A new lecture about story and game design.

This lecture was given by Jonathan Blow (introduction by Jason Della Rocca) on November 19th, 2008 at the Montreal International Game Summit.

Here it is as a zip file (about 33 megabytes) containing the slides and an mp3.

This lecture focuses on the story-centric paradigm that we use to design a large number of games, and why I think it is problematic. Both pre-authored and dynamic story are discussed. It’s a heavily-revised version of this lecture given a few months ago in Brighton; This new version is probably better.

68 thoughts on “A new lecture about story and game design.”

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve been playing video games my entire life, I am currently studying film, and recently I’ve been discussing with others video games as a significant medium, more specifically how narrative functions so much differently than film or literature and most importantly how interactivity shapes that.

    I’ve noticed that it’s difficult to find people who don’t either think video games are purely entertainment or don’t believe that video games are juvenile. Perhaps this is due the way the industry currently operates, as well as the fact that video games are relatively new as a medium.

    I hope I’ll be able to further explore video games in this way and this happened to be posted at the perfect time for me. Again, I want to say thanks for posting this.

  2. I think it has improved 🙂

    To focus perhaps too much on a small piece of the lecture: I’m not sure why saying ‘you can add or subtract rules to walk the space of possible games’ is important for saying ‘games have interpretations’ — it seems like the important point would not be that you can walk it, but that games are made of behaviors and all behaviors can be interpreted.

    Also, when I take an analogous thought for poems (where every word has meaning), it’s clear that you can get to completely arbitrary lists of words by removing and adding words. Does an arbitrary list of words have meaning? It can certainly be interpreted, but if we say it has meaning then it seems we must say everything has meaning — ‘having meaning’ is no longer a useful concept.

    Perhaps it’s more useful to say that meaning can found everywhere we look for it (this is how our pattern-loving minds work: we create structure from noise) and when you put something intentionally meaningful (story) next to something with no intentional meaning (gameplay) the gameplay is interpreted due to the context of meaningful content, despite the lack of intent.

    To follow your gameplay:games::soundtrack:movie analogy, you might say (rather than happy music at a funeral) it’s arbitrary, random noise as the soundtrack of a whole movie: if the images on the screen were not present, or also noise, we might just say, “it’s just random” and not interpret further. But in the context of a coherent visual on the screen, the noise must be interpreted as a meaningful, intentional part of the experience.

  3. Jon – your keynote speech at the Montreal International Game Summit was enlightening and very thought-provoking. I’m going to try the two art games you mentioned (“The Marriage” and “Gravitation”) and really listen to how my mind interprets them. My curiosity is certainly piqued to say the least. Thanks again Jon, you are a true visionary in the gaming industry.

  4. As always, I enjoy listening to your presentations, Jon. Your analysis of the disconnect between the writer’s intention and the designer’s intention is dead on, and the Deus Ex example is great illustration of that.

    One criticism I would have is that you have another interesting point in the tension between story progression and the “headwind” of challenge that blows against that. However, you’re framing of challenge and story as two directional arrows that oppose each other is a bit off. First, as a small point of fact God of War is not faux challenge. One, you probably didn’t sit in on the playtest meetings and which players struggle with it. I’ve talked with Eric Williams, the combat designer on the game about some pretty surprising player behaviors. And two, there are four difficulty levels in God of War. If you think it is not truly challenging then my guess is you haven’t played it on Titan difficulty. I haven’t played Fable 2 yet, so I can’t comment.

    But the bigger point is that challenge is a relational concept, not an absolute one. Different players experience different levels of challenge and even have different attitudes toward challenge. Some players regard challenge from an almost “consumerist” perspective and resent high difficulty for withholding something they have paid money for. Other gamers have a sort of athletes perspective and regard low difficulty as insulting and pandering. You are right that story and challenge are in tension but to view challenge as a simple opposing arrow is too facile.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Another wonderfully articulate & thoughtful lecture.

    The larger arguments presented here about the failings of story in videogames are inescapable and, in retrospect, self-evident. Furthermore, many of the future lines of inquiry outlined here seem ripe and within reach, I hope designers and developers (and the enthusiast press, and the mainstream press) take the time to carefully consider them.

    Last year’s lecture ‘Design Reboot’ (and subsequent lectures) have made it clear that ‘rules as art’ and Bogost’s ‘procedural rhetoric’ represent the best starting point for designers seeking to construct lasting meaning using the native language of videogames. This recent lecture goes the next step to lay a solid intellectual foundation for future work in this direction, with a mind to possible applications on larger projects. In doing so, the lecture bravely tackles head-on the various thorny issues related to ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ in a medium fundamentally unsuited to traditional linear storytelling.

