BG 273: The Witness

Episode Description:

Jonathan Blow is an indie game designer most well known for his time-bending game Braid.  In this episode we conclude our conversation with Jonathan by exploring his upcoming game, The Witness, as well as his in-depth exploration of non-duality.

This is part 2 of a two part series. Listen to part 1, Quantum Gaming.

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Vincent:    I’m also curious having talked a little bit about Braid, this new game that you’re working on has a really provocative title: The Witness.

Jonathan:    Yeah.

Vincent:    And the first time I’d ever heard that phrase was in a collection of writings that were taken from talks from this guy named Ramana Maharshi. And I’m just curious if you could say a little bit about what The Witness is, not in quotes “the Witness” but just what the game is and sort of what the process has been like working on that.

Jonathan:    All right, this is going to be a little be more difficult and messy cause this is totally like I’m in knee deep in this project right now.

Vincent:    Right. So whatever you can share of course.

Jonathan:    Well I just mean to say that it’s complicated and there are all of these ideas flying around. Like it’s a much more ambitious project than the previous game, we’ll start there.

There’s a classic video game that man people may have played called Myst. It was a big seller back in its day, which I guess was the mid90s or I don’t know what year it came, no, earlier than that, early 90s. And it was back in the days when CD-ROMs were new to computers. So you can put color images on the screen, you know high density way for the first time. The game was sort of about exploring an island by clicking on places on the screen and solving puzzles. There were many aspects of that game that I really enjoyed back in the day and that haven’t ever really been done by anyone else since then. So I had a little hankering to do something like that. And then right toward the end of developing Braid, I had some idea. And the best way to describe the idea is that it was about epiphany.

It was about creating moments of little miniature epiphanies in the world of a game that would feel like bigger enlightenment style experiences. That they would be things where you would not understand something for a while but then suddenly come to understand it. But not because that thing was really complicated or hard to understand, which is the way that video games usually are, but because it was too simple to understand because it was right in front of your face the whole time and you just kind of refuse to see it or didn’t notice it. And that was a really interesting idea and it took a while to figure out how to make a game out of it. And as always, the game I sort of ended up with isn’t really at all the one I started with. But that’s sort of the baseline idea, the inspiration for it.

But then on top of that there’s this very involved game where you explore this island that’s been deserted and there’s lots of buildings and facilities on there where people were doing things and you get to wonder about the history of what was going on here and you solve puzzles and in a sense the puzzles are like Braid they’re not trying to make you be smart. Some of them are harder. Some of them are easier. But they’re about communicating. They’re about exploring again some process of form going through iterations and you as a player seeing the interesting things that can happen there. So that’s one of the many levels at which, to sort of get back to the title, at which the game sort of has a mode of encouraging a witnessing presence I would say to the extent that a game can do that kind of thing.

It’s a game about looking at things and seeing them and knowing that you’re looking at things and seeing them. So it tries to add a level of self-referentially to that process of seeing things and of asking the question of what is like to be in a world and walk around and be seeing things and be hearing things. Now it’s interesting that I came up with the idea for this game before I had any real exposure to Ramana Maharshi and those kind of non-duality ideas. But then I ran into that current of spirituality I think in 2009 and that’s been my thing since then.

So, it’s really interesting that I’m working on this game because it all kind of ties together in one thing for me now.

Vincent:    Okay. That’s really interesting. Could you say a little bit more about that, like how does it tie togethe?.

Jonathan:    I don’t know.  [laughter]

Vincent:    That’s a good answer.  [laughter]

Jonathan:    I don’t know. It’s too early to conclude. I mean right now it’s such an ambitious project that I’m just sort of navigating it day to day at this point. Like I certainly have a master plan of what I am trying to make and it’s not just me making it. I have a team of people working on this, about 13 or 14 people total. Not all of them full time. You know six or seven of them full time. And so a lot of my day to day life right now is management. Like running a company and then trying to helm this art project so that it comes out the right direction, which is an interesting thing to try to do when so many people are working on something. So I definitely have this day to day just coping aspect to what I’m doing.

Vincent:    Sure. Sure.

