The Most Dangerous Gamer
Never mind that they’re now among the most lucrative forms of entertainment in America, video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy. At least that’s what Jonathan Blow thinks. But the game industry’s harshest critic is also its most cerebral developer, a maverick bent on changing the way we think about games and storytelling. With his next release, The Witness, Blow may cement his legacy—or end his career. In a multibillion-dollar industry addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens, can true art finally flourish?
Like many wealthy people, Jonathan Blow vividly remembers the moment he became rich. At the time, in late 2008, he was $40,000 in debt and living in a modest San Francisco apartment, having just spent more than three years meticulously refining his video game, Braid—an innovative time-warping platformer (think Super Mario Bros. meets Borges), whose $200,000 development Blow funded himself. Although Braid had been released, to lavish praise from the video-game press, on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service that August, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day when he sat down at a café in the city’s Mission district. “I opened up my Web browser and Holy fuck, I’m rich now,” he recalled. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account.”
Blow’s similarities to the average millionaire end right there, however, because unlike most wealthy people, he seems faintly irritated by his memory of striking it rich. When Blow told me, during a typically metaphysical conversation in a park near his Berkeley office, that his windfall was “absurd,” he didn’t mean it in the whimsical “Can you believe my luck?” sense; he meant it in the philosophical, Camus-puffing-a-cigarette sense of a deeply ridiculous cosmic joke. “It just drives home how fictional money is,” Blow said, squinting against the unseasonably bright December sun. “One day I’m looking at my bank account and there’s not much money, and the next day there’s a large number in there and I’m rich. In both cases, it’s a fictional number on the computer screen, and the only reason that I’m rich is because somebody typed a number into my bank account.” For the world’s most existentially obsessed game developer, coming into seven figures just provided another opportunity to ponder the nature of meaning in the universe.
Which is not to say that Blow has forsaken his wealth. As Braid grew into a bona fide phenomenon in its first year—selling several hundred thousand copies, winning armloads of industry awards, and becoming Exhibit A in the case for the video game as a legitimate artistic medium—Blow made several upgrades to his austere lifestyle. In place of his old Honda, he now drives a $150,000 crimson Tesla Roadster, a low-slung all-electric automotive dynamo that offers a highly realistic simulation of being shot out of a cannon whenever Blow clamps down on the accelerator. And after a yearlong victory lap filled with lectures and laurels, he moved into a spacious hilltop condo that overlooks the eastern half of the city as it slopes down to the sapphire-colored bay.
Yet aside from his electric car—the virtues of which he extols with messianic zeal—Blow displays total indifference toward the material fruits of wealth. His apartment stands mostly empty; books on physics and Eastern philosophy lie in haphazard piles, as though he has only half finished carting his belongings in from a moving truck outside. His minimal collection of furniture is almost all rented, including the springy beige sofa he got just a few months ago, after he arranged to have several video-game journalists over and realized he had nowhere for them to sit. “I’ve never liked money, really,” Blow told me. “Having a big high score in my bank account is not interesting to me. I have a nice car now, but I don’t really own that many objects, and I don’t know what else I would spend money on. So for me, money is just a tool I can use to get things done.”
More specifically, Blow has decided to use his money—nearly all of it—to finance what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history, one that he hopes will radically expand the limitations of his chosen field. Although video games long ago blossomed into full commercial maturity (the adrenaline-soaked military shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, for example, racked up $400 million in sales during its first 24 hours in stores last fall), the form remains an artistic backwater, plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels. Blow intends to shake up this juvenile hegemony with The Witness, a single-player exploration-puzzle game set on a mysterious abandoned island. In a medium still awaiting its quantum intellectual leap, Blow aims to make The Witness a groundbreaking piece of interactive art—a sort of Citizen Kane of video games.
Video: Taylor Clark shows how radically Jonathan Blow’s games challenge the mainstream.
It’s a characteristically audacious plan for a man who has earned a reputation not just as the video-game industry’s most cerebral developer, but also as its most incisive and polarizing internal critic. To Blow, being labeled the most intellectual man in video games is a little like being called the most chaste woman in a brothel: not exactly something to crow about to Mom and Dad. “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity,” he told me. “There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”
As a developer whose independent success has emancipated him from the grip of the monolithic game corporations, Blow makes a habit of lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at the industry. He has famously branded so-called social games like FarmVille “evil” because their whole raison d’être is to maximize corporate profits by getting players to check in obsessively and buy useless in-game items. (In one talk, Blow managed to compare FarmVille’s developers to muggers, alcoholic-enablers, Bernie Madoff, and brain-colonizing ant parasites.) Once, during an online discussion about the virtues of short game-playing experiences, Blow wrote, “Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome?” His entire public demeanor forms a challenge to the genre’s intellectual laziness. Blow is the only developer on the planet who gives lectures with titles like “Video Games and the Human Condition,” the only one who speaks of Italo Calvino’s influence on his work, and the only one to so rile up the gamer community with his perceived pretentiousness that the popular gamer blog Kotaku used him as the centerpiece of a post titled “When You Love the Game But Not Its Creator.”
