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Jonathan Blow (1971) is an American video game designer and programmer. He is best known for his work on the independent video games Braid (2008) and The Witness (2016).
- You know, in college, I never got either degree, but I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor's degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.
- A long time ago, I used to write fiction, short stories mainly. And I reached a point where I had honed my style so that it wasn't totally atrocious, and I kind of knew what I was doing when writing, and then the question was just, "What do I write about now?" And I couldn't really find anything that I felt was important enough to write about. So I just kind of gave up on writing.
- Finally, Braid was the thing where I felt that writing could enter into it. But the game design also is a different kind of writing. It's a different kind of idea communication. One of my main interests in writing stories was in finding truth, like fundamental truths of the universe, or finding important things. But the problem is that writing isn't a good venue for that. Because as I said, you can write anything the fuck you want down on a piece of paper, and as long as you're clever enough with your language, and your flow of logic from one sentence to the next – the better you are at those things, the more you can fool a reader into believing you. Even if what you're writing down is total bullshit.
But, you cannot do that in a game – or at least it's much harder – because in a game, you have to create a simulated universe that works according to some rules. Especially the way Braid is constructed. It has to be intact as a place that has laws, and consistency. And because of that, there has to be a kernel of truth in Braid. I can't write down any old bullshit that I want. I can't make any puzzle that I want that has any arbitrary answer, because it won't work in the context of the rest of the game.
- Well, it's very personal to me, because I have that kind of personality. The same sort of thing that drives somebody to study physics for 30 years, so they can discover a new particle. Just so they can know something more about the world. I have that same personality, but I didn't end up in physics. I ended up in game design. What does that mean? What is my outlet for that?
I have gone on record as talking about game design as a practice, like a scientific study, or like a spiritual practice, like yoga or tai chi. And that's part of what I'm doing when I design a game, is that I'm exploring the universe in a certain way. I'm trying to understand true things about it, or to uncover things about it, in ways again that are less bullshitty than just writing words on a paper. Because somehow, and I could be totally fooling myself about this, but I believe that somehow, there is something more meaningful about creating a system. Because the universe is a system, of some kind. And writing is not a system.
- There's another interesting thing, that I think that's interesting about game design is that game design is kind of a game by itself. I've made a bunch of puzzle games, and I've found that looking at a situation and saying "how do I make an interesting puzzle out of this?" is itself a really interesting puzzle. So there's this huge irony going on, that the companies that are making these social games [like FarmVille] that basically have no gameplay value in them are actually themselves playing a much more interesting game than the game that they're making for you to play. The game they're playing is this huge multi-dimensional optimization problem where you're trying to gather data and make the best decision and all that and the game they're making for you to play is like clicking on a cow a bunch of times and you get some gold. So that's very strangely humorous.
And as I visualize that happening, somebody at one of these companies, they're doing their A/B testing, they're kind of tweaking something for Europe and tweaking something for America and tweaking something for Canada and then going over here and like "oh this A/B test is done, let's look at the graphs of the results and let's write a report on that" and stuff. It's a little bit like planting trees and rearranging a garden and minding livestock and all that. So you could say that the people making FarmVille are not only playing a game, but they're playing some kind of like ur-FarmVille that is way more interesting. And so the sad fact of what this all comes to is you've got these people—you know, FarmVille has a wide demographic, it's not just computer nerds who play it apparently, anymore—so you've got all these people who think that they're playing this cool game where they mine their cows and pigs and feeling like the boss and getting all this gold and getting richer and their farm is looking nicer. There's all these ways that they feel like they're progressing. But what's actually happening is that someone is farming them. So you know there's all these imaginary farms out there where you gain imaginary money but then there's a real farm with real money that pulls money from you over the internet and you don't ever see it because it's all behind your head while you're typing on the computer.
