Jonathan Blow

I’m a person, who has a lot of things that I think about, about the world and things that I wonder about, and sort of mysteries that I’m interested in; everybody has their own little idea of what living life well means, and I have that idea, and it doesn’t have very much to do with shooting a lot of guys in the head

«I feel like it's very common for game makers to try to divorce the storytelling and interactive aspects of the medium. Because of this, many critics have it ingrained in their mind that there are two separate parts of a game that they're supposed to review, the gameplay and the story.»

«This seems to be in line with what I feel is one of the main themes of The Witness, that of the ultimate value of earned understanding, and the ineffectiveness of ill-gained knowledge.»

«I don't worry too much about difficulty. I like it when puzzles are hard sometimes, but if they are well-designed they will also be interesting if they are easy. The real thing to be careful about is that if you make a difficult puzzle, you don't put it in such a place that it blocks people from experiencing most of the rest of the game.»

«First I designed a bunch of puzzles, then we spent a long time figuring out what the environments would be like, then we designed more puzzles and modified the old ones, then we refined our ideas about the environments, while simultaneously designing puzzles that would best exploit those environments, etc. It was an iterative process (and one reason why the game took so long to make!) In fiction writing, there is this concept that you want every sentence to do more than one thing: you want to describe the setting and set the mood and introduce the character. You want to say what happened and show how a character feels about it and foreshadow a later consequence. For some reason game designers never got this memo.»

A MAZE masterclass with Jonathan Blow

clear out everything that doesn’t have to do with the idea of what the game is supposed to tell you

don’t trick the player unless that’s the point of the game

make the puzzles honest

a lot of games has this idea that you have to raise the difficulty - comes from arcade games? where you had to throw the player off after a while (or they’d win all the money) this isn’t really necessary

pacing; sometimes it’s hard, sometimes easy

game like a book without words

«the ability to craft an extremely complex idea without language is very interesting, and not something that many very people have tried in history, and certainly not with the kind of interactive bandwidth that we have today»

build streams of thought

if some of the puzzles are easy you get a flow of ideas that you couldn’t get if they were harder

a game where every locaions withstands being visited many times, and every time you visit you notice new things that matter

adventure games don’t know wat they’re about: they’re a fiction

a series of if-statements


game mechanics are thought of as separate from the environment and aesthetics

visual + audial is also part of the puzzle

optional puzzles: «you have to be a very thorough player to know that they’re there» more difficult than the regular puzzles

the idea that you should always get a reward for something good you did is kind of for kids, right?

a mature player appreciates the situation better than «oh, you got a star»

you want the player to understand/learn something by solving the puzzles

not be able to solve it by accident or they won’t understand what you’re trying to do

you want them to have a model in their head of what the solution is going to be when they attempt the puzzle

make the space of possibilities that the puzzle can be in very big, but that the solution is very close to the starting point

the ideal player will be inventive and try to bring something to it

Designing to reveal the nature of the universe

Portal and VVVVVV mechanics

«these are little nuggets of truth that the designer has found and packaged for the player»

even though these are things you experience as a player as pieces of a fictional game world that doesn’t exist, if you think about it, they are about subjects that pertain to the real world that we live in, our universe, or even to the abstract universes that people like mathematicians explore

portal: lines intersecting in 3d space

it’s a very sophisticated thing to understand, but with gameplay that understanding happens naturally

an aesthetic of game design: you mine these little nuggets of truth and then package them to the player

when we look at the universe using mathematics, we see a system

mathematics is surprisingly powerful at helping us understand the way the universe functions

it’s a deep question how mathematics and the universe are linked

we can also look at the universe using games; they are toy universes, and based on complex mathematical systems: you start with a game state, and the game has some rules, and the rules evolve the game state, in addition to input from the player, and the game state keeps evolving until the player stops playing

mathematics can be used to model physical phenomena, but it can also stand on its own

mathematics look at equations and systems and talk about beauty

they seem to agree that the shortes theorems that carry the deepest consequences are the most beautiful

the same principles of beauty can be applied to games

when we’re implementing a video game, we build a system

we build systems and explore their consequences in a math-like way, then we present the results so that players can discover the same truths in turn

the witness is a game about patterns; if you draw the right patterns you activate something or open a door or something

witness puzzles: grid systems, patterns, symmetry, visible «goal» (where the line should end up)

exploration yields a lot of possibilities; which do we like and why? 

criteria to evaluate

completeness criteria:

use the full potential of the environment


- with high-level expressions from low-level concepts

- with combinations of game mechanics

strong boundaries; makes the game easier to explore

compatible mechanics

mechanics reveal interesting consequences

orthogonality of mechanics; does the potential mechanic add enough new interesting consequences, or are the consequences already mostly contained in the existing mechanics?


not by trying to make it hard or good

look for the truth in the situation: illustrate it with a puzzle

let the player glimpse something that they didn’t know/have before

the point of the puzzle is to show some truth

know what that truth is

eliminate anything that is not about that truth

how to make sure the player will get it

information build up

- each attempt reveals information about the way the game works

- solution implies higher level of understanding

- the space around the truth is often more valuable than the truth itself

make sure you have the CAPABILITY to ensure that the player understands something, and that for a certain amount of stuff in the game that’s true

but there is allowance for subtlety: 

«I want to be able to put things in the game that many people won’t get, but that people who are extra attentive or extra interested in this kind of subject will get.»

you want to get to the point where you can make everything 100% understandable 100% of the time and then add the subtlety on top of that

puzzles that help you understand things that are valuable in and of themselves outside the game

have a puzzle be part of a sequence or superstructure; a hierarchy of ideas

a good balance between low number of steps and low chance of a random successful attempt creates good puzzles

a programming language is a tool to get something done; you want to minimize the amount of time it takes to get something done

but in a game, you don’t want to minimize the time it takes to play (or you’re doing something wrong, something’s wrong with the game)


most games use the story to as a way to keep pulling you through the game (make you keep playing), because you want to know what happens next; if you want to put that in the background, something else has to be there, and in (the witness) it’s the ideas in the gameplay; they make sequences of ideas, a stream of nonverbal communication, where you’re not just solving some arbitrary puzzles, they all have ideas behind them and the ideas make patterns that you follow

it has some of the structure and the flow that a story has, but it’s not a story, it’s complicated; if you were to try to explain the game to someone who just walked in it would be a long explanation

game designers are people who design systems and understand how systems behave as they move on under their own governance


text adventures

myst puzzle game

maze puzzles that remove ambiguity

- not having to click on every single pixel to see if it has any effect (point and click games)

- not wondering when do i use this hammer in my inventory (adventure games)

all the UI parts are now no longer confusing

tutorial area getting people used to the controls

internalized what the flow of the game is

be conscious about how you draw people’s attention (and to what)


arcade cabinets (games trying to kill you in a matter of minutes) and iphones

the medium affecting how games are developed

constraints dictate what you’re able to do and shapes


f2p games

loss aversion

games that are like treadmills (i hate treadmills)

bring up issues that make them very real to the player

games that «speak to you as a human being beyond a just bundle of reflexes that can be psychologically manipulated» exist (jonathan blow) (candy crush)

game narratives: drag you through the game and justifies what the game is having you do

game design «best practices» (manipulative tactics)

- story

- eye candy

- a clear next goal («just one more before i go to bed»)

- a feeling of constant improvement

these are not about making an inherently good game! (chess, go) it’s about something else; they’re about convincing people to play your game and giving them feelings of compulsion towards it

modern games eliminate boredom

developers are even taking away frustration, so games today are less difficult

what is boredom?

a healthy response to unproductive situations

cause you to go outside of your normal behaviour patterns

value the subjective:

the field of games can bring value to the human understanding of subjective consciousness; because they’re interactive

the witness: about epiphany! you didn’t not understand it because it was too complicated, but because it was too simple

discovering for yourself; the aha-moments happening in the player’s head, and not in-game for a character you’re playing

boredom, frustration and fun have evolutionary purposes

is the game fulfilling that evolutionary purpose?

«you say you’re having fun, but are you really having fun?» 

Alan Moore:

«Writers and people who had command of words were respected and feared as people who manipulated magic. In latter times I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river. They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment. They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being, that can change a society. They are seen as simple entertainment – things with which we can fill twenty minutes, half an hour, while we’re waiting to die.»

“We can do some very interesting things if we put down language as a crutch for communication,” Blow says. 

“Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t holding your hand the whole way through to make sure you understood every paragraph. It’s exploring things it thinks are interesting, and if you can keep up, great. If you can’t, you can come back to it in a few years and see it from a different perspective. Games don’t seem to have that at all – and that’s part of what makes art deep and interesting. That’s what really interests me.”



suveh nux


part of it is about not trying to be professional

make it personal

a commercial product is glossy and they’ve removed all the bumps; trying to reach as large an audience as possible, which is the opposite of making something personal

you can express yourself fully like when you write a book or make a film

vulnerability and honesty

the ultimate artform! video games are the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive!

like why a writer writes; it’s the most effective way that they can express themselves, and creating a game is a way to express yourself

indie games vs commercial games

«it started as a process of experimentation, but then it very quickly became a process of discovery»

PHIL FISH (creator of FEZ): «to me games are like the ultimate artform. it’s the ultimate medium. it’s the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive. it’s awesome!»


- a puzzle is a communication of an idea from the maker to the player
- «i understand» is different to «i finally figured it out»
- puzzles should be simple; explore ONE idea at the time until you understand it
- don’t have arbitrary steps in the puzzles
«the more that a puzzle is about something real and something specific, and the less it’s about some arbitrary challence, the more meaningful that ephiphany is»
- let the design dictate the rule and mechanics

what does fun mean?

what kind of fun?

what’s fun for you vs fun for another person?

why are you choosing this kind of fun?

not as escapism!

looking to have an experience that has something i can bring back into my life

looking for some value in a movie or in a game that adds to your life

looking to put value into a game that i can give to people

let the player get the most value for their time out of playing it, let it be worth their time

get the most value for your time when playing it

«when you make a game that is inherently valuable; gives people something through the act of play, they don’t need artificial things to string them along and keep them interested, because the material of the game itself is interesting»

interesting not for every player in the world, but for it’s audience

the achievement structure of games is hollow

the content has to be put into it

people confuse the structure for the actual value part of the game

the extreme version of this is gamification!

when they say «i’m gonna add game mechanics to my website» they mean points and achievements; those aren’t game mechanics! those are hollow empty structure that has no value

what is the CORE ACTIVITY that you’re gonna do if you’re playing this game

what is the MOST BASIC thing you will be doing

that needs to stand on its own! in the absence of achievements or cutscenes or any of that stuff, which is manipulative

RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE! minimal trickery

when you feel the need to put in all that stuff early on

it shows a lack of faith in the fundamental value of the game

the big world and structure and narrative BEFORE the mechanics

- make sure the core of the game is intact and that it works and build out from there

ethical dilemma of being a game designer

what is fun and why?

what we find fun is grounded in our evolution and survival ability

we don’t exactly know what it is but we can make educated guesses

understanding new things, or becoming more aware of your surroundings, is fun, because knowing what’s in the environment around you = survival

getting more stuff is fun because it makes you more equipped if something bad happens

maslow’s pyramid; the needs are taken care of, so the instincts rise to the next level

what we find fun has a lot to do with survival value

making a game to make people play is subverting their survival instincts

taking the energies of what people want to do and channeling them

that is why it’s an ethical question; game designers hack into human psychology

«why are you hacking into someone’s head and making them want to do stuff?»

if your point is just to get money out of them, it’s parasitic

the artist goal is to GIVE people something (getting some money in return because you need it to survive)

it’s a different nature of exchange

create a lot of space for interpretation (game designers as artists, games as artform)

little linear runs of narrative that give you a concrete «piece»

but the idea of how these pieces fit together in the larger narrative is open to interpretation

when i think about the game i’d like to play, it’s a game that

- values the player’s time

- has something new to bring, not just fooling me into giving it 50 bucks

can we explore a little more?

«i’m a person, who has a lot of things that i think about, about the world and things that i wonder about, and sort of mysteries that i’m interested in; everybody has their own little idea of what living life well means, and i have that idea, and it doesn’t have very much to do with shooting a lot of guys in the head»

Links from his website:
"When I was very young--the earliest story I know--when I still ate in a high chair, my father would play a game with me after dinner. He had brought a whole lot of old rectangular bathroom floor tiles from some place in Long Island City. We sat them up on end, one next to the other, and I was allowed to push the end one and watch the whole thing go down. So far, so good.   Next, the game improved. The tiles were different colors. I must put one white, two blues, one white, two blues, and another white and then two blues--I may want to put another blue, but it must be a white. You recognize already the usual insidious cleverness; first delight him in play, and then slowly inject material of educational value."