A Fresh Breeze: The Witness & Jonathan Blow

I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Jonathan Blow, creator of the most challenging game of this generation “Braid”, and play a very early version of his next puzzler The Witness; so early that only the core structure will be preserved when it’s finally released.

To the tune of: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Witness Song

I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Jonathan Blow, creator of the most challenging game of this generation “Braid”, and play a very early version of his next puzzler The Witness; so early that only the core structure will be preserved when it’s finally released.

The island is small, but it’s complex, hilly and strangely landscaped. Blow later explains to me that he’s hired architects to help him establish a pre-history for the island, re-landscape it and redesign all the buildings to reflect the multiple peoples who have lived there. It’s a lot of hinterland to put into the background of a puzzle game, and is the thing that most reminds me of the obvious referent, Myst.

Over the next half hour, I wander past several other incomprehensible puzzles, escapees from Mirror’s Edge: a tangle of red girders balanced along the shore like children’s toys; orange geometric blocks jutting from the light blue sea; a cylindrical black monolith standing by itself in a glade; a buddha hardly noticeable in the shadow of a tree decal; a hole in a wall that forms a human face if looked at from an exact angle; an ancient oak tree covered in shoots of new life and surrounded by dead twigs. All this is place-holder?

This is a game about working your mind hard, becoming aware of the world around you and coming to appreciate it how it can be integrated with puzzles about sound, shadows, texture, mathematics, location, light and memory, never knowing what’s going to be relevant to the next puzzle. Like Blow’s Braid, it’s also about the expression of both philosophical concepts and of intriguing, rapidly-changing mechanics, though neither of these are forced on you. They produce a coherency to the world, give a cleanness and light to The Witness that’s hard to express; you’ll snark me off the site for being this synaesthetic, but it feels like a mix of the contrasty cinematography of Ibsen’s The Seventh Seal, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the sudden glare of fresh snow.

(From The Witness: Hands On)

RPS have most of the content, but it’s worth pulling a few quotes out of the lonnnng interview I did with Jonathan:

…if there’s a puzzle that’s too difficult and 70% of players don’t get it… it’s o-kay. I’d rather have it, to be able to go to that depth or height or whatever. Cuz otherwise you’re saying a good video game is one that doesn’t alienate players and is linear and these things, then you’re saying that games can’t do puzzles of a certain complexity. Which I think is a shame.

Games have this very traditional thing where you find a key and the key gets you through a door. It’s like that here, except that the key is just what you understand. Concepts as keys.

The core idea behind the game has something to do with the very difficult question of who we are and why we’re here. What is it about walking around a world, looking at things and noticing things and being conscious of them? It’s a question a lot of people have asked throughout history and for which there are a number of approaches, in the wide sense. You might have a very scientific mindset and say, “all we know about the universe is that which we directly observe”, or you might have a philosopher’s mindset and base your things on argument… I wouldn’t break it into discrete avenues like that; there’s some scientific stuff, philosophical stuff, and spiritual and religious stuff, some just straight up pragmatist… and there’s this idea that this stuff is the space because the character is trying to figure out what way to go, trying to understand these things better.

With this, there’s no action-element, nobody’s going to kill you or a bomb that’s going to blow up in five minutes. It’s about building that space that’s pensive. Having the faith that what’s behind the puzzles is interesting enough that we don’t have to push the player with an emergency or drama or fight to survive. I like that because it’s a mood you don’t get very often, especially in games where you’re walking around a world. Usually if you’re playing a RPG and feel safe, it’s because you already killed everyone in the area. To have that be the game, to have it be a placid place, almost a meditative place, or just a calm, subconscious place.

There’s something about a flow of ideas that starts and goes places and keeps refining and evolving and ends up somewhere, even if it’s not linear, that seems more literary. In something like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I haven’t read but I’ve seen the film, you start with a conceit, possibly several, and you ask “what happens in this situation” and every one of those questions has an answer that’s interesting. I don’t feel like we do that kind of thing in games yet; this sort of ended up there accidentally, where there’s this flow of ideas all the time. I kinda like it, now that the game’s designed, but I’m not going to pretend that I planned that.

(From Coming to Blow’s: The Witness Interview)

Read more:

The Witness: Hands On

Coming to Blow’s: The Witness Interview

Robot Dance; The Aesthetics of Deus Ex 3

At the beginning of the year, I sat down with Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, the Art Director of Deus Ex 3, to talk about Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s baroque influence, how Warren Spector helped them justify the style differences with Deus Ex 1, and why the future will be yellow. This originally appeared as a piece on IGN.

To the tune of: Mccarthy Trenching – To an Aesthete Dying Young

At the beginning of the year, I sat down with Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, the Art Director of Deus Ex 3, to talk about Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s baroque influence, how Warren Spector helped them justify the style differences with Deus Ex 1, and why the future will be yellow. This originally appeared as a piece on IGN.

Have any particular artists inspired you for the style of the game?
As an Art Director, videogames are always my last point of reference, I like to look at a whole bunch of stuff first. I’m really big into architecture and fashion and stuff like that so, you know, like Tadao Endo and the Scandinavian architects; the idea is that cyberpunk is never really far in the future, it’s just an anticipation, right, grafting of the old onto the new.