- In his talk "Video Games and the Human Condition", September 2010
- I think a lot of game designers are irresponsible. When we can make something that affects so many people's lives—a AAA game these days, a hit one, is 10 million copies or more, probably. When you are making something that affects that many people, and you're not thinking about exactly what way you're affecting them—like seriously, not just like "oh, I'm giving them something fun" but like really introspecting—I feel like there's something wrong. If you think really hard about it and then you come to the conclusion "oh, what I'm doing is great, this is totally good", that's fine. But I feel like there's a lack of serious thought in the industry. People go and they spend three or four years of their life making a game, working very hard—it's very hard to make games, even when you have a hundred people helping. Because it's that much of your life, you would think it's very important to understand it and spend that time well but I think often the opposite happens psychologically—it's like "oh, I'm spending—I'm putting so much of myself into this". The thought that "it could be a bad thing when I thought that it was a good thing" is almost unbearable. "So I'm just not gonna look at that." I'm not saying that all game designers are like that. I've encountered what I perceive to be that attitude. Whereas other game designers, who make games where you just run around killing a hundred dudes or whatever, I've had totally reasonable discussions with them and they're just like "no, I've really thought about it and here's what I think". And so, it's complicated.
- In an interview with Brandon Bales of State of Play, 2011
- So, let me say something that may—I mean, some people get a little nervous when you talk about things like meditation and I'm gonna say something even worse than that. So if you're about to embark on a long project, you might ask yourself the question, "How do I know this is the right idea?" Right, if I'm gonna spend years on this project, how do I know it's the right thing? How do I know I'm gonna stick to it and get it done? So I came up with this thing that I sort of facetiously called the Cry Test, which is just—imagine you're in a very safe place, with somebody you care a lot about—very intimate relationship with this person—you're very comfortable with them. And you start explaining to them what this project is that you wanna do. If you're not in danger of breaking out in tears, not even necessarily in sadness, not even necessarily breaking out in tears, but having some involuntary upwelling of emotion. If that's not going to happen in that kind of situation, this probably isn't a project that you're that committed to. Because to do a really long project, that drive needs to be very deep. It needs to come from your core. If it doesn't then what's gonna happen is you start working on this thing, six months later—oh, I have a really neat idea for a game, it's got a grappling hook and stuff. That sounds neat, and you start working on the grappling hook and stuff and it turns out to be harder than you thought. And not as good as you thought. And six months later you're like "Well, what if I had a jet pack instead?" And it'll just go like that. You'll drop one thing and pick up another thing and drop that thing and pick up another thing in a chain, because you're not that committed. To succeed in a long and difficult project, there has to be love in the idea. And I don't—you know, in English we toss around the word "love" all the time, like we say like "I love pizza" or something, but I don't mean that. I don't mean "I love this idea" as in "oh, it's such a great idea". I mean, "I love this idea in the way if I don't do it, I'm gonna feel like I'm not doing the purpose of my life." It has to be that strong.
So the problem is that most people don't know how to find something that strong in game development. You certainly don't get taught that in school, so—at least, not any school I've ever seen—so I'd just encourage some deep introspection, just try—ask yourself what you really care about, really, because usually that answer will be very different from—usually, if you ask yourself what I care about, you'll come up with some answer, and then if you ask yourself "Really? Is that what I really care about?" Not really, it's usually some kind of politically correct answer that we tell ourselves. If you iterate on that, if you keep asking yourself what you care about, and not accepting the previous answer, you just ask again, ask again, eventually you make it to something you really care about.
- In Blow's talk "Attempting Deep Work, Surviving Long Projects", 2014
- So what are the ideas? Are they anything? Not really. What they are is an exploration of the things that can happen when you’re in a simpler version of the world we live in. So you have light and shadow, and you have colors and shapes occluding other shapes, and there’s an exploration of ‘Let’s make this as simple as we can and look at it with the greatest degree of focus that we can and see what we can see, and what is that like?’ Not even necessarily in a high-minded philosophical way, but let’s experientially look with fresh eyes upon this activity of walking around in a world from day to day, before you even add in other people that send you off into a weird mental place and all that. And then some of the panels are even more primitive. The first ones are more abstract, they’re pre-spatial. So here’s the black and white spots, and you need to figure out that you need to draw a line separating them. That’s an attempt at engaging whether there’s some kind of Platonic idea of category or space that precedes what you get when you have a full 3D world-like space that you can walk around.