Yet as harsh as Blow can be toward his industry, he applies even stricter standards to his own work. With The Witness, produced with about $2 million of his own money, he plans to do nothing less than establish the video game as an art form—a medium capable of producing something far richer and more meaningful than the brain-dead digital toys currently on offer. Blow envisions future games that deliver experiences as poignant and sublime as those found through literature and film, but expressed in ways distinctive to games. “If the video game is going to be used for art purposes, then it has to take advantage of its form in some way particular to that medium, right?” he told me. “A film and a novel can both do linear storytelling, but novels are very strong at internal mental machinations—which movies suck at—and movies are great at doing certain visual things. So the question is: Where are games on that same map?” It’s a question Blow intends to answer.
I met Jon Blow in early 2011, when my friend Tom Bissell—a journalist and author hired to help write the script for The Witness—invited me along to dinner one night when Blow was visiting Portland, Oregon. Knowing Blow’s outspoken reputation, I expected a sort of fire-breathing techie-Limbaugh, wreathed in nerd rage. Instead, when I entered Bissell’s condo, I saw an intensely serious-looking man performing a slow tai chi sequence in the living room. His face, bounded by a closely cropped widow’s peak on top and a clenched jaw on the bottom, radiated quiet imperturbability. But Blow’s most striking feature is his eyes, which sit under a perpetually half-furrowed brow and seem always to be evaluating, probing, assessing. His unchangingly flinty expression makes it extraordinarily difficult to gauge where Blow is on the spectrum between enjoying your company and despising everything you stand for.
I was surprised, then, when after a pleasant dinner mostly spent bemoaning the game industry’s artistic failings, Blow offered to let me play an early version of The Witness on his laptop. Game developers tend to be pathologically secretive, allowing outsiders access to an unfinished game only under paranoically controlled conditions, having extracted a blood oath never to reveal that, say, the submachine gun also fires plasma grenades. Blow, by contrast, plugged a controller into his laptop, told me to knock myself out, and walked away to play LittleBigPlanet 2 with Bissell.
At that point, the game was more of a three-dimensional digital sketchbook—storyless, built from antiquated ad hoc graphics, and stuffed with puzzle ideas in various stages of completion—but its core mechanics were fully functional. In The Witness, the player unlocks different areas of the enigmatic deserted island by solving a series of line-drawing puzzles on blue panels. The first panels are simple enough, but later ones become increasingly inventive and increasingly fiendish. I spent a full 30 minutes struggling not to put my fist through the laptop screen while working on one especially tough puzzle, as Blow periodically looked over at me with the sort of amused expression usually reserved for a house cat chasing after the glowing red dot of a laser pointer. Only later did Blow disclose that he’d decided that particular puzzle was too difficult to stay in the game.
While moments like this tend to confirm Blow’s reputation as a misanthrope, he is in fact almost obsessively conscientious. It’s just that he has no patience for coddling or bullshit. At his Berkeley office many months later, as I was playing a more polished build of The Witness, I turned to Blow at the next desk and asked if I was missing some clue for a specific puzzle. He fixed me with a stare that could hammer a nail into a wall. “The clue is, you’re doing it wrong,” he said. In other words: don’t ask me to do your thinking for you.
Even Blow’s friends choose words like difficult and spiky when describing him. “You have to approach Jon on Jon’s terms,” said Chris Hecker, his closest game-industry friend, over empanadas with Blow at an airy Oakland café. “It’s not ‘Let’s go out and have fun.’ It’s more like ‘Let’s discuss this topic,’ or ‘Let’s work on our games.’ You don’t ask Jon to hang out, because he’ll just say ‘Why?’”
Friendship with Blow requires patience for his rigid, often puzzling personal codes. He enjoys talking, but abhors idle conversation and is intensely private. He goes out dancing several nights a week, yet the suggestion of visiting the same club for a beer will elicit a lengthy anti-bar diatribe. “You’re poisoning yourself with alcohol,” Blow vented, as Hecker smiled knowingly beside him. “You’re kind of socializing, but the loud music prevents you from actually communicating. It’s all set up to help people socialize who don’t feel comfortable being honest about why they’re there. It freaks me out. Just understand what you’re doing, and do it.”
“Hold on,” I objected. “Are you saying people at bars should just walk up to each other and say, ‘I would like to have sexual intercourse with you’?”
“I think we could live a lot closer to a truthful existence and we’d all be better off,” he replied.