We travel internationally in the game but a big part of it is in Detroit and I was asking myself how am I going to make it look futuristic and kinda the European contemporary architecture like in Scandinavia, we don’t have much of that in North America and just by putting that in Detroit in front of those old buildings from the 30s and stuff like just makes it look futuristic and credible and if someone says to me that’s too futuristic I can say “those buildings exist right now in Japan and Scandinavia and London and so on.” I’m a big industrial design freak.

Do you think the Bladerunner Cyberpunk style is old hat?
Because Cyberpunk’s been done quite a bit I wanted to bring something new to it and I started analysing all the transhumanist themes and quite rapidly you start seeing this connection with the renaissance period because it was about all the humanistic stuff and we’re dealing with all this transhumanistic stuff; the renaissance was, if you want, the beginning of the transhumanist era. If you want to upgrade a system, you first need to be able to understand how the system functions at its basics and the renaissance is the first time in the west when we start going back into antiquities research and all that, and understanding the human machine. That’s where transhumanism starts, understanding how the machine functions, and then in 2027 we upgrade that machine.

…And then how do you tie this high aesthetic concept into the game proper?
And then I said ‘Eh, what happens if I actually mix the aesthetics from the renaissance with the baroque and the cyberpunk stuff -would that be a cool flavour? Would people say that’s cyberpunk but it just belongs to that product?’ so… yeah, Vermeer, the renaissance and the baroque -the black and gold palette, the Rembrandt stuff, night and candles. the black represents the dystopian aspect of the game, the gold represents the human fleshy thing, which is so much of what we deal with and also a little bit of the hope that’s still in the world at that time before the big collapse.

Do you feel there were any design limitations in that you had to move between our time and the original Deus Ex, knowing what the future was going to be?
We didn’t really think about it that way; we thought let’s do our homework about where things are going to be in 30 years and let’s base our stuff on that. At that point, whether it matches or doesn’t match 100% with the first game, we didn’t care that much. Not in a non-respectful way, but in a way that it was more important for us… because a lot of the tech in the first Deus Ex is outdated now; a lot of the televisions are still 4:3 ratio and already today our world looks more futuristic than the first Deus Ex.

Also, I remember talking with Warren Spector about this (he hasn’t worked on the game at all not even as a consultant, I’ve just bumped into him), even he said “hey, maybe we just visited the really gritty places of the world in the first one and all the stuff you’ve done was already extant, it’s just not where the player went.” I was like… “thank you, Warren” (laughs).

Is there anything in the game you’ve not justified in the fiction?
Everything’s justified. We really went nuts with all that stuff. We had over four writers, including some great SF guys, like James Swallow who writes for Games Workshop. Our lead narrative writer Mary rally supervised it, but pretty much all our writing team are detail freaks.

If the world turns out how you’ve projected it, how will you feel about it?
That’s a great question; I would be totally spooked. Uh, yeah, I don’t know. It goes back to your questions about have we pushed the tech too far; me and the game director (Jean-François Dugas) say we should have a dinner in 2027 and boot the game. Sometimes we think that we might have a good laugh that we didn’t push it far enough actually. Obviously, with like Shanghai we did this two-tiered city thing, that’s not to going happen, but some of the things Kia’s working on, the morphing materials…

…they exist, yeah…
…they say that in ten years it’ll be on the market, that your phone will get bigger for the keyboard and then morph around your wrist for the watch. Nanoparticles that can remember two or three different positions…

…and you spend all your time going down at the shop trying to get them repaired.
(giggles) so yeah, we think the next thirty years are going to be really crazy but if it turns out like our design… it’s going to be really yellow (guffaws).

(I spot his tattoo) Is that… Warhammer? Eldar?
Yeah… (shyly) I was a lot younger.

Has that had any influence on Deus Ex?
Not really. Maybe the freakish attention to detail, because it’s one of the best crafted universes, the 40K stuff. More stuff like Metal Gear. Would have been nice to have a little space marine on someone’s desk in the game, or in his apartment, you infiltrate it and you’re like “omigod, this guy’s a Games Workshop painter”.

There’s one thing a lot of futuristic things don’t do is have lots of throwback to the past, apart from something like Bioshock that was specifically designed like that.
Something’s that very important to us is “show don’t tell.” Make a visual set-up that tells a story, you don’t say “this is what this means”; you see what he does, and so on. I find in games, too often, we’re obsessed with reproducing reality, photorealism seeps in… Let’s say you have to do the lobby of a bank… we’ll take a picture of a bank lobby and we’ll make it just that boring. But then the wood’s going to be like real wood and the marbles going to be “whoah, look at that shader” and you’re like “yeah, it just looks like my cornerbank which is the most boring thing in the world.”

One of the things we try to do in Deux Ex is to always surprise you, so you may walk into that bank lobby and there’s this really weird installation art thing hanging from the ceiling made from recycled anything in this shape that’s going to shock you, and why’s it there? It’s there because it’s interesting.