience or whatever you want to call it?
Jonathan: Yeah. Well you know I had an intense seeker kind of an urge from a very young age, I don’t know pre-teen certainly, as long as I can remember. And I became some kind of an active seeker in college because you go out into the world on your own, and you’re doing your own thing, and you’re in charge of your life for the first time and that’s where I went.
But I pretty rapidly got discouraged and gave up because I wasn’t, you know, I had some internal compass pointing me toward truth and I wasn’t encountering things that I recognized as being that truth. And I got very sad and depressed for a while and I actually kind of thought that I’d put that away.
And what I really did was I turned that seeking impulse from being an external, you know, looking for things out in the world that match what I’m looking for. And I realized now that I sort of turn it more internally. And it was sort of when I describe what I was doing with game design and stuff over that period, from starting my first game until now, I realized that that seeking impulse was bubbling under the surface and kind of instructing everything that I did.
And it’s a little bit subtle and difficult to explain how. But it was definitely there. And then at some point during the development of Braid it was able to come out again because the process of designing that game was a little bit different than anything I had done before and it allowed me to take a little bit more of a backseat and learn from the game which amounted to learning from the world.
You know prior to Braid, the way that I thought designing a game would work is my job is to be a really smart game designer and have really ground breaking ideas and then I think really hard and I figure out how to put those ideas into a game that would be entertaining or something. And with Braid I was very fortunate in that I started with an idea. And the idea was about taking all these ideas from quantum mechanics that are not intuitive at the everyday scale at which we live but it seems to be ways that the universe works like not necessarily having an arrow of time or ideas like positions of objects being very vague and indeterminate. And I decided to try and build game around building those up to a macro scale and just seeing what that looks like and trying to live on a human scale in that kind of situation.
And that was very exciting to me because it was about taking a mysterious aspect of the universe and sort of turning a microscope on it. And that ended up not being what Braid was. Because I started with a very small part of that idea and I realized that within that little starting kernel there was more than I needed. As I zoomed in and looked at it, I just saw all kinds of possibilities.
And so to some extent I was able to take kind of a backseat designing that game. It was no longer me who’s job it was to come up with smart ideas. It was like the ideas were there and I just had to look at this inner play of form that was happening and have a little bit of impulse to sail a ship through it or guide my microscope or something. But it really became about just seeing what was there and curating that and showing it to people.
So part of that was just luck to have such a fortunate starting place for that game, but part of it was also, you know I realized that it took a little bit of design maturity. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here. But to try and explain what I mean a little bit about all the other design stuff leading up somewhere it took a little bit of design maturity to see that that was the opportunity, right.
That I could turn away from this “I am making the good thing” kind of a role and be more of a conduit and say well actually the good thing is already here and I am shaping it a little at best. And so that was a real turning point and that taught me really how to design games the way that I do it now. It was a 3 or 4 year learning process, maybe the most intense one that I’ve ever been in. And so now with the new game it’s much more in the vein of what Braid was than what I used to do.
I should actually clarify a little bit. I realized that I left something out. You know I had this strong seeking impulse and I said that it backgrounded. But one of the ways that it became active in my life during that time was just being interested in mathematics and science, especially lower level sciences like laws of physics and stuff like that.
So I learned a lot of math which worked well because when you’re doing ambitious games, especially 3D games, it really helps to know a lot of mathematics. And I don’t know if you guys cover this kind of thing in the podcast, but for people that are a little bit spiritually inclined, there are a lot of mysteries in mathematics that are things that people have been wrestling with for a long time. Like it seems a little bit of magical in a certain way or at least mysterious why math does what it does. And it’s a very interesting point of discussion for at least the past 100 years and certainly going back past that. But in the past 100 years we’ve had certain ways that we look in the universe in very tiny scales and see mathematical structures working exactly at those scales and there’s structures that would not have been intuitive to early earth year civilizations and that’s really kind of strange. So I just found all of that interesting and that maybe drove my educational process up until the time of designing these games.
Vincent: Okay. That’s really interesting. So a couple of things from what you said. I was wondering for the people that are just not familiar with Braid if you could describe kind of what the game is and what its like.
Jonathan: Sure. So what we in the business would call it is a puzzle platformer. What that means if you know games like Super Mario Brothers. It’s a two dimensional game where you’re a little person that runs around and jumps. And those are the main things that you do is you run and jump. And in traditional versions of this kind of a game is mostly action challenges with a little bit of puzzling.
You know you’re usually trying to time jumps over enemies who are running at you or fireballs or something and you jump on their head to knock them out. And sometimes there’s little puzzles that involve trying to get somewhere. And with Braid I enjoyed the idea of going back to that old template of a video game, it’s sort of one of the classic forms of games. And the reason why is I could do this exploration of time manipulation. What Braid is about, mechanically, it starts with this ability for you to turn time backward. So it’s essentially like an old Super Mario Brothers kind of a game except if you make a mistake you can rewind just like you would rewind on a VCR or DVD player now. Some people don’t even know what a VCR is.
You know kids these days man. [laughter]
Then you just rewind and do things over. But from that very tiny idea, because I was both designing the game and programming this implementation of rewinding, I suddenly saw a lot of different ways that that could go. And so the game from then on takes you from world to world where you’re ability to manipulate time takes on different flavors. So in the next world you can rewind things but some things are actually immune to your ability to rewind or they’re in a different time stream. And that creates a whole different series of puzzles. And the puzzles, instead of just being about trying to figure something out and be smart, which is what they classically are in games, because the game was able to take this form of venturing from world to world with different kinds of puzzles that arise naturally from the system of how you manipulate time, then the puzzles themselves were able to be illustrations of the answers to “what if?” questions.