Blow’s relentless pursuit of deeper truth began at an early age. Born in 1971 to middle-class, emotionally distant Southern California parents, Blow says he started to “check out” from his family (from whom he remains estranged) while still in elementary school. His mother was a devout ex-nun who constantly reminded her scientifically inclined young son about the imminent return of Jesus. (When Blow’s older sister came out as a lesbian in the mid-’80s, their mother disowned her.) Blow’s father worked all day for the defense contractor TRW, then came home and spent every possible moment alone in his den, where the children were not welcome. “Early on, I detected that there weren’t good examples at home, so I kind of had to figure things out on my own,” Blow told me. “I had to adopt a paradigm of self-sufficiency.”
Blow’s rigorous personal codes reached their peak severity when he was a child. Authentic spiritual self-reliance became his fixation, escapism and superstition his greatest enemies. “I didn’t want to hide from things, and I didn’t want to believe convenient things just because they felt good,” he told me. “To avoid that, you have to be willing to go stand out in the cold and not be comforted, and not take your own personal happiness and well-being as the goal of existence.” For Blow, this edict entailed countless acts of self-denial, like turning down offers for a ride home from school during a rainstorm. He also showed a compulsive secrecy, routinely lying to other children to hide what he was really thinking. “If you’re going to outsmart them, they have to not know,” he told me. Unsurprisingly, this approach won him few friends.
Instead of bonding emotionally with his family or with other kids, the young Blow developed a profound affinity for computers. When he first encountered a Commodore VIC-20, in a fifth-grade computer class, Blow intuitively understood it; he saw an exhilarating purity in the logic of its internal systems. And before long, he felt the tug of his calling. “The first thing I made in that class was a game,” he recalled. “It was like a slot machine where you had to press a button at the right time to match a number on the screen, but I made the screen flash different colors and added sound effects. Really polishing the turd, so to speak—which, really, was a good education for the modern game-development industry.”
Even as a teenager, Blow was looking to improve the embryonic games that were then on the market. On a clunky TRS-80 home computer, he designed an Indiana Jones–inspired adventure game from text-based ASCII graphics, in which the player dodged arrows and circumvented traps. On a Commodore 64, Blow made another game that was “objectively better than Pac-Man in a number of ways,” namely because it had a greater diversity of maps.
But it wasn’t until his mid-20s that Blow took up game development as an occupation. After a five-year stint as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, where he studied computer science and creative writing but dropped out one semester short of graduating, Blow bounced between uninspiring Bay Area tech jobs for a few years. At 24, he took $24,000 he’d saved and, with a friend from Berkeley, started his own game-design company—a business that stubbornly refused to thrive. Though it produced a finished game (a “software-rendered 3-D team-on-team multiplayer-only sci-fi hovertank war game”), the tiny firm launched just as the era of small studios was ending and the dominance of multimillion-dollar corporate game projects was beginning. The business folded after four years, $100,000 in debt.
By the early 2000s, Blow was in grave danger of becoming a failed game developer. He made a good living consulting for tech companies and game studios, but he struggled to maintain any enthusiasm for it. “I have a terrible work ethic when I’m doing things I don’t really care about,” he told me. “I can’t motivate myself to do stuff if it’s not the most important thing for me to do. So I’d do a bad job.” For years, he ran an experimental game-play workshop at the annual Game Developers Conference and wrote a monthly programming column for Game Developer magazine (in which his pieces bore headlines like “Scalar Quantization” and “My Friend, the Covariance Body”), while discontentedly tinkering with esoteric game projects that he’d abandon before long.
Then, in late 2004, Blow had the idea for Braid, and all of that changed forever.
There’s no nice way to say this, but it needs to be said: video games, with very few exceptions, are dumb. And they’re not just dumb in the gleeful, winking way that a big Hollywood movie is dumb; they’re dumb in the puerile, excruciatingly serious way that a grown man in latex elf ears reciting an epic poem about Gandalf is dumb. Aside from a handful of truly smart games, tentpole titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Call of Duty: Black Ops tend to be so silly and so poorly written that they make Michael Bay movies look like the Godfather series. In games, brick-shaped men yell catchphrases like “Suck pavement!” and wield giant rifles that double as chain saws, while back-breakingly buxom women rush into combat wearing outfits that would make a Victoria’s Secret photographer blush. In games, nuance and character development simply do not exist. In games, any predicament or line of dialogue that would make the average ADHD-afflicted high-school sophomore scratch his head gets expunged and then, ideally, replaced with a cinematic clip of something large exploding.