This is a rambling answer, but the point is that those things all work together on a few levels. On one level it’s just, ‘Hey we’re getting the player into the mindset of looking with fresh eyes upon a world.’ Even if they don’t understand what’s happening, that’s fine, that’s just what we’re doing. But then also it’s metaphorical. There’s a metaphor for being a person in the real world just trying to understand ‘What is the truth about where we are? Are there investigations we can undergo in games that get us closer to the truth about the world we live in?’
- People have this reaction, ‘Why would I be interested in a game where you just walk around and draw lines on a bunch of panels? Why is there even a world there? Why is this not just a cheap iOS game or something?’ There are very good answers to that, but you don’t want to give people those answers because you then spoil the game for them.
- I feel like we don’t yet understand what games are capable of as a medium. And there’s not enough genuine interest throughout the game industry in dealing with that, because people have figured out how to make money. And that’s great, at least people have figured out how to make money for now by employing old gameplay discoveries in a continuously refined way, and-or borrowing things from other media.
- Video games are in a weird spot now. I feel like we’ve been living through this time of anti-intellectualism across the culture—for the past few decades at least, but in video games especially. I mean crazy anti-intellectual. Part of that is because so much of the intellectualism we’ve had in video games is actually really pretentious and dumb. I feel like we’ve seen a lot of people just trying to be the person who says smart things about games, instead of doing the work to understand gaming well and discover things and then explore what those discoveries entail. And I think people have rightly reacted negatively to that sort of behavior. It doesn’t mean there aren’t people doing that work and genuinely figuring out what games can be and pushing them forward. I just hope that eventually we can get to a stage where that work’s more broadly celebrated as part of the medium, say in the way that film does.
- I'm not really in the indie scene, that's the thing. I'm off by myself. I don't hang out with game developers, either indie or AAA, except for—there's a small number of people who I consider my pure circle and most of them don't live near me so I have to go fly to visit them. And if I add up the number of people total, it's certainly under ten people that I know of that I can talk to seriously about game design, it's probably about six people in the world. So those are the people I talk to about game design, and the rest of the industry is just doing its thing. And that includes the indie thing. I don't know.
- In an interview with Brian Moriarty, in response to the question "What's your take on the current indie scene? Healthy? Sick?", April 2016
- Here's a thing I like to point out to people—I'm not really anti-piracy, I'm not really pro-piracy. I pirated stuff when I was a kid because I didn't feel like I had a choice. My mom wouldn't really buy video games for me. I actually—one time in like a Waldenbooks or something I stole a physical copy of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? from the store. And it wasn't even a good game! I was a little—I did some bad stuff when I was a kid.
- In an interview with Brian Moriarty, April 2016
- Some people wanna be indie developers because there's a community of happy people who do the kind of things that they do and they can hang out with those people and it's just not—I don't really get nourishment from that, I'm not even really—ideally, I wish I was a community person, I wish I could find my community out in the world but I never have. So I'm the kind of person who—I have small numbers of friends who I have quality time with, and that's just how I do it. And so when you speak of the "community of game developers", even in the late '90s, when I was going to—in the first few years I was going to the GDC I didn't really feel like part of that, and it's so much less of a community now than it was—back then it was people working hard to make real games for the most part, and now you go to the GDC and it's like how to catch the whales using your shitty IAP whate—are we allowed to say that?