    Usually, this type of discussion is clouded with problematic attachments to sales or various other commercial considerations, or else the discussion is hampered by flawed assumptions about the expectations and supposed inflexibility of a game-playing audience. Here, as is typical with Jon, the subject is investigated with a relentlessly logical, dispassionate viewpoint combined with a broad perspective and a faith in the potential of the medium. While the thoughts themselves have tremendous value, this attitude and perspective should also be commended.

    Similar to my experience listening to ‘Design Reboot’ I’m gripped with a strong compulsion to spread the word about this lecture to friends & colleagues within and without the industry. I hope others feel similarly!

    Thanks Jon!

  6. Good lecture.

    Crappy note-taken version of it here ( http://www.kimpallister.com/2008/11/migs-post-4-of-n-jon-blow-closing.html ). not sure if your ppt includes speakernotes.

    BTW, a nice addition would have been to have you ask people to submit their ideas about what “freeze” implied, and then post the varied results to your blog. Would have made a point about the implied meaning (and yes, it’s different when imagined vs played, but still)

    My 2c: I thought freezing the decay time on blocks implied a vacation or sabbatical or leave from work. Put everything on hold to spend time with family at little to no cost. I could also imply outsourcing if I trade off another resource to do it (money to pay someone to paint the house for me so I can instead spend time with kids).

  7. Great lecture. I am inspired to completely throw the concept of scripted story out the window for (some of) my future games. One of them involves a train. Nobody will like it.

  8. Great lecture, it brought up a lot of points in modern games that we just don’t question anymore.

    Also, I think I’ve figured out what the deal with the PC version is. Microsoft is gearing up the Games for Windows Live deal, as they recently updated the UI, and the Marketplace is scheduled to launch next month. There are rumors that XBLA titles will also be available on it, so my guess is that we’ll see Braid then.

  9. You say around 66:20 that a few people “got everything” about Braid, and that you’ve heard from them. By “heard from them,” I assume you mean they talked to you or wrote a message to you about Braid and what they got from it. I would like to know, what did they write or say that made you conclude that they had “got everything”?

    I ask because you frequently say that it is hard to express the “point” of Braid in words. So even if I “got everything”, it would be hard for me to express in words what I got. How then did these few people express to you that they got everything? Have they found a way to express it in words? And if they did, isn’t it important to reveal what those words were to make this message available to as many as possible, as it is presumably an important message?

    If my tone sounds skeptical, it is because I am. But I think you are the type of person that can appreciate skepticism.

  10. Dear Jonathan,

    I listened to your presentation at MIGS, and was impressed with the thoroughness of your argument. Little else at the conference reached this level. After a tenure in the industry, I’ve turned to academics and have been quietly doing my own research and experimentation with games as an expressive medium. So I was happy to see just such a conversation being honored as a keynote. Even five years ago, nothing like this would have been possible.

    I have only one criticism of your material, or really your delivery. You began a conversation at the conference that I believe is essential to the maturation of games, but you then closed it down by referring to every game writer in the room as a “dumb ass.” I listened to my students who returned from the conference, and in many cases your point was lost on them after the conversation broke down. It took some convincing to get them to look past the delivery and at the actual content of your lecture.

    I point this out not to slight you, but to ask that we find a way to elevate this discussion so we can be heard so that we can be taken seriously, and that these ideas can help take our medium to the next level.

  11. Another thought concerning the problem of challenge: You frequently refer to David Lynch’s films as examples of profoundly thought-provoking films. I would personally agree. However, I would argue that most people do not really appreciate his work in the way that you do. They know that he is a respected artist, but can you honestly say that the average person off the street enjoys or would even sit through Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive? They may appreciate the aesthetics and suspense of the movies, but it’s hard for most people to get past the non-linearity and lack of cohesion. It is a “challenging” movie. And for David Lynch, that’s OK.

    Analogously, I think it’s perfectly fine for a game to be challenging as well. True art is rarely presented in bite-sized sugar-coated pieces that everyone can take in without fail. Most people can’t sit through a Beethoven symphony. That’s OK. And if most people are a little frustrated with a particularly challenging part of your game, I think that’s OK as well. Patience and careful attention have always been required to appreciate most works of personal, profound art, as the rewards can be worth it – why should games be any different?