Even the industry’s staunchest defenders acknowledge the chronic dumbness of contemporary video games, usually with a helpless shrug—because, hey, the most ridiculous games can also be the most fun. (After all, the fact that the Super Mario games are about a pudgy plumber with a thick Italian accent who jumps on sinister bipedal mushrooms doesn’t make them less enjoyable to play.) But this situation puts video-game advocates in a bind. It’s tough to demand respect for a creative medium when you have to struggle to name anything it has produced in the past 30 years that could be called artistic or intellectually sophisticated.
When I first met Blow’s friend Chris Hecker, at his Oakland bungalow, he rushed to his desk in a pair of duct-taped slippers to show me his favorite demonstration of this discouraging reality. “Watch this—it never fails,” he said, bending over his computer keyboard. On one of his twin monitors, Hecker pulled up the movie-trailers section of Apple.com; on the other, he loaded the upcoming-releases page of GameSpot.com. The movies, Hecker pointed out, encompassed a huge diversity of topics and approaches, from buddy comedies to period dramas to esoteric art films. The video games, on the other hand, were almost all variations on a single theme: outlandishly attired men armed with gigantic weapons, shooting things.
“People think games will arrive when people start taking them seriously,” Hecker said, agitation edging his voice. “No! Games aren’t taken seriously because the stuff that comes out is shit. Why would anyone care about any of this? It’s just adolescent nonsense.” In fact, when Roger Ebert famously declared in a long (and poorly researched) essay that video games can never be art, gaming’s intellectual champions could point to only two popular titles that might refute his claim. One was the soothing PlayStation 3 game Flower, in which the player takes the role of the wind and swoops across bucolic landscapes pollinating plants and righting environmental wrongs; it’s a wonderful game, but it’s about as artistic as a Thomas Kinkade painting. The other, more apt suggestion, was Blow’s game, Braid.
When Braid debuted, in August 2008, no one had ever seen a video game quite like it. Its aesthetics alone would have been enough to win Blow awards. Whereas most games begin with thundering music and splashy cinematics, Braid opens with a dark, painterly canvas of a city at night, its buildings engulfed in flames. Your character, Tim, stands in shadow in the foreground; as you move him across the screen, a sparse and mournful soundtrack eases in, and you suddenly see that this painting is the game. Soon, Tim emerges into view on a lamp-lit street, clad in a schoolboy suit and tie, a pensive expression on his face. When he enters his house and then opens the only available door, Tim finds himself in a room made of gently percolating clouds, and the game begins.
On the surface, Braid is a simple side-scrolling, two-dimensional platformer (a game in which the character spends a lot of time jumping between platforms) that follows the most timeworn setup in gaming. “Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess,” reads the first book Tim finds among the clouds, multicolored spangles radiating off its pages. “She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.” But Braid is about rescuing a princess to the same extent that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about being a bug. Through the books Tim finds, Blow reveals that Tim “made a mistake” and hopes to rectify it, which ties into Braid’s central game-play mechanism: Tim’s unique time-rewinding ability. As Tim seeks to undo his past, he must also solve puzzles that revolve around his control over the flow of time. Inspired by the alternate realities presented in Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, Blow created five main realms where time behaves in distinctly different ways. In one world, some objects aren’t affected by Tim’s rewinding ability; in another, his merely moving left and right will cause the world’s inhabitants to travel backward and forward in time.
Yet perhaps Braid’s most startling feature is that it feels, far more than any other game, like a fully authored text—as rich with meaning and emotion as any well-crafted short story. Tim encounters many clue-stuffed books on his journey, and before long, we begin to suspect that his quest to rescue the princess is not what it initially seemed. In some parts, the princess feels corporeal, and we learn of Tim’s remoteness from her, about how “she never understood the impulses that drove him.” But at other times, the princess becomes mysteriously abstract: “If she exists—she must!—she will transform him, and everyone.” Over time, Blow sketches a portrait of a man run ragged by his pursuit of something spiritually larger than himself, a man whose uncompromising intellectual seriousness has left him isolated from a “world that flows contrariwise.” A man, in short, much like Jon Blow.
This feeling of authorship was no accident, because Blow’s primary goal in Braid was to communicate a message, one that he has said is “important enough to me that I spent three and a half years of my life trying to express it.” Remarkably, the basic game-play programming occupied very little of that time. When Blow first set out to bring his time-rewinding game idea to life, in December 2004, he was on vacation with a friend in Thailand. “I was feeling pretty motivated,” Blow recalled in his apartment one evening. “So I said, ‘Why don’t I spend this week hanging out in the cafés of Chiang Mai and do this idea?’ And within that first week, I had the kernel of a playable game.”