So like in another world you show up in the world and time is frozen and as you walk to the right time goes forward and as you walk to the left time goes backward. So time is very intimately tied to your position and that feels very different and strange but it also enables to ask “what if?” questions. Like what happens just naturally to objects when that’s the way things behave? And there’s an interesting situation on one of the early levels in that world where normally if there’s a monsters walking by you on a ladder above you then you just wait for them to go by and then you climb up the ladder to go where you want to go. And it’s a totally something that you wouldn’t even think about. It’s just easy.
But on this world, because time is tied to your position, when you’re standing at the ladder it’s always the same time and the guy is always standing above you blocking you. So just that change of the rules, what I would say the fundamental laws of the game universe that you’re visiting, changes the way you have to think about situations drastically.
And that was very interesting and that was all the game needed as a conceptual core and then it just became exploration. Let’s see what different kinds of ways of manipulating time we can have and let’s see what the natural consequences are that happened when we apply those systems to the world of objects that we started with. And you know let me just curate that and show players the best ones. And that became, certainly for me, a very fascinating collection of puzzles. And I think a lot of people liked it.
And then to close the loop on this answer I guess, the reason why I started with a very simple Mario Brothers kind of world is really because that’s one of the simplest things in video games. Like video games these days are really complicated. You know if you buy a game for Xbox 360 you have a controller with like two joysticks and tons of buttons and things and menus where you have to do stuff that doesn’t fit on the buttons and all kind of different creatures in the worlds and stuff.
But when you go back to that old style of platformer, it’s possible to have a very simple world with a very small number of objects. It’s very easy to understand and very clear. And what that did was it let it serve sort of as a neutral baseline to then play with these laws of the universe and generate emerging situations that are more complex. But that complexity is easier to understand cause it’s layered on top of a simple world. So you can see what is the behavior of the simple world and what is the complexity arising from the new thing that you’re trying to understand.
Vincent: Going back to something you said which is really interesting. You said there was a shift in how you were making games in particular with Braid where it felt more like a shift from you being the smart person who is sort of figuring out how to do this new thing to you being more of like a conduit through which you’re sort of highlighting things that are maybe already there, and you said curating. I’m curious what the correlate in terms of your inner world is like with respect to that shift because obviously that’s a shift in how you’re making games. But then that’s a shift, like you said, comes from a certain level of maturing as maybe as a designer, maybe even as a human.
Jonathan: My day to day life just in terms of not even exterior signs of how I live but just like internally how I relate to the world around me is very different now than it was in 2005 when I started making Braid. And there’s definitely been a substantial learning process over that time. I’m not sure how much of it goes in what direction though. Like maybe due to the other things I do in the world I gained a little bit more insight into things that I found interesting and applied that to games. But then also at the same time I think this exploration of things via game design really taught me some things that are very subtle and hard to express.
But one of the many things that’s fascinating to me about video games is that they are basically tiny universes. So if you want to think about what it means to be in a world like the one that we live in, then one could certainly do worse than to build a little tiny toy universe and see what happens there because it’s a way, especially if it’s in your interest to look at what happens there and to make an interesting game out of it, it’s a way of training observational facilities. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about. I don’t know. I don’t know how to say more about that specifically without going of on the whole like you know physics tangent and stuff. But it’s just been a very interesting trip. I did not before necessarily see game design as a spiritual practice, it was something that I worked hard at, but now it is definitely a kind of spiritual practice. And I don’t know if it’s that because it’s just me doing it and that’s the way that I lean, or whether there’s really something there I try to show other people and say hey come check this out. It’s still a little early to call that one in.
You know everybody has a different path to understanding what they understand I think. And my particular one, you know, as I mentioned for a while, I was thinking a lot in very sciencey ways and I still do. And one thing that thinking in very sciencey ways gives you, especially like low level physics like quantum mechanics and stuff like that or even general relativity, it makes you think about “just like how could this world be constructed that it is the way it is?”. I mean that’s sort of the fundamental question of physics. But then if you have a little bit of a spiritual bent to you, you’re maybe more accepting of certain things in physics than a lot of people are. Like if you just look at what we know from science then we know, for example, it is known that what we perceive as normal day to day happenings–like I get up and I eat breakfast and I make decisions and those decisions have outcomes–like at some level it looks very likely all of that is an illusion, just from science. Like you don’t have to get mystical in any way to come to that conclusion, like general relativity tells you that. So once you see that then you can start building models in your head. And once you start encountering certain kinds of spiritual ideas, you can have these other models that are probably not right but they’re like analogies. Like I can sort of think about what a universe outside of time would be like because I have these mathematical concepts and I have these scientific concepts that help me with that. So one way that game design, and it’s certainly not the only way, but one way that game design can be a spiritual practice is to augment that kind of model making and that ability for personal visualization of spiritual concepts. Because you are building universes, and especially if you’re doing the kind of experimental changing of laws of universes like I do often, then you’re really thinking about them on a really fundamental level. Like what is created when I put things together in a certain way? And that can be a very deep question if you’re willing to let it be very deep and if you’re willing to let it inform your everyday life and the way that you see the world.