    Just a thought.

  12. Well, if we’re gonna go re-posting lectures, I’ll repost comment… ”Chekhov’s Gun” is the most misinterpreted quote in all of literature!

    The original source is a letter Chekhov wrote to his wife while he was in Moscow, in which he mentions: “I’ve been seeing a lot of bad, boring plays—you know the sort, the kind where, if a gun is introduced in the first act, it must go off in the last.”

    He was probably referring to Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”, a hugely popular play at the time, which features the most portentous gun of the 19th century. It’s introduced ominously in the first act and, sure enough, it melodramatically resolves the plot at the end.

    And he was saying that this was what made for *bad* writing, not laying down a maxim!

    But don’t just take my word for it—look at Chekhov’s last play, “The Cherry Orchard”, in which not one, but two guns are introduced with great portent… and neither is ever fired, or ever heard from again. They’re just dots in his pointillist painting, with no obligation to lead to anything other than a general mood.

    This misinterpretation of Chekhov’s gun is relatively trivial on its own, but suggests a larger blind spot in your conception of narrative: the huge role of atmosphere and theme in storytelling, elements which Anton Chekhov, or Robert Altman, or Andrei Tarkovsky would happily tell you are more important than a mere plot.

    Take, for example, your bete noir of The Little Sisters of Bioshock. It’s true that they’re not actually that impactful in how you move through the story (for reasons, as you accurately note, of game balance). They are, however, hugely important for setting a mood of corrupted innocence, and for introducing, though your interaction with them, the themes of selfishness versus altruism.

    Again, the story qua story—what happened to Ryan, and Fontaine, and Tennenbaum, and you—is, like all stories, imaginary, and therefore trivial, a bunch of paper dolls being put through the paces. But the mood and the themes are the whole point of the enterprise, and for those, the Little Sisters are crucial.

    Poor understanding of literary history leads to poor trailbreaking!

  13. Regarding Lynch, Eraserhead, I would say, is his only respectable work. He is not a fountain of profundity, and it’s unfortunate that many consider him so.

    The challenge in Lynch films is not in getting to watch them – you do not face physical or literal barriers as you do in games. Being difficult to understand is another concept entirely.

    As for Blow’s arguments:

    Total failure as a mechanic should be removed from the interactive language.

    Stories are by and large irrelevant. Not because “these are games and a good game can have a bad story and good gameplay and still be a good game.” That’s a garbage reason. But because story or plot isn’t important at all to art (which I believe we are striving for in this medium).
    It’ll be centuries before we reach Tarkovsky or Chekhov at this rate, so a better first step would be the one towards low art.

    Game writers are not crap because they’re trying to shoehorn linear stories into this medium (which is best suited, like all others, to linear narrative). They fail because they adopt a filmic approach. Interactivity is what should drive interactive art, just as cinema uses images. Of course, interactive art has the advantage of being able to use all of cinema’s aural and visual elements. As long as they don’t take precedence – as long as we are always given a degree of interactivity, then we’re doing something right.

    As for “fun” or circus music during a funeral, did you not once say that you wanted to make emotionally moving or meaningful games that communicate ideas, but still had to be games or contain game mechanics? This is antithetical to your intent, Mr. Blow. Games are a set of rules and limitations that we must shed. Games haven’t been capable of emotional involvement since the Stone Age, and that’s unlikely to change now.
    Tarkovsky once expressed frustration that 80% of audiences had this stupid notion that cinema was meant to entertain them. About 100% of gamers feel the same way about the entirety of the interactive medium.

    Patting eachother on the back over The Marriage or Passage or whatever isn’t going to solve our problems. The interactive medium has already been stifled sufficiently by both our age old insistence on letting the player direct the narrative, which has failed in other media, and by ripping off awful film. We’re moving onto bad film now – the type of film that dominates our minds. That kind of film that gets its “message” across through symbolism and stand-ins.

    Mr. Blow, you have so many *right* ideas, but you don’t show it in Braid.

    Sorry for the long post.

  14. Upon a little reflection, I’ll admit—it’s kind of crazy to suggest that the creator of Braid doesn’t see the role of theme, or atmosphere, as important—Braid really privileges theme and atmosphere over narrative pretty strongly, which is one of the things I like about it.

    But you seem to keep banging your head against a way to tell straight narratives through your vision of mechanics-as-story. Which is an admirable quest, but maybe not an accomplishable one.