What consumed the next three and a half years of Blow’s life, then—as well as a lot of his money—was the refinement of his vision. By the end of 2005, Braid’s puzzles were finished, but Blow refused to release the game before he felt it was ready. “Jon was never stressed about time or a budget—the game always came first,” said David Hellman, the artist who created Braid’s painterly visuals. “I’d give Jon a bunch of ideas, and choosing quickly was not a top priority for him. Even when we got down to tiny details, he’d still be looking to change a single line if it looked a little thin.” Blow packed Braid’s world with small visual hints about the deeper story. And rather than pay a game-music composer to craft the soundtrack, Blow took the unusual step of licensing existing music. “The people who made those songs legitimately cared about the music they were making,” he explained. “That was rule number zero, the most important thing.”
Because of the flood of deep thought that Blow poured into every frame, the video-game community at first didn’t quite know what to make of Braid. Many of the game’s players showered it with praise, but very few could tell you what it meant—a conundrum best embodied by Braid’s ingenious ending sequence, which has become one of the most famous scenes in video-game history.
After traversing Braid’s five main realms, Tim finally reaches the world that holds his princess—a place where time flows continually in reverse. As the soundtrack rolls backward, we see her sliding down a vine in the clutches of the roaring, barrel-chested knight who snatched her, then slipping away from him and screaming for help. A long horizontal barrier stands between Tim and the princess. As a wall of fire closes in on them from the left, the two race back toward the point in time when they were last united, dodging enemies and springing each other from traps. Yet when Tim finally reaches the princess, there is no tender scene of lovers reuniting; instead, his arrival triggers an ominous flash. We see the princess sleeping inside a cottage. Tim stands helplessly outside.
And then time begins rewinding (which makes events unfold in their “proper” sequence), allowing us to see the truth: all this time, the princess hasn’t been waiting for Tim to rescue her; she’s been fleeing him. While she appeared to be removing obstacles for Tim before, she was frantically tossing them in his path. The burly knight who carried her off was actually her savior. The “horrible and evil monster,” we realize, is Tim. Cue the whooshing sound of several hundred thousand gamers’ minds being blown.
From here, things get—even by non-game standards—extraordinarily esoteric. Tim finds new books with cryptic messages: a vignette about Tim outside a candy store, unable to get in; a quotation from the moments after the legendary Trinity atomic bomb test; a description of how Tim “implanted tungsten posts into the skulls of water-starved monkeys.”
Braid, savvy players suddenly realize, is an allegory of the development of the atomic bomb. And that interpretation seems to be only the beginning. Like any other work of art, Braid is dense with possible interpretations. As Tom Bissell told me, “Braid is a game about jumping on shit—and that Jon was audacious enough to take the platformer and make that into a grand statement about human existence is incredible.”
To Blow’s unending consternation, however, the mainstream video-game community has proved uninterested in exploring Braid’s hidden depths. Most frequently, people assume the game is about a breakup, which Blow fervently denies; he has even left contentious comments on Internet message boards to correct misinterpretations. “Something that’s even more widespread is that people play the final level with the princess and then latch onto the interpretation that it’s like an M. Night Shyamalan surprise ending,” Blow said, with the air of one by now accustomed to bottling his rage. “Like, ‘Oh, shit—Tim was a stalker the whole time!’ But that doesn’t even make sense.”
Not that Blow would ever actually say outright what Braid is about. Every time he’s been asked, he’s given a version of the same reply, which is that the answer is in the game, if only you’re willing to look.
In other words: don’t ask me to do your thinking for you.
Despite his cool and collected demeanor, Jon Blow is hardly the most patient man in the greater San Francisco area. Faced with any kind of delay, he tends to drum arrhythmically on whatever surface is nearby, or slip into a tai chi sequence. Without ever exuding the frenzied, smartphone-dependent aura of the modern businessman, Blow is a zealous maximizer of his time. He loathes watching sports, because they yield few tangible returns on the hours you invest in them. If the electric razor and the billowy tufts scattered around his bathroom sink are any indication, he appears to cut his own hair in a dozen quick swipes whenever necessary. And to make the half-hour commute from his apartment to Berkeley more constructive, Blow listens to audiobooks of literary classics in his Tesla. When I visited, he had just jettisoned Anna Karenina for being “too much like a soap opera.” Now he was listening to Walden.
Throughout my visit, every time I contorted myself into his Roadster, we would immediately hear an actor doing his best Thoreau impression, declaiming in stentorian tones about the furry beasts in their burrows. This had a certain jarring quality. One day, however, after a long talk about Blow’s vision for The Witness, Shockingly Loud Thoreau seemed almost clairvoyant. “With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits,” he proclaimed, “all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike.”
Blow clicked off the stereo and turned to me. “I honestly didn’t plan that,” he said.
