How Jonathan Blow Designs a Puzzle | Game Maker’s Toolkit

How Jonathan Blow Designs a Puzzle | Game Maker’s Toolkit


JONATHAN BLOW: It was very clearly the case that more ideas came out of the development process, and ended up in the final game, than I put into it as a designer. The process of designing the gameplay for
this game was more like discovering things that already exist than it was like creating
something new and arbitrary. And another way to say that is that there
was an extent to which this game designed itself This is Game Maker’s Toolkit, I’m Mark Brown. That was Jonathan Blow talking about the rewindable
platformer Braid at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2011. What Blow’s describing here is a philosophy
of game design that he used when making both Braid and The Witness where rules and puzzles
were discovered through programming and play-testing, rather than designed through the implementation
of some preconceived idea. So with the Mario-like platformer Braid, he
started with a mechanic – the ability to turn back time by a practically unlimited amount. In the process of coding that, new ideas emerged.
If he was rewinding the position of everything in the world, he could choose to not do that
for certain objects, and thus make them immune to your ability to manipulate time. A rule was born. After implementing these new rules, Blow could
play the game and look for consequences that he perhaps did not foresee. Like how if a
moving platform was immune to time travel, the hero could rewind to a point where the
platform is no beneath his feet, and would fall down as soon as he stops manipulating time. That’s kinda cool. So each puzzle became an illustration of one
of those phenomena, so that by solving it, the player would stumble upon that interesting
fact about Braid’s unique universe – the same fact that Blow himself discovered while programming
the game. A similar process was used in The Witness,
where Blow made rules and puzzles by exploring the mechanic of drawing lines on a grid. Play
testing this showed Blow that he was often partitioning grid cells – perhaps that could
become a rule? Which leads to situations like this. This
puzzle is pretty easy to solve: you just loop around here and you’re away. The next puzzle
looks identical but you’ll notice that the exit has moved. Now, using that same solution will cut
off your access to the exit. So you have to solve it like this. Here, the mechanic of drawing a line inspired
a rule about partitioning cells which had the consequence of cutting off your exit,
which led to a puzzle illustrating this fact. Describing the invention of this puzzle type
at IndieCade in 2011, Blow said… JONATHAN BLOW: That came from asking these little known questions. It didn’t come from a top-down imposition ‘I want to make a puzzle type that… blah’ Rather, it came from this very simple process of exploration very early in development. While Blow may have largely abdicated the
duty of designing puzzles to, I dunno, the universe, he still has some important roles
to play. First, is making sure the ramifications of
each change are explored to the fullest. In The Witness, Blow asked how every part of
the game could be twisted, and that includes the grid, the cells, the line, the environment, and the panel. And in Braid, you’ll notice that the consequences
of each rule change are explored by every object in the game. In the world where objects can be immune to rewind,
for example, there are puzzles where enemies, keys, doors, clouds, platforms, and even the
player character have this property. Blow’s second job is to present the resulting puzzles
in a way that will give the player the best possible set-up to discover the interesting
fact at the heart of the conundrum. For example, he frequently uses misdirection
to lull you into making a seemingly obvious move – only to show you that this is not correct.
In the Braid puzzle “Hunt”, you’re told to kill all the monsters but they’re set up in
a way that if you kill them in the most obvious sequence, you’re unable to solve the puzzle. Misdirection like this stops the player from brute-forcing
the puzzle and failing to grasp the interesting fact. And showing the player why something
doesn’t work is often part of that fundamental truth that Blow is illustrating in each puzzle. The designer also uses sequences, pairings
and reprisals. If you come across a simple puzzle – like this one about trying to unlock
two doors with one key – you’ll likely come across a more substantial version in the same
area. And by using familiar layouts in different
worlds, with different rules, you can see how the consequences have changed. This level
is essentially repeated in Worlds 2 and 4, but the way time works in each means the solution
is unique. Jonathan Blow also subverts the rules you’re
used to. In the level Irreversible, you have to realise that you must not use your rewind
powers. And throws in traps, to catch out those who aren’t thinking hard enough. In
this level, the wacky way that time works means only one of these gates can be opened… Blow’s final job is to be ruthlessly curatorial,
and edit out mechanics, rules, and puzzles that lack a sense of surprise, or overlap
with each other, or fail to say anything interesting. Both Braid and The Witness were spin-offs
of games that were shelved because their main mechanics didn’t present a rich enough space
to explore. And Blow killed off rules, like Braid’s weird turn-based world, because their
consequences weren’t surprising, or the rules felt contrived. But where Jonathan Blow will differ from other
designers is that he deliberately left stuff in, even if it wasn’t fun – simply because
it was interesting or would make the game feel incomplete to remove it. Like this super weird puzzle where a key can
bumble along on its own. It is, after all, a surprising and interesting consequence of
this game’s universe. Because for Jonathan Blow, a puzzle is never
just a puzzle. It’s a communication of an idea from the designer to the player. And
solving the puzzle is the player’s way of saying “I understand”. And I think “I understand” is a significantly
different concept to “I finally figured it out”, which is how many puzzle games operate with
their arbitrary steps and intricate sequences and red herrings and obtuse mechanisms. But the puzzles in Blow’s games feel more
fair. And that’s why this design philosophy isn’t just about letting the design help direct
you to the next rule or the next puzzle – it’s also about helping you make better, and more honest puzzles. Braid and The Witness introduce all the elements
upfront and teach their mechanics quickly with introductory puzzles – from there the
harder puzzles are only about understanding the consequences of those known mechanics
in different set-ups, combinations, and layouts. And the puzzles can be blisteringly simple.
Most are about exploring just one idea and the stages are small enough so you can consider
all the moving parts at once. And there are no, or very few, red herrings, and also few
arbitrary steps to finish. Once you’ve found the solution, it’s relatively effortless to
execute it. So solving a puzzle in this game isn’t like
solving a Rubik’s cube or trying to guess at the answer to a riddle. It’s simply seeing
something that was there all along. The answer was right in front of your eyes, if only you
knew the right way to look at the world. Kinda like those hidden puzzles in The Witness. So that “a-ha!” moment you get when solving
a puzzle isn’t about finally putting together all the pieces or finally understanding what
the hell the designer was asking you to do, but it feels like you just saw the world a
bit more clearly. As Jonathan Blow told Gamasutra, “the more
that a puzzle is about something real and something specific, and the less it’s about
some arbitrary challenge, the more meaningful that epiphany is”. Thanks for watching! One of my goals with GMT is to pass on the
philosophies of the best game designers around so you can use their ideas in your own games. If you’re interested, I’ve put loads of links
in the description where Jonathan Blow talks more about the process. And it’s not just for puzzles games – Blow
reckons that this process of letting the design dictate the rules and mechanics could be used
in other genres, too. As always if you liked the show you can leave
a comment, give me a thumbs up, subscribe on YouTube, or even support the show financially
on Patreon like these endlessly awesome gold tier supporters…