    To look to the history of film—many directors, most prominently Dziga Vertov, expressed an ambition to make “pure cinema”, film with no theatrical elements, a quest comprable to the desire to make narrative games without cutscenes or, as in Half-Life 2, other non-gameplay storytelling elements. This produced some wonderful movies, like “Man With a Movie Camera”, but it proved impossible to tell any kind of story without theatrical elements—you end up with a wonderful flow of impressions, but not really a story.

    Your idea of switching to a painting model is kind of brilliant, though. Games are probably best off ascending to art via the purely aesthetic grounds of painting, where they’ve already gotten pretty far. Given audience demands, though, I think the quest for big narratives is going to continue in the mainstream in a pretty vigorous way, led by creators less concerned with purity of elements and thus creating solid pop art, a form defined by its lack of concern for purity.

  15. Hmm, interesting item about Chekhov’s Gun. I will have to look into that further, though that bastion of Internet accuracy, Wikipedia, seems to have corroboration of the idea from several quotes at several times during Chekhov’s life:

    Wikipedia Link

  16. Furthermore though, my initial reaction is that if this is the case, it’s one of those situations where you need to know and be competent at the rules before you can be interesting by breaking them… and that is not true of we who do games.

  17. Jonathan, in this lecture you mentioned having spoken specifically about “Challenge Substitutes” at another event — was this other talk at the GDC? Since in the lecture you hinted at the possibility of sharing the audio from this other talk, I’m curious whether that might still be feasible. I’m excited by your clarifying approach to these questions — I’m especially anticipating the chance to hear your further thoughts on “Challenge Substitutes”. Thanks for all the great work.

  18. I’ve come across a freeware videogame experiment that appears to solve some of the problems outlined in this lecture, or at least it strikes a new balance, and I think it is relevant to this discussion.

    Blow describes story as something like ‘a filtered description of past events’ and points out that this is incongruous to the nonlinear play and exploration the player experiences in the present tense while interacting with a videogame.

    Miguel Sternberg seems to have broken new ground in this area with ‘Night of the Cephalopods’ by chopping up a pre-conceived ‘filtered description of past events’ and overlaying it on the events themselves as they occur. In effect, it’s ‘play by play commentary’ for something other than a sports game… but deployed here as a first person narrative that contextualizes and amplifies an adventure game it feels very fresh.

    http://www.spookysquid.com/notc/index.htm (v. 0.7 for PC only)

    note: Visually it’s not as stark or as abstract as something by Rod Humble or Jason Rohrer, and certainly Miguel was not attempting anything out of the ordinary with regards to a nuanced meaning or artistic expression. Miguel does have an eye for visual quality and consistency, and the writing and voice-over communicates his loopy and amusing take on H.P.Lovecraft fairly well, but that’s all a bit beside the point from the perspective of this discussion.

    What’s really remarkable is the storytelling system he’s developed, the way it has been designed and deployed. It’s something that might seem to be a bit of a novelty as a spectator, but as a player it is something else. As a designer, I see this as gateway to the future.

    Is this a new approach? Are other people similarly inspired to see this type of system applied to different game designs?

    ‘Night of the Cephalopods’ is by Miguel Sternberg, created in Toronto in Fall 2008 at the Artsy Games Incubator 3.

  19. Hmmm—I shall have to look some time. All the web references I can find are to the same three sources referenced in the Wikipedia piece, all of which are people reminiscing after Chekhov had died. In my Russian Lit-studying days, professors would often bring this up as a great misquote. Like I said, though, “The Cherry Orchard” is the big proof to me that even Chekhov didn’t think “Chekhov’s Gun” was necessarily a rule, or even a principle, as he goes out of his way to prominently break it.

    It’s a rule that’s often cited in support of “economy of narrative means”—not having extraneous elements in the story that might distract the reader from What’s Being Done. But I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good rule for games, especially the big long games, which are more like a novel in sheer volume of story, compared to a game like Braid, which is more like a short story.

    That’s not at all a slam on Braid, or a point in favor of the big boys—a good Raymond Carver story is worth a hell of a lot more than a Tom Clancey novel. But in the novel, as in the novelistic game, I think narrative sprawl can be a very good thing, even the lifeblood of the piece. The best example would be the classic RPG trick of a town full of people with dialogue that doesn’t *go* anywhere (that is, that doesn’t lead to a quest—is just along the lines of “I hope Akatosh will smile on our village”).