In so many words, Loud Thoreau had just described Blow’s central idea for The Witness. Whereas so many contemporary games are built on a foundation of shooting or jumping or, let’s say, the creative use of mining equipment to disembowel space zombies, Blow wants the point of The Witness to be the act of noticing, of paying attention to one’s surroundings. Speaking about it, he begins to sound almost like a Zen master. “Things are pared down to the basic acts of movement and observation until those senses become refined,” he told me. “The further you go into the game, the more it’s not even about the thinking mind anymore—it becomes about the intuitive mind.”
As such, The Witness’s game-world exudes a monastic sense of quiet and calm that only magnifies the great mystery at its heart. When the game begins, you find yourself in a pitch-dark hallway, your vision centered on a distant patch of light. After trekking forward (The Witness, unlike Braid, is rendered in 3-D), you emerge into what appears to be a World War II bunker as reenvisioned by IKEA, equipped with sparse modernist furniture, sunlight streaming in through the windows. Soon you discover that you are stranded in a strange complex on a small island (a setup inspired by the classic game Myst), whose lush grounds have been sculpted and maintained with Buckingham Palace–level care. The only clues you receive about why you’re there come from a series of audiotapes strewn around the island, narrated by an enigmatic man who claims he wants to help you. “The buildings are all locked—you’ll have to figure out how to get inside,” he says, alluding to the hundreds of blue puzzle panels scattered about. But, he adds, “you have time; you’re not in any danger—no more than I am, anyway.”
From here, the game is simplicity itself (aside from the occasionally mind-destroying puzzles, of course). The player can wander freely about the island, taking on challenges in any desired order. The learning curve is nonexistent; all one does in The Witness is move around, interact with puzzles, and notice things. This asceticism follows a core precept in Blow’s game-design philosophy. “What I’m doing now is seeing how much you can do and how deep you can go with very minimal control elements,” he told me. “Anytime you pick up a game that has a lot of controls, you have that process of hitting the wrong buttons and wondering, What does X do, again? That is not the game-play experience I want.” Rather than make you fiddle with 15 buttons, Blow wants you paying attention to … well, paying attention. And he’s packing The Witness with enough environmental details to make mindfulness worthwhile.
The first day I spent at his small, open-plan Berkeley office, Blow surveyed the carefully crafted new game-world with an architectural designer named Deanna Van Buren, whom he’d hired to design the island’s buildings. Though Blow and Van Buren had been working on The Witness’s architecture for more than a year, the purpose of her visit that day was to gather screenshots of the buildings for a design publication. The island was in disarray, however. Blow and his team of 3-D artists had been aggressively upgrading visuals since the last time I’d seen the game, nearly a year earlier, so while the colors now popped and the water shimmered gorgeously, things had been shuffled haphazardly in the process; trees floated 20 feet above the ground in places, and glitchy patches of grass looked like broken windows into another dimension.
None of this posed a problem for Blow, who not only knew the island’s every quirk but had also coded the game’s level-editing program himself. For the first snapshots, Blow piloted himself to “The Keep,” a ruined gray tower situated among hedge mazes and fluffy autumnal trees of red, orange, and yellow. His fingers flew over the keyboard, adding and subtracting visual elements. “Oh, I love that,” Van Buren said when he locked onto a view of a staircase spiraling up inside the tower. “That really tells the story of this place.” Later, Blow sped over to “The Factory,” a spacious red-roofed building that happened to be floating over a rippling expanse of ocean. Blow’s brow furrowed. “Let’s put that on some land,” he said, summoning up a grassy plain.
“The vernacular for the island is adaptively reused buildings,” Van Buren told me helpfully as we waited. Because I hadn’t the slightest idea what this meant, I asked whether this was the first video game she’d worked on. “Pfft. For sure. You’re not going to find a lot of architects who have done anything like this.” And how did she like designing for a virtual world? She smiled. “It’s a lot more fun than obeying building codes.”
Once Van Buren left, Blow set me loose at his own terminal and flopped onto a couch with a laptop to answer some e-mails. Being left to roam filled me with the giddy feeling I had as a kid in the deserted halls of the public-radio station where my dad worked on Sunday mornings; with no supervision, I could plumb the place’s untold secrets. After clicking an editing key, I zoomed through walls and hillsides in search of clue-laden audiotapes from the game’s mysterious narrator.
Yet to my surprise, I found few of the trappings of conventional narrative in those tapes—very little backstory or dramatic plotting. Instead, I encountered a series of intensely personal vignettes. In one, the narrator speaks of his lonely childhood in 1970s California; he recalls that every recess, he played alone on a tire swing, closing his eyes and fantasizing that “someday, Just the Right Girl would see me there, eyes still closed; she would walk out there to the tire swing, saying nothing, and she would kiss me lightly … I waited, but this never happened.” In another log, he describes the emotional pain he felt upon beginning to go bald at age 20, and how today “a peninsula of hair juts outward, angled toward the left side of my face.” Perhaps the most striking entry begins like this: “I could have done anything with my life, but somehow I ended up designing puzzles, not least of which are these, here on this island.”