- In an interview with Brian Moriarty, April 2016
- Right now, if you're coming out of school—is the generalization of the age of people who happen to be coming out of school, usually—it's a very valuable time where you're kind of in your prime in terms of learning new stuff and adapting and having energy and inspiration and all this. Or at the last, you'll probably match any later time in your life, whether those impulses decline or not—very good time right now. And sort of one of the worst things you can do is go work at some company that's kinda big and bureaucratic and slow, at that age, because you're still learning and you wanna run the engine fast, you wanna learn things quickly because learning is like compound interest and the more you learn, the more you'll learn from your later experience because you can handle it better or whatever.
- In an interview with Brian Moriarty, April 2016
- The way I think about puzzles is a real puzzle, is something you may not ever figure out.
- Q&A session at Graz Technical University, November 2017
- [In games], a lot of the problems that we need to solve [are] global state manipulation problems. And so pretending that it's not, by saying "look I have a functional language and I'm going through seven layers of things so that I can avert my eyes sufficiently from the fact that I'm actually just manipulating globals at the end of the day" - that's just an obfuscation, it doesn't actually solve any problems.
- Interview  "S1E09 - Jonathan Blow | On the Metal Podcast", July 2020
- If what you're objecting to is the flavor and attitude and the nature with which Casey was expressing his criticism, then there's a little bit more of a point there, however, again, you eliminate that at your peril. It is well-known that many of the greatest contributors to society—not just in software, but in all science and technology and the arts everywhere—many of those people have been hard to work with for one reason or another. And partially it's because they care tremendously about what they are doing. They care tremendously about the form in which they are working. You might say "oh but that guy doesn't need to be crotchety and mean about that thing", but you can't take away that part of the personality and have everything else, because that part of the personality is quite likely an integral part of what made the rest of the artist or the scientist as good as they are. You can't just decide "Albert Einstein should have had a different personality but he should've still done all the cool relativity stuff and figured all that out and then I'm going to sit on my couch and eat Cheetos and I'll criticize Einstein for not being a good person in some certain way that a hundred years later I decide is the right way to be, but I will take all the stuff that he contributed because it helps me eat Cheetos and that's great". That is so—it is important for us to see that kind of lazy, bloated, fat, social criticism of others as being as toxic as it actually is, and as being as unproductive and decay-inducing as it actually is. That's way more toxic than a programmer saying angry things—that kind of criticism, because that kind of criticism that's in vogue in places like Twitter right now at a large scale will destroy human society, whereas the crotchety programmer thing on a large scale built a large part of the human society that we have right now. So be very careful with that stuff, and on my part, I feel that one of the better contributions I can make is to not tolerate that kind of criticism. I just won't put up with it. If you come to this channel with that kind of thing I'll just ban you because it's stupid and I don't have time for it. There's too much of it. It's cheap, all it is is posturing so that the person making the criticism can feel better, can show other people that they are a good person, and it's gross, it's really gross. And it's destructive. We don't need it.
- In a Twitch stream, 2021
Quotes about Blow
- I’m probably asking for trouble by doing this, because Blow’s known for skewering theorists who’ve gone looking to excavate ideas from his other game, Braid. (A game he’s said he had specific ideas about while crafting, but that no one’s yet pieced together fully.)
- Matt Peckham, "What I Think The Witness Really Means", January 2016
- There is no help within The Witness for those struggling to meet its challenges; as he did with Braid, Blow declined to include a hint system in the new game. If he has sacrificed approachability, he has remained true to his personality: logical, stubborn, unsuffering of fools.
Written profiles of Blow tend to have a certain reverence of tone. In part, that’s down to the scarcity of people like him—game designers whose artistic ingenuity is matched by a thoughtfulness in words. But it’s also because he is something of an iconoclast. Blow has been an outspoken critic of other game designers, once referring to the mindless yet irresistible quests of World of Warcraft as “unethical.” Following Braid's release, he publically chastised those reviewers who had incorrectly guessed at the game’s deeper meaning, saying that they had “obviously overlooked many prominent things.”
- Simon Parkin, "The Prickly Genius of Jonathan Blow", January 2016