    That’s very much a narrative element that’s never a real mechanic, and so you could certainly argue that, like the phony “decision” in Bioshock, it should be severed like a rotten limb, But I think a definition of games where decorative elements, whether they be visual or narrative (and I think these sorts of narrative curlicues are very much “decoration”, as all video-game narration arguably is) is a terribly blinkered (or perhaps just Bauhaus) vision of game design.

    As in painting, the decoration is often where the real personality, even the real art of a game actually shows through—in both mediums, the subject is frequently just a pretext. I understand and respect the quest to bring the subject and the technique more in line, but I don’t think it’s necessary, or helpful, to damn every game that puts an elaborate painting on its narrative balustrades—the world would be much poorer without them.

  20. Is PC-version of Braid still due for a November release? Myself and quite a few others I imagine are eagerly awaiting it and would appreciate an update.

  21. Story driven games could be compared to the opera. But an opera is only a small subset of music, also we can say that story driven games are subsets of any kind of game.

    Operas and their text (story) do kind of work, sometimes, but if you dig deeper there are a lot of arguments against the operatic musical form. Also, you have the similar problem, that the opera is defined by music, and the story is often not very well integrated, or the story is not even highly regarded in an opera or not even that important…

    So, I would guess that even after 300 years of game production, story driven games will still suffer from the inner conflicts mentioned in the talk. Just like modern day opera suffers astaethically the same (even today).

    Also I would like to mention, that you do not go to an opera to look for a great story, when you want great stories, then you read a book. If you want great characters, then you go to a theatre. You will never buy a game for its great story or great characters (my prediction)…

    what do you think?


  22. @ George Dudas:

    Opera is an interesting comparison—probably better than my comparison to novels. Because you’re right that no one goes to opera for the stories.

    But given that, there’s no question that the opera has produced plenty of masterpieces in the past and continues to produce them today (I’d nominate Steve Reich and Mykel Rouse, your mileage may vary). Again because, as in games, it’s understood that while the story is an element—The Marriage of Figaro, for example, would not be as it is without its love comedy story—they’re not where the real art happens, and you evaluate Mozart’s musical decisions based on their relationship to themselves, and to other pieces of music, not to how the correspond with the story.

    I think there’s a tendency, with any art form that includes a narrative, to treat that narrative as the most important part. But in opera, as in games, or painting, the narrative is often just a scaffold, and the real art is happening elsewhere—to get too hung up on the story is like a piece of painting criticism that’s all about how the canvas was stretched.

  23. @ThatFuzzyBastard

    yes, there are great operas around, great works of art (my fav: Satyagraha by Phil Glass, Don Giovanni etc..) but they are great because of their music, even if the writing might have some quality… so when game devs want to tell great stories, I don’t see the point, because they will not be appreciated because of their stories, even if they are great… same could be said about movies… I like Kubricks movies… but I don’t think their stories are that great… it is the cinematographie, the feel, the mis-en-scene and so on… and if you would transfer a Kubrick movie to a book it would be irrelevant…

    so game devs should take that in mind… doesn’t matter how hard they try, their stories will come second place


  24. @George Dudas:

    I disagree. At least in movies, great stories ARE appreciated. If what you meant was that they won’t be appreciated by everybody, then I agree, but the same could be said about music or cinematography. I’m a big admirer of Kieslowski, Kurosawa, Bergman, just to name a few, and I think nobody in their right mind would say that the story was secondary in most of their movies. Of course, there are also movies which are more “atmosphere oriented”. A good example would be 2001: A space odyssey. As you probably know, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke wrote the story together and the book was written parallelly to the movie. I’ve read the book and it works. I love it, just as I love the movie. And the truth is, they are not that different. It’s just two different ways of telling the same story. Just because (in the movie) the story isn’t told with words doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Maybe not everybody will “get it” and it may be open to interpretation but it has a story.

    I think the same is true about games. Probably the traditional, linear storytelling doesn’t work very well in this media and developers haven’t found the “right” way to do it. I hope they keep trying.

  25. If story is orthoganal to gameplay (or at least mere context for it), then I think the core question is this: can a game touch people deeply without relying on narrative?

    A lot of our desire to create meaning is snuffed out by carelessly blurting it out as a message. So to talk about the human condition, to communicate to people, is that possible without talking to them with words?

    Certainly if other non-verbal artforms can touch people than so too can games. The real question is how?