Jonathan:    And maybe that’s a little bit exaggerated the way that I’ve said it, which is all just to say that’s a little bit okay because the flavor of non-duality that I’ve run into sort of encourages that anyway. It encourages non-premeditated responses to situations, just behaving naturally. So I believe that that’s sort of what I’m doing in my process of development is I’ve built up an understanding of what I’m doing and what I would like this to be. And then now from day to day I’m responding naturally so that occurs on the best of days. On other days I get all stressed and…

Vincent:    Sure. I mean what I hear you describing is you’re so much in a certain process that it’s difficult to take a step back from it and describe it. And you’re able to do that with Braid, but it’s been several years since it’s been released and there’s been time to reflect on it and stuff. So I appreciate what you’re able to say given that you’re sort in the middle of this really big development process.

I was curious you said you sort of gotten involved with Advaita Vedanta. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that like in terms of what’s that been like and how that ties in with what we were talking about before this process that you’ve been involved in with respect to the spiritual side and then also to whatever degree it make sense the side of creating games and creating these little universes.

Jonathan:    Yeah. Well it is a very big situation that’s hard to summarize. I would clarify, like if I say Advaita Vedanta, it might give some people the impression that I’m doing the flavor of it where you read a lot of Indian scriptures and things like that, which is not the way that I come at it. You know let’s say non-duality which is a western word, but typically what that means in practice to me is I’ll go to Satsang or to retreats where the primary goal is just to–primary goal that’s already a little bit of silly phrase to employ–but it’s just to encourage facilitation of a non-dual view of the world.  And that takes a different form depending on where you go and who you’re with and what people are feeling like that day, even really.

What it’s done in terms of my day to day life, like I’ve had some very interesting personal realization just even within the past year that change the way that I interact with the world generally and with my senses of time and space and with how I interpret things that are happening. And when things are that basic, it’s a little bit hard to encapsulate and say this is how it affects the way I’m developing a video game.

Vincent:    Sure.

Jonathan:    Cause it affects everything.

Vincent:    Yes.

Jonathan:    So I feel like I want to give you a more satisfying answer to that question but I’m not sure what that would be exactly.

Vincent:    And I’m okay with that. [laughter] And I suspect people listening are probably okay with that. One thing you said in terms, and I found this is a very interesting point because in the Buddhist contemplative scene there’s a lot of overlaps that I’ve noticed between sort of the non-dual approaches or scenes and kind of the way that people are looking at things. And then in the Buddhist scene there’s definitely non-dual strains of Buddhist practice. And so these are not completely disconnected fields. And so one of the things you said is really interesting is like you’re getting together with a group of folks in a form of Satsang or whatever and trying to encouraging a kind of non-dual way of understanding, of viewing their experience in the world. Here’s maybe a question just given your own process with that, what is a non-dual view of the world or experience of the world? I mean what is that?

Jonathan:    [laughter]  What is that? What is that? know, I don’t…  You know when people asked Ramana that question he would usually not say anything. And I’m certainly not qualified to do better than he was, right? So I don’t feel like I can say anything too meaningful. So I’ll attempt to say a few words and we’ll just keep in mind that they’re wrong. They are not true and they are not correct.

And then these are coming from my own personal way that I come at it, like the seeing the world in a kind of sciencey way. You know we have this idea. We operate from day to day. We wake up generally and we have these core assumptions about how we’re interacting with the world. That I’m this person and it is right now a certain time and you know now I’m going to eat breakfast and I’m going to eat something that I want and oh I feel really not so good because there isn’t enough sugar to put on my cereal and I like sugar. And just this is very little self oriented view point. That then goes and interacts with everything that happens in the day like why is that person looking at me that way?

They must think something strange about me. How do I engage in tactics to make them think better about me? Right?  And when you look at all of that, it really occupies most of what most people’s minds are doing most of the time, is this reinforcement of this personal identity. And I don’t think that I’m saying anything that Buddhists would find surprising at all so far. And so what we tend to do is just look at that and see it. And once you see it, you realize that you actually have choices in these matters. You know, right?  To take a really simple situation like feeling alienated from this other person who’s looking at you funny and caring about a lot about the outcome is a choice.

Or feeling hungry and being grumpy about it, there’s a disconnect between the sensation of hunger and the feeling grumpy about it and there’s a tremendous amount of mental activity at the very least that happens to join those two things and that you have many choices in there about how that’s going to go. But not just choices in an intellectual level like not just I’m seeing this person and they’re looking at me funny. Oh wait, I realized that I’m reacting to that and I’m going to step back and not react that way. That’s sort of how it starts. But eventually it becomes cultivating that naturally.