I pivoted away from the monitor to look at the man on the sofa—face bathed in the glow of his laptop, widow’s peak veering slightly to the left—and realized with a start that I was wandering around inside Blow’s own mind.
Putting aside for a moment Blow’s description of The Witness as being based on paying attention, it’s difficult to say exactly what the game is about. In the first incarnation of its story, Blow worked with Bissell to create a conventional narrative filled with complex characters and dramatic beats—an approach that Blow soon abandoned for being “too Hollywoodized.” (“Only in Jon Blow’s world would a hyper-compressed story based on snapshots from a tormented man’s consciousness be a ‘Hollywood’ script,” Bissell chuckled.) So Blow took over the writing duties and crafted a nonsequential fictional framework that stretches the very idea of narrative in an interactive medium. To solve the mystery of your purpose on the island, then, you must piece together answers from the sphinxlike narrator’s clues. But to return to the question at the beginning of this paragraph, The Witness is really about two things: it’s about Jon Blow, and it’s about the meaning of life.
Or, combining those two, it’s about the meaning of Jon Blow’s life.
The riddle of why someone so fiercely private would decide to publicly reveal his deepest secrets in The Witness is a thorny one—especially for Blow, the man who refuses on principle to explain the meaning of his games. Yet answering this question helps us tunnel to the very essence of what makes his games so transformative. For in The Witness, Blow aims to do justice to the video game as an artistic medium, fully independent from all of its predecessors.
Blow’s refusal to explain the meaning of his games, after all, stems from a profound respect for his art. Ever since modern technology first made sophisticated video games possible, developers have assumed that the artistic fate of the video game is to become “film with interactivity”—game-play interwoven with scenes based on the vernacular of movies. And not just any movies. “The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie,” Blow said during a conversation in Chris Hecker’s dining room one sunny afternoon. “You’re not trying to make a game like Citizen Kane; you’re trying to make Bad Boys 2.” But questions of movie taste notwithstanding, the notion that gaming would even attempt to ape film troubles Blow. As Hecker explained it: “Look, film didn’t get to be film by trying to be theater. First, they had to figure out the things they could do that theater couldn’t, like moving the camera around and editing out of sequence—and only then did film come into its own.” This was why Citizen Kane did so much to put filmmaking on the map: not simply because it was well made, but because it provided a rich experience that no other medium before it could have provided.
And so Blow, ever loyal to his code, feels it is his responsibility to defend his calling by not reducing video games to the terms we use in dissecting movies and books. This means, somewhat incredibly, that Blow doesn’t believe in even trying to communicate a game’s central message in words; the medium itself, he argues, is the message. “If games are just movies with interactivity, if they don’t have anything that’s their core competency, then you can’t really use them effectively,” he explained. “Now, one of those core competencies for games is a certain kind of nonverbal complex communication, right? You play a game for hours, and at the end of it, you hopefully have this somewhat sublime complex understanding of something that’s hard to verbalize, because you got it nonverbally.”
To Blow, the puzzles and environments of both Braid and The Witness function as a “long-form stream of nonverbal communication”—which is why he won’t bastardize them by expressing their messages in words. In one memorable exchange after a talk he gave at Rice University, a student pressed him to explain the opening imagery of Braid, and Blow replied with a definitive refusal. “As far as I’m concerned, the entirety of the communication of what is happening there is contained in the game, and that’s all that needs to happen,” he said. “And that’s why I make video games. So that’s why I don’t want to tell you.”
Blow’s decision to bare his soul in The Witness springs from this same drive to live up to the full potential of his artistic medium; a meaningful game, he believes, must be an honest one. The Witnesss narrator, he freely admits, is a thinly veiled version of his own psyche. When the narrator speaks of his guilt over spending millions to create an island filled with puzzles instead of using that money for worthier causes, this is Blow’s real spiritual dilemma. When the narrator reflects on his feelings of empty vanity, on his alienation from others, on his “yearning for truth and deep understanding,” these are Blow’s pains and desires.
“I don’t think it’s ultimately too important to humanity for me to communicate the issues of my personal life,” he explained. “I’m more interested in talking about the broader facts of existence that transcend individuals, but the way to get at that honestly and non-bullshittingly is through the personal part.” These revelations sting him, but Blow feels that his higher purpose in making The Witness justifies the discomfort. “If you can’t even deal with somebody knowing your personal soap-opera secrets about your girlfriend or how you felt when you were a kid or whatever, if you feel the need to keep those things hidden that are so tiny compared to the larger things we need to deal with, how could you ask someone else to go beyond that?” he asked. “It would be fake!”