  26. Hi Jonathan,

    I was wondering if you’ve seen the movie “Synecdoche, New York.” I just saw it tonight and it reminds me a lot of about you talked about in your presentation at MIGS. You talk about how we should be making games that resonate with people, strike them deeply. Although it is a different medium (film instead of games), I think Charlie Kaufman has done that with Synecdoche. Part of what makes this film moving for me is how Kaufman uses Chekhov’s gun. I don’t want to give too much of the film away, but for example, the character of Sammy Barnathan is introduced as half way through the film as an “actor” in the main character’s play. However, Sammy is cleverly shown in the background of a few early scenes, hinting at his major role later in the story.

    There is an interview with Kaufman about writing and directing the film on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxps3oouNiQ At one point, Kaufman discusses creating difference experiences for the audience when viewing the film multiple times. I think that should be applied to games as well. I don’t mean having the player re-play a certain section to get a “good” ending instead a “bad” ending. But rather we should create games where the player gains a deeper understanding of the game after they’ve played it a second or third time through. I’ve only played Braid once, but I can see how replaying it will allow me to understand it better (or at least to try to understand it better 🙂 ).

    In summary, I think the video game industry as whole needs more people like you working to create games with real meaning. It seems different in the film industry since filmmakers know that their medium is an art form — a form of creative expression that should deeply move people. I don’t think many game developers get this … yet. Our medium is not yet mature simply because game development is still very new compared to other art forms like film, theatre, literature, etc. However, I am glad to see how you are striving to push the limits of what many players expect out of their experiences when playing games.


  27. Games have a whole bunch of barriers as an art form, all of the stem from the fact that they are interactive, which weakens story(and for some reason, people decided that should be in games.)

    First, lets look at all other forms of art. Music and Stories have been around about as long as man. Then Visual Media, including painting/sculpture, has been evolving at a much slower pace, but has still been around for ages. For the sake of simplicity, lets assume that these three areas encompass every form of art besides video games(I could argue that if need be).

    So, there are many different ways to consider games as art. Lets go through a two:

    Little Big Planet: by reducing the game play mechanics to the simplest of easiest to understand genre, the gameplay merely serves as the device to interact with the art, the levels. We look at paintings, listen to music, watch(at listen to) movies, and we play LBP levels. While it’s nowhere near as effective as listening to a song I love, I did get some “Holy shit, this is brilliant” moments, which would mean we are moving in the right direction.

    The Marriage(and Braid, somewhat): Design a system that communicates something. The Marriage explains what Rod Humble feel marriage is like, as reduced it to boxes to see if the gameplay could communicate what was need. Braid is a collection of systems that make you look at time in a new way. In these, the interaction is as much the art as anything else in the game. And this is important.

    Now for the first method(LBP), it comes down to the tool. The better the tools, the better the best levels/games are going to be. However, there will also be a flood of terrible cheap games, and a majority of shallows, emotionless mainstream games. It will parallel music, I would assume.

    As for designing systems. I just can’t call it. It is a great way to communicate intellectual ideas, but as far as emotions goes, I just don’t know if it would work.

  28. I feel there is a large story disconnect because of how the story is presented in games. Developers need to realize that interactivity is there greatest asset. Games like Metal Gear Solid 4, and GTA 4 have a staggering number of cut scenes, and this is where the disconnect happens.

    If the developer wants me to care about the main character they should let me play the game, not watch it. Being able to control the main character helps you to relate to their story (this is especially true during big story moments). That is something movies and books never will have. If I wanted to see a movie I would do so, please deliver engaging experiences that I can be a part of… not watch.

  29. this reminds me of the saying (for movies): don’t tell a story, show!
    for games that would be: don’t show a story, interact!

    maybe someone has a better idea 🙂


  30. keith: i disagree about your conclusion with MGS4. It is not the duration or # of cutscenes that provide the “disconnect”

    and that’s where i stop. There is no disconnect with the story due to cutscenes. The only fault with them in that game is how often they interrupted the gameplay, and not necessarily how lengthy the scenes were.

  31. B. Factor: There is no information about pc version for a long time. I think it is sure for now that it will not be released in 2008. It may be released in 2009 or will not be released at all. I could understand information about delay without giving any reason, but I don’t understand this dead silence.

  32. Hi Jonathan. Great lecture. I just wanted to register my interest in the lecture on challenge/substitutes for challenge in games that you mentioned may be available for download during your talk.

    P.S. I think you should have kept the example of the strict vegan character who uses a whip from the Brighton version of this talk 😉 Very amusing.

    Thanks for posting these lectures. Extremely inspirational.