So that you just don’t feel that way anymore. So that you just realized that you’re a broader more integrated part of reality. That this obstruction of being an individual is very useful for a survival of a human being kind of purposes, but it isn’t necessarily the closest thing to truth. And just right there trying to take that last sentence and realize it very deeply is a very challenging thing for a human being to do and very difficult. I don’t know. Hopefully that is a reasonable description.

Vincent:    And do you have some sense of wanting that realization or that understanding where you mentioned the sense of being a small self like the small reference point that we’re always referring back to and the way in which if that begins to kind of break apart some, that we sort of recognize wow I’m sort of part of a much bigger integrated whole or reality that’s I didn’t see before, because I was so focused on this little, myself basically, my own concerns and survival and fears and all of that. Is that something that you’re wanting to get across in the work that you’re doing? Is that something that you have a conscious intention to get across cause I get a sense…

Jonathan:    A little bit.

Vincent:    A little bit. Okay.

Jonathan:    A little bit. So this is a very interesting area for me right now because I’m in the process of writing the story stuff for this game which is one of the places where that kind of expression would come out. You know there are little voice recordings hidden around this island that you explore where there’s an area that talks to you about various subjects. And this kind of idea would be there. The thing is I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a place where I can tell people what’s true generally, like I don’t feel like that is my role right now. If only because I’m in such a position right now that my own perception of the world is dramatically changing at a rapid pace. And so to tell people what’s going on or to tell people hey you should think this or you should believe this, does not feel appropriate in such a situation for many reasons.

But also I really, again this is something where the tradition of video games starts to dovetail with what I’m trying to do here and wanting to do something different, so traditionally in a video game where you have this kind of elements spread around, like recordings and you go click on them and play them. And somebody tells you some piece of back-story. They’re usually very presentational. It’s like a radio show and it’s very theatrical. Since a lot of video games are about shooting things or whatever a typical recording is like oh no, the aliens are going to break through the door and I’m hiding the secret key and the thing. And oh no, I’m getting eaten now or whatever, right?

Vincent:    Right.

Jonathan:    That’s how they usually go. And what I’m finding is appropriate for what I’m trying to do now is just to report from my own current viewpoint what things look like and what things feel like and to contextualize what I’ve understood in the past and what I understand now and how some transition was made there. But to do it in a way that isn’t trying to tell people that this is how things are or this is what to believe. It’s more just like a very personal report.  And the idea is to do something that’s very plain speaking, very straightforward and very vulnerable, to put myself in a very vulnerable position through telling the story. Because the problem that happens, I first became aware of this problem consciously when listening to an interview with Krista Tippett who runs the podcast “On being” which you probably know since you’re a podcaster.

Vincent:    Sure.

Jonathan:    You know she talked about this rule that she has. She has people of all kinds of faith show up and talk about things.

And she has this rule where you can’t talk about God in the abstract in interviews. You can only talk about how that kind of question impacts your life or your personal situation or your personal beliefs. And the reason is because when we start talking about grand truths–this is me talking now, this is not what Krista said–but when we start talking about grand truth or hey this is what you ought to believe, it becomes very easy to talk down to people and to distance oneself from people and to be wrong and to be pompous. Right?  So I found the best anecdote to that is to be maximally vulnerable.

Because that prevents you from positioning yourself above the person you’re speaking to. And once you do that, everything [inaudible].  It’s like you’re speaking to an old friend who you love rather than making some big presentation to impress somebody. So that’s a very difficult process and I’m still toward the beginning of that process because the production parts of the game, like just writing the program and building the 3D models and stuff, has been occupying much of my time lately.

But it’s going well I think to the extent that it’s been done and that sort of what I’m going to be launching into in most of 2013 is scoping out that story and building it out and trying to see if it is going to come together into something coherent as a story for a video game or if it’s just going to be something crazy. But either way it’s what’s going to happen.


Jonathan Blow

Jonathan Blow is an American independent video game developer. He is best known as the creator of Braid, which was released in 2008 and received critical acclaim. He is currently developing The Witness, to be released in 2013.

Website: The Witness