100 thoughts on “How Jonathan Blow Designs a Puzzle | Game Maker’s Toolkit

  1. hey man.

    I made a game awhile back and I really hope that you would give it a shot and even offer me some feedback.
    https://zacting.itch.io/dead-ringer

    I just wanted to say that your videos have helped me a lot, this video esp.
    thank you for that.

  2. What Blow said about his process is similar to what Stephen King says about writing. When writing using the gardener process – as in, not plotting anything and instead just writing and seeing where it goes – you're not creating something new, but rather unearthing something, and in a sense, you're not doing the unearthing, the story itself is doing it.

  3. How Jonathan describes designing a game is very much like the way in which great authors describe crafting characters in their novels.

  4. puzzle games are my bread and butter so this is really interesting to me

    also thanks for the music citation because I recognized the gravity ghost music but forgot which game it was from, I really should revisit this game.

  5. I had to stop playing The Witness after a friend spoiled a puzzle answer for me. I was angry, and it wasn't for the reasons he probably imagined. I was angry because the puzzle was pure genius, and that I will forever be robbed of experiencing it in its full glory.

    I have yet to play the game again. I must do so once more, but alone and miserable. The game deserves it.

  6. I gave Braid a shot and I have to say I was put off by how slow it feels and how uninteresting the aesthetic is. I can solve puzzles in my head much faster than I can move the character to do it, so executing a solution feels like a drag and discourages experimentation with the various levels. I could forgive that if I had something pleasing to look at, but the game has a sort of grotesque style and meme-ish nature that immensely sours the experience.

  7. Amazing video; it is sharp enough to spot insecure gamers
    (and probably guessing their gaming tastes) by how they use the word "pretentious",
    which we can sum up in "I'm not dumb; I button-mash and fast-click like the developers always tell me to".

