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On Games

Ready Player None

January 7, 2016 | by

Talking to Jonathan Blow about his new game, The Witness.

From The Witness.

“Don’t print this,” Jonathan Blow tells me. I’ve just asked him how his game The Witness is going to end, having spent an hour playing it alone at the Bryant Park Hotel—in a suite I’d discovered was actually Blow’s personal room when I got a glass of water. He’d gone to the lobby so I wouldn’t feel like I was being watched as I played. I felt immediately conscious of being in someone else’s space as I stepped through the bedroom to reach the bathroom sink. The bed was still unmade; a small bag sat agape on a chair beside a pile of clothes in the corner. Blow’s games excel at making one conscious of these things: of being in someone else’s territory, at once intimate and opaque. Like unknowingly stepping into someone’s bedroom, it’s natural, when you play his games, to want to make sure you can find your way back out again, even as you think about going further in.

Blow is the designer of two commercial games—2008’s Braid and now The Witness, due out later this month—and he’s as much a point of fascination as his creations. A 2012 profile in The Atlantic by Taylor Clark called him “the most dangerous gamer.” Though Braid added, by his own admission, “a lot of zeroes” to his bank account, he lives in a largely unfurnished apartment in Oakland, displaying what Clark described as “a total indifference toward the material fruits of wealth.” His longtime friend and programmer, Chris Hecker, told Clark, “You have to approach Jon on Jon’s terms. 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?’ ” 

The media casts him as a reclusive ascetic—a hyperbolic narrative, but one that’s also “a little bit true,” Blow admits to me. He often smiles when he talks, lazily resting his head on a balled-up fist. There’s a new hint of corporeal decadence to him: the space between buttons on his black and velvet shirt stretch open and reveal glimpses of his pale torso. He doesn’t fidget or adjust, projecting instead the kind of ease one finds only in people wearing pajamas. “If someone asks me how I spend my day, I’m not going to lie to them and say I go down to the pub and have a beer.” Instead, he lives inside his work, an apostate from the world where people have subconsciously accepted the idea that personal fulfillment should happen everywhere but the office.

Indeed, Blow seems to live in the future Marshall McLuhan predicted in “The Future of Sex,” a 1967 Look magazine essay he co-authored with George B. Leonard, in which electronic media has effectively merged our pastimes with our work, creating a new form of utopian productivity driven by the desire to learn. “Already it is becoming clear that the main ‘work’ of the future will be education, that people will not so much earn a living as learn a living,” McLuhan and Leonard wrote. In the future, the whole world would become a kind of classroom, a place where “education—in the sense of learning to love, to grow, to change—can become not the woeful preparation for some job that makes us less than we could be but the very essence, the joyful whole of existence itself.”

The Witness is fifteen to twenty times bigger than Braid, by Blow’s estimate. It opens cryptically, with the lights coming on inside a narrow white corridor with a circular door at the end. The door has a single electrical panel with a straight line across it. When you approach it and click the x button on the controller, you zoom into the panel and use the analog stick to trace over the straight line, which opens the door. The next room is pitch dark save another yellow panel at the far side, this one asking you to trace a right angle instead of a straight line. On the other side, steps lead to an enclosed garden with a large exit gate conspicuously connected to a series of cables: these, sure enough, can be followed to more panels, each of which requires a complicated pattern to return power to the exit gate. On the other side, a vast island of forests, rocky cliffs, and cryptic structures house more panels, all of which call upon some peculiar nonverbal logic.

“One reason I spent a long time making this game,” he says, “is because I just tried over and over again with the setup of these puzzles to create situations where you can have that experience of going from not understanding something to understanding something.” Where most puzzle games want to make players feel smart, Blow wanted the puzzles in The Witness to impart a sense of wonder.

“When you say something’s supposed to make you feel smart,” he says, “you sort of discard the reality of what’s happening, like the specific ideas. It almost says, Well, there isn’t any merit to those specific ideas, and there aren’t any ideas that are better or worse, it’s just whether you feel smart or not understanding those ideas. I think that’s actually a little bit of a nihilistic view— it’s not the way that I think about things.”

Early on, Blow hired the novelist and occasional games writer Tom Bissell to flesh out the story behind the game’s puzzles, which are distributed across the island in hidden audio logs and notes. But the story always seemed to get in the way, adding a kind of radio interference to Blow’s idea of communicating abstract thoughts through puzzle panels. “Part of the reason for why you’d want to go off to this lonely place,” he realized, “is to focus on objects of contemplation and not have human drama going off to the left and right distracting you. But that’s exactly what we do to try and make an engaging story: have human drama go off to the left and to the right of you.”