  33. I have been waiting eagerly for the PC version of Braid to be released. The website details that “A PC version will be released in 2008” though it is nearing the end of 2008. Will my fears be realised that the game has been pushed through to 2009 or will the release delight us before the new year emerges?

  34. I would also like to hear any word on PC version. Even if it is deleyed to 2010. In this case I do not expect any explanation.

  35. I think he’s told us everything he knows about when it will come out. Meaning he has no idea and he’s still working on it.

  36. Matthew, thanks for response.

    Who do you mean “he”? Did you mean Jonathan Blow?

    Could you point me to the place where everything about when it will come out was told?

    What do you mean he has no idea? Do you mean that he lost the control over release process? 🙁

    Last estimation of pc release data I found here:

    I don’t want to force anyone to do the release 😉 Just really like to know new estimate time 🙂


  37. My credit card is poised between two fingers. I’ve been tapping it on the edge of my laptop for quite some time now. All you need to do, Jonathan Blow, is say those words. Just say, “PC version released.” and my 15 hard-earned dollars are spent.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you personally earn $5 or $8 off of that purchase. Consider the sandwich this affords you. Or the fancy coffee and a cookie? Maybe you need a new pencil sharpener and some fresh #2s (although I bet you’re a pen kind of guy)? Maybe you just want $5 worth of peace of mind during these hard economic times.

    This is me saying, Let me help you out.

  38. Developers of popular games are well aware that people are anxious to know when their next release will be, it’s not necessary or productive to hound them about it. It’s not like he just forgot to put up a new estimate. He’s not going to read your blog comment and be like “Oh hey, I did forget to post that estimate, didn’t I? How silly of me!” I know there isn’t an estimate because he hasn’t posted it yet, and because he’s already mentioned that there is a reason for the delay other than Microsoft’s regulations, which means he hasn’t forgotten about it..

  39. Matthew, I haven’t known that Jonathan mentioned that “there is a reason for the delay ther than Microsoft’s regulations”. If I had known about it I wouldn’t have ask for new estimate release date. Now I know something, yesterday I don’t know anything. Thanks for this information.

  40. Jonathan,

    My apologies for posting here, but I’ve been unable to find any other means of direct contact (email, etc.). I have some questions about the games industry in SF, so if you have time to shoot me an email, I’d be really grateful.

    Hope to hear from you!

    PS – Since these comments are moderated, don’t worry about actually posting this on the website.

  41. I’m about 20 minutes into the lecture and I’m wowed. You’ve really expressed a lot of thoughts on game design that I’ve had floating around my head for a long time.

  42. Ok PC version is so much a must have we can’t start developing our own project until I played it, really am afraid to stick to anachronism ideas otherwise. And we don’t have Xbox 360, probably if no signs of Braid till January will have to buy one at least, specially to experience the Braid, still hope PC version comes out…

  43. To: Matthew Fraley

    a) There is a release date estimate on the braid website. Nobody asks Blizzard when Diablo 3 is coming out because their answer is always the same “when it’s ready”…if the Braid developers don’t want questions, then take down the “2008” date off the main Braid page and replace it with “ETA unknown”

    b) The people who want to buy Braid are, by definition, customers (in an era when people willing to spend money are at a premium). It doesn’t appear to be an unrealistic request that they update a one word segment of their website with an ETA.

    It just seems like people bash customers for wanting answers about products they want to buy. You know what, my entertainment budget isn’t infinite and being able to save for Braid instead of spending it on something else is in their interests. Ten seconds to tell us what’s going on doesn’t seem like much.

  44. Jonathan,

    I’m curious if you’ve played Left 4 Dead and what you think of it. It seems like it neatly resolves some of the challenges you talk about in this lecture, in the way that it’s stripped the story to the bare minimum, and largely expresses meaning through gameplay (“Look out for each other”). In fact, you can’t be good at the game until you understand what the game is trying to tell you.

  45. “Story is a filtered presentation of an event that’s already happened” is a brilliant explanation of the difference between games and story, that almost needs no further explanation to understand.

  46. Steven Spielberg agrees with you:

    “You know the thing that doesn’t work for me in these games are the little movies where they attempt to tell a story in between the playable levels. That’s where there hasn’t been a synergy between storytelling and gaming. They go to a lot of trouble to do these [motion-capture] movies that explain the characters. And then the second the game is returned to you and it’s under your control, you forget everything the interstitials are trying to impact you with, and you just go back to shooting things. And that has not found its way into a universal narrative. And I think more has to be done in that arena.”