This is what makes Blow’s games so remarkable: at great personal expense, in ways no other developer has even attempted, he struggles to communicate a deeply authentic vision of the meaning of human existence. With both of his games, Blow strives to use the unique language of video games to impart the wisdom he has gained the hard way in his life. In The Witness, he hopes to help players try to “step outside their human viewpoint and see what the world is.” And in Braid, he sought to communicate something more personal still.
One night in his apartment, with the lights of San Francisco twinkling for miles outside his windows, I warned Blow that I was about to do something that might aggravate him: I was going to tell him what I thought Braid was about, and he could do with that whatever he wanted.
“Okay,” he replied with a half smirk, leaning back in his chair.
“So obviously there’s the theme of the creation of the atomic bomb,” I began.
“I think you can make a very strong case that that is an unambiguous reference,” he replied, which I interpreted as the Blovian equivalent of Yes.
“But I think what has frustrated you about people’s interpretations of Braid is that the atom bomb itself is a metaphor for a certain kind of knowledge,” I continued. “You’ve been chasing some deep form of understanding all your life, and what I think you’ve found is that questing after that knowledge brings alienation with it. The further you’ve gone down that road, the further it’s taken you from other people. So the knowledge is ultimately destructive to your life, just like the atom bomb was—it’s a kind of truth that has a cataclysmic impact. You thought chasing that knowledge would make you happy, but like Tim, part of you eventually wished you could turn back time and do things over again.”
Blow remained silent.
“Does that make sense?,” I asked.
“Well, I would say that I would not be frustrated at all with that interpretation.”
The happiest I ever saw Blow was when we met his friend Marc ten Bosch one night at the Oakland branch of a legendarily artery-obstructing local chain called Zachary’s Chicago Pizza. Ten Bosch is a tall, serious independent developer whose grave reticence provided an entertaining counterpoint to Blow’s philosophical expansiveness. When ten Bosch mentioned that he had worked briefly at Electronic Arts on the team that developed the real-time strategy game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, I asked whether he’d found the project interesting. Ten Bosch reflected on this for a moment with the solemn intensity of a man testifying before a Senate subcommittee.
“There were some cool water effects,” he finally said.
“Ooh!,” Blow chimed in. “That’s the ultimate diss!”
It was when ten Bosch began explaining his current game project to me that Blow seemed most in his element. Actually, I should amend that to attempting toexplain, because in the 20 minutes that ten Bosch spent describing his game, Miegakure, pretty much everything he said slid off my brain like raindrops off Gore-Tex. Miegakure, he said, is a puzzle-based platformer that takes place in four dimensions—four spatial dimensions.
“But there aren’t four spatial dimensions,” I protested.
“Well,” ten Bosch countered, “this is what it would be like if there were.” And that was about the last thing he said that I understood for quite a while, as he and Blow chatted avidly about extruding surfaces and imagining flat planes as tubes. In Miegakure, two spatial dimensions are constant, and the player solves puzzles by swapping between the two others with the press of a button. Even as Blow and ten Bosch grew more animated and their explanations more inventive, their words continued to bounce off my forehead like so many tennis balls. Finally, ten Bosch pulled out his iPhone and loaded a sample video of Miegakure’s game-play, which featured a tiny redheaded character walking over a floating island. At the player’s cue, the fabric of the game-world suddenly warped and shifted so that the landmass seemed to be refabricating itself from the inside out. The effect was spellbinding.
“That’s the fourth dimension,” ten Bosch said.
Jaw hanging open, I looked over at Blow, who simply grinned at me.
To Blow, a project like Miegakure epitomizes what makes the video game a unique and exciting artistic medium. Just as he has worked to communicate something verbally inexpressible about the human condition in Braid and in The Witness, ten Bosch, in his game, gives players a new perspective on the world in a way that only a game can. “It’s a valuable contribution to human experience, right?,” Blow said later. “The games I like are ones that have shown me something I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, and Marc’s creating an experience that would not have been possible to have, had he not made it. And that’s pretty interesting.”
Blow is well aware that reaching for this lofty goal through The Witness may make him go broke. He’d like to see the game sell well when it’s released, potentially later this year, but his primary concern is that it fit the artistic parameters he has set for it. “I can always go back to being an independent developer,” he shrugged. “Even if I have zero dollars, I’d be able to do what I did in 2005, but better. If I can just save enough for a year or two of low-budget living, that’s all I need.” Despite his wealth, Blow still thinks like a monk.
Which, in a sense, is just what he is—a spiritual seeker, questing after truth in an as-yet-uncharted realm. These are the terms in which he sees his art. “People like us who are doing something a little different from the mainstream have each picked one direction that we strike out in into the desert, but we’re still not very far from camp,” he told me. “There’s just a huge amount of territory to explore out there—and until you have a map of that, nobody can say what games can do.”