Jonathan Blow interview

Jonathan Blow interview

For a preview in our issue that is now out in the UK, we sat down with Braid designer Jonathan Blow to play and discuss his new game, The Witness. An surreal and beautiful open-world puzzle game, developed by Blow and a small team of two core developers, it's a fascinating experiment in player freedom and non-linear game design.

We talked about how The Witness is like The Grapes Of Wrath, the costs and benefits of giving players free rein to explore, the state of puzzle design and the dangers of every game being like Portal, the attractions of Minecraft, the challenge of working on the current generation, and what he wants for the future of consoles.

How important is non-linearity to The Witness' core design?
The core part is actually a spoiler so I want to stay away from that. I sort of did the non-linear thing in Braid. You could walk past puzzles and do them later, but because it was a platformer the presentation was linear so it made it feel a little weird if you didn't want to do something there and then. But in 3D like this it feels like a better setting because there's no prefigured order. Not only that, but I think games tend to try and tightly control what the player sees and does. So I wanted to take a different approach to that.

The Witness

How did you aim to achieve that difference?
The approach was such that parts of it make sense and parts of it are just interesting. You see a puzzle at the start of the game and it's pretty complicated, and at first you can't solve it. But it sets up a challenge. It creates a miniature arc in a lightweight way, a gameplay structure. It's the player's goal-directedness – no-one's giving you a quest to solve it. That's interesting. If you want people to understand that they accomplish something by unlocking a door or whatever, you have them try it first and then go figure out how to open it. If you play a linear game where you pick up a key and then get to a door and use the key in the door, then the door might as well not be there.

So there's something about running into that block then coming back to it. It's structurally interesting. Not all players remember that panel and go back to it, but it can be in the back of people's minds as they set out. You might learn something from that puzzle that you can apply to something else in the game. It's another little reinforcer. But you don't find out what solving the puzzle does until later. It's a little bit delayed, but not too much.