In 2008, on the eve of the release of his début video game, Jonathan Blow stood drinkless in a murky corridor at an industry party in England, performing what appeared to be Tai Chi poses in the half-dark. He was exhausted but driven to this exercise by exhilaration. The game, Braid, had been in development for three years, an unthinkably protracted production time for an independent, self-funded project. The initial reviews were rapturous, a premonition of success. In the coming weeks, Braid changed not only Blow’s life (it made him a millionaire) but also the video-game industry, demonstrating the commercial feasibility of artistically minded, independently made games. It inspired a generation of designers to go it alone. Even so, as Blow put it to me that night, during a lull in the music, legs parted in a cat-like freeze frame, "Three years is a very long time."
The video-game designer Jonathan Blow’s latest project, The Witness, reflects his personality: logical, stubborn, unsuffering of fools.Image by Thekla Inc.
This week marked the launch of Blow’s second project, The Witness, which took seven years to complete, a period desperately out of whack with its apparent simplicity. The game is set on an almost oppressively picturesque island, sprinkled with some six hundred puzzles. With each puzzle, the player’s task is disarmingly simple: draw a chubby, unbroken line through a maze from an entry point to an exit point. The rules vary slightly and are usually dictated by symbols on the board. You might have to segregate particular regions, or join dots, or even follow clues scrawled into the island itself before you settle on the correct solution. Many of the puzzles take hours to complete.
The island has the topography of a Disney theme park. It is divided into regions, each of which has its own distinct architecture, flora, and geology—it’s a micro-planet that stretches from a quiet mountain through bamboo thickets and into a forest carpeted with crimson leaves. The puzzles in each region, although they use the same essential constraints, have unique rules, which must be learned and absorbed like local dialects. With proficiency comes progress. 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."
A scene from The Witness.
He is equally demanding of himself. Although Blow, who is now forty-four, was a wunderkind programmer—one of his jobs before Braid’s launch was with I.B.M.—he chose to design each puzzle in The Witness not by algorithm but by hand, usually on graph paper or, when that wasn’t available, on the back of an envelope, in the songwriter’s cliché. "Early on, I didn’t know the exact shape the puzzles would take," he told me, the day after the game’s launch. "Tools would limit and define what I was exploring. They can make the thing you’re trying to do easier, but they simultaneously constrain it."
In Braid, Blow created worlds that are subject to different temporal rules from our own, drawing inspiration from "Einstein’s Dreams," a book by the physicist Alan Lightman, and Italo Calvino’s "Invisible Cities." In one of the game's scenarios, time was yoked to movement, moving forward when the protagonist, Tim, a squat Super Mario-esque figure dressed in a business suit, walked in one direction, and backward when he retreated. In another, certain objects were immune to time’s reversal. "I found, in Braid, success in distilling things to their simplest form," Blow said. The Witness builds on his love of taking a simple idea and exploring its permutations. "The way that I know when I’m done is when, with any category, I’ve discovered all of the interesting things," he said. "One of the reasons it took so long is because I wanted to be sure I’d visited the meaningful possibilities." The result is, as one critic put it, "the Goldberg Variations of puzzle games."
Perfectionism has come at a great and quantifiable cost. The money is—for now, at least—all gone. The Witness cost close to six million dollars, vastly overshooting Blow’s original budget of eight hundred thousand dollars. When Braid’s profits ran out, he borrowed funds from a friend. "Most people would have felt the need to finish the game much earlier than I did," he said. "It’s absurd how much I spent, really. But I was willing to put it all in the poker pot and make the thing I wanted to make, without interference, without someone telling me I needed to make everything purple, or something else." Few of indie gaming’s other success stories have been willing to put everything back into their next project, he said pointedly. "Or maybe some of those games just aren’t out yet."
It’s a risky gibe. One man’s perfectionism is another’s indulgence, and while The Witness is a masterly exploration of the conundrums that exist within a narrow set of rules, the wider message can seem muddled. Clues to the who, what, and why of the story can be found in the landscape, in a number of secret videos, and in a clutch of tape recordings of quotations from philosophers and astronauts. The significance of each is, however, difficult to parse, and it can feel as though the designer is happy for his meaning to remain unfathomable. After a maddening two or three hours of staring at one puzzle, you can begin to loathe him as the smartest person in the room, or, at least, as the person who made himself appear so.
Blow is keen to assure people that he is less bothered about the interpretation of his work now than he was eight years ago. "The magic of this game takes place in the player’s head," he said. "It’s about making links and perceptions, and the real moments of the game happen subjectively, in the player’s mind." The same is true, he said, of the game’s fictional aspects. "The majority of its ideas are there as pieces of introspection and contemplation. So there’s no correct reading. When you visit an art gallery, some paintings might be coded messages in some way. But the greater question is: Are you interested in what’s in the picture, and what is your response?"