GDC Europe: The celebrated indie developer presents a challenging new understanding of game design

Blow: ‘Braid designed itself’

In an abstract, intricate and often mentally challenging talk at GDC Europe by indie champion Jonathan Blow, the developer has presented a new theory of game design, and even claimed that he didn’t design Braid.

Rather, Braid designed itself.

Blow’s surprising hypothesis is that games are themselves a system; a system in this context being something that can be asked questions and return answers, such as a mathematical rule. In the context of game design the answers are experiences players can understand. In other words, designers can ask questions in code, and the answers that come back may offer more that those designers could craft directly.

"The question I asked at the start of the process of designing Braid was simple: ‘What happens if I gave the player the chance to rewind time in an unlimited way?’" explained Blow. "I asked that question in code, and then I watched what happened.

"There was stuff that came out of that code which could have not been foreseen. The answers were not generated by me. Instead I had a curator role, cleaning up the answers and presenting them in such a way that they could be enjoyed by the game’s players."

This understanding of what it is to make games, offered Blow, is a new model for designing games that can better allow developers to reach the ‘truth’ of their projects.

"As designers we can all be beneficiaries of the generosity of the universe," Blow insisted. "Braid was a really fascinating development experience because it was very clearly the case that more elements came out of the development process than I put in to it as a designer.

"The process for designing the gameplay for this game was more like discovering things that already existed than creating something new arbitrarily. Another way of saying this is that there is an extent to which Braid designed itself."

Blow did, however, except he has has some hand in creating his game worlds.

"I did have an authorial hand in creating the world. So, for example, I chose the fiction of the game, what it looked like, and the nuances of how the world behaved. But my role was just about knowing what questions to ask of the system."

Blow suggested that developers of all kinds of titles should see themselves as captains of ships with distinct sailing styles, rather than as creators of something from nothing, going on to argue that their job was to ‘uncover the truth’ of an game that already existed abstractly, undiscovered in the universe.

"If you drill down far enough into any game mechanic you will eventually strike a fundamental truth of our universe that the game designer did not create," he concluded. "The key here is to brainstorm around these basic ideas, and to refuse to be satisfied with the first level of ideas and instead choose to dig deeper in order to find novelty and innovation."

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