The Witness, he saw then, was in part about dethroning language as our preferred means of expression. Since they’re interactive, games can come much closer to representing ideas by enacting them instead of simply describing them. “One of the things that happens is the game goes through all these ways of making surprising situations, things that you didn’t understand and now you get it,” Blow tells me. “Somehow, in looking at this thing from all these different angles and through all these different levels of zoom, it just builds more of an appreciation for the phenomenon, of that leap that happens in the mind when you come to understand.

“When you try and talk about why, language isn’t that helpful. I think we know what that feels like, then you try and explain why and it gets very wordy after a while and doesn’t connect with the truth of what it feels like to have that inspiration. Really what the game is about is just turning an eye on that thing. The puzzles and panels around the world is just one of the templates we use for giving that a place to live, or a format for presenting it, but the actual panels are not the important part. It’s the ideas and the sense of sudden, clear understanding about the ideas.”


From The Witness.

In my time with the game—I was granted only an hour with it—this interplay between ideas and objects was palpable. Sometimes it came together with a lapidary grace; other times it felt comically awkward. One early puzzle is built around three panels in a building that hangs precariously over the ocean. The second and third panels are exact copies of the first, but melted in varying degrees, distorting the proportions and symmetry of their grids. The traced line to unlock each is identical in practice, but the warped visual references make the repetition feel like mystical guesswork or outright divination. Another puzzle is set in a clear panel with no suggestions for which pattern you should trace—until you notice it perfectly frames an outcropping of rocks in the bay. Outlining them completes the circuit. A later puzzle obscures rock formations with bushes, leaving you to guess at their final shape.

In The Writing of Stones, a kind of tone poem from 1970, Roger Caillois extols the overlapping patterns and mineral relationships he found in stones: the exchange between material embodiment and abstract patterns. He described humans as “the last comer into the world, intelligent, active, ambitious, driven by an enormous presumption.” Their habits and structures of thought only one of an infinite number of structured variations that have “emanated since the very beginning from the architecture of the universe and from which all other beauties derive.” In this spirit, Blow seems to have designed a game in which players can begin to witness themselves in some way, to gradually appreciate the patterned habits of their own minds and how mutable and adaptable these can be.

As poetic as these abstractions can sound, they’re also products of a kind of luxury and wealth. The more than seven years it’s taken to complete The Witness would have been impossible without the profits Blow earned from Braid. To make that game, he worked as a consultant and freelance programmer, spending $200,000 of his own money. Braid grossed more than five times that sum on its first day of release. It went on to sell more than 450,000 units.

When I ask Blow if he thinks of himself as rich, he says no. “I spent all that money,” he tells me. “I’m in debt now.” After a number of dispiriting meetings with big publishers about his next game, Blow decided to self-finance again. One publisher had insisted on retaining lifetime rights to the game, meaning it could be spun off into sequels without his input. Another wanted an unacceptable amount of creative control; another still demanded that the game be ready to release in the first quarter of 2011. “Considering what year it is now, that would have been a total joke,” Blow says. “I realized publishers were not used to talking to people who weren’t desperate for money. None of the terms were geared toward someone who couldn’t pay for something themselves.”

Blow used the profits from Braid not to furnish a lavish and hedonic life but to buy time and space for his work. “What money lets me do is just lets me make the things I want to make or otherwise affect the change in the world I would like to do,” he says. “That’s the main thing I get out of it. I’ve been able to do that by making this game, so that’s great. But I don’t throw wild parties every week that celebrities show up to or anything like that.” When he finally ran low on funds, in 2013, an even richer friend, an unnamed tech entrepreneur, came to his aid, wanting to help him see his vision through to the end. I ask Blow what that end is in The Witness—if he knew when he started where it would all lead.

“I did,” he says after pausing for a second. He starts to say more, stops, and then starts again, seeming to whittle an unseen thought into the right body of words. It’s the first time he’s been this unsteady, even in describing something he’s been sure about since the start. “Don’t print this,” he says, “but sort of the backstory is—this is complicated and nuanced. But what eventually—basically the whole game, from the start, when you wake up in this tunnel, is … ”

The answer seems both obvious and alien—like The Witness, or like finding yourself alone in someone else’s bedroom the morning after a long, dreamy sleep. Blow sounds like someone attempting to describe a song by explaining what it looks like on staff paper. When I leave his suite, I begin to feel the smallest pulse of nostalgia for it. Nothing there was mine but the time—and a tendril of consciousness that had felt like it was reaching out toward something instead of just passing on by.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating and Other Issues for Men. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bookforum, The New Inquiry, and Guernica.