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…


  • ECL28E

    I want Jonathan Blow to make real physical puzzles.

  • John Jackson

    He climbs a mountain in a pot with a Yosemite hammer.

  • Bloodhoven

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

  • Lance Pate

    Am I the only one that thinks Braid is a super ugly game?

  • Billy Burnham

    Hey, is there a link to the talk from Jonathan Blow in which he says the quote at the beginning of the video?

  • Howchen

    Just by watching this make my head hurt

  • Денис Герасимов

    It is still a masterpiece in 2018.

  • Max Mitchelson

    "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.

  • Ynys Ynys

    braid is so ugly

  • Adam Schlinker

    Jonathan Blow is a god. So cool.

  • leo Ivanov

    Good Blow's job

  • carlotta4th

    "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.

  • Wrecker DeeZ

    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

  • Galo Tutorials

    Jonathan Blow > phill fish

  • Like Others

    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"

  • S Shpkng


  • Dark of the knight

    Fukkkkkk no wonder I was struggling to think of a puzzle lmao XD

  • Silveriac

    Have you ever played Fez? It has really interesting mechanics and I think it's puzzles are great.

  • Massive Douche

    "I understand" is a beautiful way of putting it

  • Jabba Blade

    Why FEZ ost is playing in the background 0:45? XD

  • JerkyFraser

    Boring games.

  • Gerardo Becerra

    The Dark Souls of puzzles

  • I Dunno

    Wow this is next level shit. You have to be a genius just to realize how smart this is.

  • Luz Garcia

    Good video! I'm liked and share 904 times 😀

  • TheJoyfulDragon

    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.

  • buragarawa

    How pretentious is this guy

  • David Lad

    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

  • Doom Metal

    He must've had a rough time in school with that surname.

  • MarioMan

    This Blow's my mind.

  • CheesecakeLasagna

    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.

  • Weak Very

    But, but, but…. The Witness is a LOT of "what was does the designer want me to do?". Maybe I'm just dense.

  • RuddsReels

    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!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *