Its time for another Jonathan Blow game
In 2008 Jonathan Blow’s Braid released to critical fanfare and shattered expectations of what video games could do with narrative. Each part of the game represented a piece of the story and theme, from the way Tim controlled time, to the written snippets of story, to the music and artwork that permeated the landscape. It was quite the spectacle and after the spectacular ending I was convinced that this would propel video games to the next level of narrative art-form.
Unfortunately Braid didn’t seem to impact much of the larger, AAA industry. Years later and games still pretty much feel the same. It doesn’t seem like many have taken the cues that Blow demonstrated. With Blow’s next game, The Witness, slated to come out this year, it got me thinking about the impact of his work.
See, the point of Blow’s game wasn’t just to show off how clever time mechanics could be or how neat the rewind feature was, it was all an integral part of the story and theme of the game. Blow made the story purposely ambiguous so people would debate over the small details of those snippets of text, but to also put together what was happening on the screen: Tim’s ability to rewind, the shifting backgrounds, the sweet-yet-dark soundtrack, it was all meant to be clues to the bigger story.
As time goes on in the real world I’ve noticed how some games have taken this to heart, but not many. Valve has long been known to keep the player right in the protagonist’s chair, what you do in the game is the story unfolding before your very eyes and you have a large role in it. There are no cut-scenes in Half-Life that explain exactly what’s happening nor objective indicators to tell you what to do. You’re more-or-less forced to do certain actions, but those actions are a part of the story at large. Portal took it a step further and had the portal gun play a large role in how the story played out instead of just a tool of destruction like most first-person shooters.
I noticed last year with Deus Ex: Human Revolution that part of the gameplay was the idea of augmenting yourself with more and more enhancements. It played into a part of the larger story were people in the streets were suffering for their choice to enhance themselves and not being able to afford the upkeep. Being a part of a large corporation with unlimited resources puts your character in a different perspective, looking from the top-down. Each augment you affix drives that idea just a little more. I didn’t think this was a driving force in the narrative, but it was an interesting point the game was making about its larger theme. Incorporating game mechanics into the story at large was what Braid really shined at and to see at least a few games attempt this is very nice to see.
Blow’s next game looks to make the mechanics portion of the game, the actual gameplay a simple-at-first-glance affair, where puzzles and games are easy to spot and play, but the rest of the world is more seated in realism. Yet I can already tell that not only will the puzzles play into some sort of narrative, I can also see that the world and narrative looks like it will play into the game portions. Its hard to describe this, but I can see that the mazes you must navigate bear some resemblence to what is going on in the actual world. This is a trick the late-and-great Myst used to play, often having players take in the surroundings as a vital clue to a puzzle.
I’m highly interested in seeing what Blow can do for video games as a whole, pushing them toward something greater than what they amount to now, its innovative ideas like his that can steer the industry in the right direction. My only complaint is that we don’t get enough of it. A Blow-made game, or even ones like his only once every few years doesn’t give the same impact that 10 FPS games set in outer space and released in the same year do. That’s why its time for another game from this man and maybe time for more innovative games like it on a regular basis.