Game Designers in Detail: Jonathan Blow

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.

In this interview, MFA Josh Raab and speaker Jonathan Blow discuss how much feedback Jonathan incorporates in his puzzle and narrative design process, what makes a good puzzle, and the purpose and intent of working with both experimental and traditional mechanics. 

To go deeper into the craft of game design, join us for PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail on November 14-16. More information and tickets available here!
Josh Raab: Your games tend to have a strong narrative component. What is your process for creating and revising narrative? Do you seek out feedback in the same way you might playtest a puzzle, or do you prefer to work on narrative design with minimal outside input?

Jonathan Blow: I do narrative stuff with minimal outside input. But I do game design with minimal outside input as well — perhaps a little more than with narrative, but not much. When I playtest a game, I am almost never seeking feedback; it’s more like executing a reality check, so that I see whether the way I think something is is the way it really is.

JR: The core gameplay of Braid is solving puzzles, and this seems to be true for The Witness as well. From your years of experience in puzzle design, what tends to make a puzzle feel clever and interesting as opposed to frustrating and “unfair?”

JB: Puzzles are interesting when they know why they are asking you to solve them, and when they give back to you in proportion to how much effort they were asking you to put in.

JR: Your games are experimental in some ways, while also being grounded in the traditional mechanic of puzzle solving. What is the relationship between the traditional and experimental aspects of your designs? For example, do you feel that puzzles provide a base level of enjoyment for a broad audience, while the experimental elements are there for people who want to explore them? Do these aspects work together to strengthen each other, or do they sometimes conflict?

JB:  I use traditional design elements sometimes because those are what I know as a player, and it’s easy to use them. Usually I use them to help form the structure around something I think is new and interesting. If absolutely every part of your ship is untested, you may have a problem sailing to your ambitious destination, or even keeping the ship afloat. I don’t design for a “broad audience” or really any audience. Yes, all else being equal, it is great if as many people as possible can appreciate a game; but when I work on a game, what I do is determined by the subject matter, not a picture of some audience.