  47. reading through these comments has immensely relieved me that I am not the only one in the world who sees video games as a potential art form instead of a juvenile toy or a corruption of the youth. Braid and Sonny (on armorgames) are two pristine examples of how video games can be art, especially considering the fact that both of these games are relatively smaller in comparison to other games. I am amazed that people can still disregard games as an art form when some games on an arcade format can be beautiful and profound, and some PC and console games are as well (I’m lookin’ at you, Fallout 3, Final Fantasy 4, 5, and 7, Mass Effect and so many more). It is almost like writing off music as an art form because “Beatles” sounds like an odd name or the delivery means of the art itself.

  48. Hi Jon! Love your work…I’m just wondering if you’re still planning on releasing the GDC lecture you mentioned in this post. I’m looking forward to it 🙂

  49. Just a comment/question, regarding an article that was recently put up in Gamasutra (granted, I didn’t read it all yet, but one thought popped out at me – carrying on with this.)

    You said (rather truthfully) in your talk that story will never be able to be done in videogames. I agree. We might as well just make a movie. (Might be fun…)

    But what about having some sort of story, that exists outside of the influence of the character? The story is just going along, you have this world around you, and the characters (be they robot, human, or polygon) are reacting to this outside force. Thing is, you don’t drive the characters. They continue on with this regardless of the character. Any interaction with them would have to be something that conveyed the message in it’s dynamic, or something that asked the player with a question.

    I dunno – what’s your opinion on that? Games that present a worldview, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. Some way of functioning. Like how Shakespeare did his work – everything just went along to one central theme, one central message, and it was all contained in this worldview. You’d have subplots going on with the minor characters, each one fleshing out a different component to Shakespeare’s opinion on the subject.

    I dunno – would games be able to do the same thing? Subject a player to a new way of thinking, and use the story to tie the other characters together? Allow the player see what happens in this world when they touch it in a certain way?

    Anyway, just a thought.

  50. Wow. I’m new to the whole indie gaming scene (more specifically the indie game design world) but have been playing games since I was born. That was superb, I listened to the entire lecture along with the slides and it was very well thought out, and I will never look at a game the same way again.


  51. I think that video games have the potential to convey the most dynamic meaning of possibly all current mediums simply because they can bequeath text, sound,and (moving) image, and at the same time require the expiriencer’s imput, a more physicall form of interpretation of what the game is delivering, as if the game is an algabreic function wich requires gamer input, and based on that input potentially delivers entirely differant output, but to those more expirienced, in a predictable fashion. Gamers not being able to directly see the equation and make their own calculations will often be surprised when they are given some strange outputs belonging to some bizzare unfamiliar function, but as they plot more points (in keeping with the metaphor) they begin to discover a new pattern, andeventually realize that the function wasn’t as complicated or arbitrary as it might have seemed, but instead some brilliantly simplistic amalgymation of more simple functions.

  52. Also these intense packages are, as it is so often said, easily accessable; One does not even have to be very literate to understand most games, one simply must be able to THINK, sometimes sub/unconsciously (I’ll never be able to spell that) to derive meaning, wether it be universal or very personal, what the game creator(s) intended or not.

  53. Hey there, Mr. Blow!

    I really enjoyed your lecture on the conflicts in game design and it covered some very good points. (some of which have been floating around my head for some time)

    However, while scrounging for midnight snacks in the kitchen, I thought about difficult in general it is to present good meaningful games.

    And then it occurred to me: Why present this in a linear powerpoint format? Wouldn’t it be funny if you demonstrated your points in a video game? Powerpoint is so drab, anyways.

    I don’t know how stupid this sounds right now, as I am typing late at night when my mind has turned to veggie chips. I just wanted to share a little thought that I had.

  54. just listened to the talk, excellent! I am a board game designer and everything Johnathon said rings true. there is no story telling in a board game, you might have a little exposition in the beginning of your rule book but all that does is set a little bit of atmosphere.
    the stories come about by the way the players interact with each other through the medium of the rules. the best games create a story unto themselves. Listening to players after a game you could swear that they had all just watched a movie together with highs and lows,
    with certain pieces that were exactly the same as every other piece on the board except that they were cut off from their counterparts and then made a string of lucky rolls to keep them on the board being held in as high esteem as a Hollywood actor overcoming an alien brood.
    luckily for me, my medium does not have an obsession with being something that it is not

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