  8. A little strange…one of the points you make early on is that Blow's puzzles intentionally mislead you towards an obvious solution, but then you later say that there are "no or very few" red herrings.

  9. The problem I have with The Witness is that it felt like the puzzle-solving experience, the experience of grokking the mechanic, was prioritized over the experience of the player. It's teaching you, rather than letting you teach yourself. Obduction was, in my mind, a far better experience.

  10. I think this is a thing that happens in a lot of creative endeavors. My wife and I are writing a novel together and we have often found that the answer to a problem in the plot comes naturally through the process of writing. I don't necessarily think this is thanks to "the universe," but to some part of the creative mind that operates subconsciously rather than consciously. Thanks for yet another great video!

  11. A friend and I sat down and played through the witness in a few play sessions over a couple of days. One of my favourite puzzle games of all time.
    I totally get what you mean when you compare the phrases "I understand" and "I figured it out".
    The vast and complex mechanics of the witness allow for so much satisfaction when you master a new mechanic. You just don't get that feeling in other games.

  12. I hate the witness. I'll do five puzzles and then find myself wanting to smash my head into brick wall. At least half of the puzzles I've done in it I had to look up the answer to.

  13. I really disagree with the bulk of these comments, and enjoyed the witness much more. The witness was pure puzzles and aesthetics, but braid had platforming thrown in. Braid brings out these frustrating tendencies where you usually just start throwing yourself at the puzzle, rewinding a little bit cause you died, and moving forward a little bit with no elegancy. Some of the mechanics did kind of feel like debugging as well, rather than a built idea to figure out. The witness however was elegant throughout. The only puzzles I wasn't crazy about in the witness were visual "not on a board" ones, and they are totally optional. I found the witness relaxing and it put me in the right headspace to just chill out, think about it, and evolve as a player with each panel I came across

  14. I didn't like Braid. The puzzles all just flew over my head and I couldn't wrap my head around the mechanic. By the end of World 4 I just went "F*** it" and used a guide for like half of the remaining levels in the game. A frustrating experience.

  15. With the way you talk about the puzzles, you should do some looking into "insight" reasoning in cognitive psychology. It basically suggests that there are "insight" problems in life that require a different mechanism of reasoning than bottom up problem solving. That is to say that there are problems where the solver must break down their pre-conceived rules and limitations imposed on the problem and re-configure the way they look at it in order to solve it. Thus once they've changed the way they look at it, the answer is apparent – hence the "A-Ha" experience that comes with solving problems like in The Witness.

  16. I remember a couple of times in Braid where I simply could NOT figure out a puzzle I was stuck on. But something unique happened in this game that I've never experienced in another. Every time I got stuck, I took a break and fired up the game the next day. Then, almost immediately, I would solve the puzzle with ease. It's like the answer was there the whole time, I just needed to refresh my perspective to see it.

  17. The witness was a letdown, and the puzzles were a lot the same. It felt like it should have had an overlying plot that the player slowly figures out piece by piece, but.. I was very disappointed

  18. Finally got around to The Witness, and while I definitely liked it I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Some of the mechanics were poorly communicated while others simply weren't fun. It doesn't matter how clever an idea is if it also proves to be frustrating and annoying. Also, and this might be because I was pretty well versed on the philosophy frequently being espoused in the audio and visual logs, but the themes and messages felt somewhat disconnected from the gameplay. It's still interesting to listen to, but it lacks the cohesion found in Braid.

  19. 1:04 Oi, my years! Mechanic? What type of repair person did he start with? 😛

    But yeah, I love videos like this as a designer myself. I've heard that creating great puzzles is like teaching. You teach the fundamental rules and then have the player learn and explore those rules and then add new twists where using those rules in new and innovative ways solves it.

  20. I'm not sure I agree with everything you said, but that might well be because I couldn't solve most of the puzzles in Braid (I have yet to pick up The Witness). I just could not wrap my head around a lot of them, and I didn't think it explained itself well enough for me to have that "aha!" moment. That said, I do ultimately brute force a lot of puzzle games, so I may just be exceedingly bad at them even though I do love them.

  21. This reminds me of a small, brilliant and free game by the DigiPen Insitute of Technology called Perspective. Every Puzzle in this game gave me the feeling I just learned something about logic, and on top of that, it even made it feel like this knowledge is useful outside of the context of the game. I wish the game was more known.

  22. That last bit about a puzzle being a meaningful epiphany made me wonder about what a puzzle game where the puzzles tie into the moral and ethical choices present in the game, where solving them can have a real impact on the characters and their arcs.

    Then I remembered the old "I have no mouth and I must scream" point and click was entirely that.

  23. you bring up the Rubik's cube as though to imply it was designed around a specific solution, but it isn't. The Rubik's cube is about emergent solutions. It has limitless solutions, and it is in fact never ever further than 21 moves from being solved.

  24. I hear a lot of Fez music in your videos. Have you made a video on that game? Or Rainworld perhaps…

  25. I like a lot of the puzzles in the Witness, and I love the aesthetics of it, however I felt like I had to tell blow "I understand" several times more than I wanted. The treehouse area is the most obvious example of this. I also didn't feel incentivized to keep doing all the puzzles and found the conclusion (that I looked up) to be underwhelming. I do have to note, I failed to discover the hidden puzzles without being explicilty told. The one at the top of the mountain, without spoiling too much, which is supposed to be the first time you figure it out, didn't click with me because I didn't notice the enviornemnt and it seemed like that I just needed to activate all the lazers to make it work. Something like once all the lasers were on then I could do the puzzle and it would trigger an end squence. The secret puzzles are brilliant and I am genuinely sad that I didn't figure out their existance on my own, however the game ended up feeling a bit too drawn out towards regardless.

  26. I still want to hear him explain the merits of a puzzle that forces you to stand around doing absolutely nothing for an entire hour.

  27. That’s the Brandon Sanderson way of developing. I bet those two could make an awesome game together. Sanderson on plot, Blow on game mechanics.

  28. Sounds like Blow took level design philosophy to puzzle design, which is pretty clever. Level design has been about iterating, self exploration, and meta physics since the 90s.

  29. These videos make me want to make a game… and then it hits me that i dont know how to code or do much of ANYTHING in a game engine. LOL

  30. 1. first he decided to focus dedicate his entire life into shit that doesn't matter, for people with no lives
    2. profit

  31. Braid is fpr plattformers basically what Quantum breaks wanted to be for third person shooter action adventures… yet miserably failed.

  32. "Once you found the solution its relatively effortless to execute it," at least in braid this is only true about half the time. I found myself, many times throughout playing Braid, knowing how to complete the puzzle but not rewinding to the exact spot, jumping at the right time, and placing the ring at the right place. Many of his puzzles are incredibly rigid, and execution of them can be quite difficult without looking at a walkthrough, thereby unintentionally making solutions appear like red herrings. I don't know about the witness, but despite its, brilliance Braid has its issues.

  33. "He kept parts that were unfun because they were interesting or the game wouldn't feel complete without them" that's where I'm going to have to disagree with the developer. The concept of The Witness is great and "reveal" moment is INCREDIBLE, but 40 minute videos and boat rides that feel just as long aren't just "unfun", they are miserying. Aggravating. Annoying. An active waste of hours of your life that you would have been better off never doing–and this unfortunate because the game is otherwise excellent and they really drag down the overall impression.

  34. This isn't EXACTLY a puzzle, but when I fought the Leviathan in Dead Space, the only problem I faced against it, was running out of ammo before I actually kill it. I was frustrated at how they poured Med Packs on me without any ammo, even on HARD mode. At some point I was left just running around in that zero gravity area, evading its attacks & not knowing what to do without ammo, until I finally realized I can literally counter attack it using the TK. That for me, was a moment of "Oh! I understand. It was there the whole time!" & not really a "FINALLY GEES" moment. I felt so dumb lol

  35. So, what you mean is that Jonathan Blow's porpouse of making a game is based on a phrase that i'm really proud to say, "a piece of art is always based on two pillars, the expression of its creator, and the interpretation of who observes it"

  36. Alright. But what the fuck is up with that puzzle that you literally have to wait an hour after understanding what you need to do in both of Blow's games.

  37. I have alot of respect for what is done with braid , i just found out about the game and as a platform developer i always let the programming start shaping itself to start coming up with unorthodox mechanics , he is on another level haha

  38. Same thing with writing. It's more organic when you let the it flows and you follow or build based on the currents it provides.

  39. I wish I could play The Witness without getting a headache and feeling sick. What I did play I really enjoyed, but I can't play the game longer than 30 mins at a time! I have the same problem with Prey! I've been playing games for over 30 years and these are the only two games I have suffered anything like this from!!

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