How Jonathan Blow Designs a Puzzle | Game Maker's Toolkit

For Jonathan Blow, a puzzle is never just a puzzle – it’s a communication from the designer to the player about the game’s universe. In this episode, I share the philosophy and design process of the brains behind Braid and The Witness.

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More on Blow’s philosophy:

IndieCade: “Jonathan Blow & Marc Ten Bosch – Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe”

IndieCade: “Jonathan Blow, Marc Ten Bosch & Droqen – Empuzzlement”

Shivmoo: “Game City Jonathan Blow Braid Talk”

A MAZE: “Berlin 2014 – Masterclass with Jonathan Blow”

Gamasutra: “Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid”

Gamasutra: “The Witness: Modeling epiphany”

GrabItMagazine: “How To Design Deep Games with Jonathan Blow”

GameSpot: “Break Room Interviews: Jonathan Blow”

GDC Vault: “Jonathan Blow – Truth in Game Design”

Games shown in this episode (in order of appearance):

Braid (Number None, 2008)
The Witness (Thekla, Inc, 2016)
Oracle Billiards (Jonathan Blow, Unreleased)
Galstaff (Jonathan Blow, Unreleased)

Music used in this episode:

Greenhouse (The Swapper, Carlo Castellano)
Adventure (Fez, Disasterpeace)
Flower Girl (Gravity Ghost, Ben Prunty)
Terraforming (Gravity Ghost, Ben Prunty)
I just like to sleep under the stars (Gravity Ghost, Ben Prunty)

Other credits:

Simon Carless: “IGS 2007: Jon Blow – ‘Indie Prototyping, Braid, & Making Innovative Games'”

JustJack: “Oracle Billiards Game”



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29 thoughts on “How Jonathan Blow Designs a Puzzle | Game Maker's Toolkit

  1. The Witness is the best game I've ever played. Please play it if you haven't. And please don't spoil yourself.

  2. I grew up on Portal 2 and that remains my favorite game, so it pains me to say that The Witness' puzzles make Portal 2's look like child's play.

  3. 8:08 – I had a similar discovery process designing 5 color mana spell points for 5th edition DnD. Once the basic premise was in place, all the actual mechanics became self-evident, I just had to make sure it was "stable coding" across all the different casting classes.

  4. Isn't that just inherent to the creative process? No good creator goes in with a fully fledged idea, you start with a few ideas and build outward from there, you revise over and over and workshop it with creative people you respect until you find something you're fully happy with.

  5. Aw man I've played through (what I think) is 95% of the witness… Careful that everything about the witness is a spoiler, you really should go in blind

  6. I beg to disagree, The Withness is filled with puzzles that has no proper explanation, foreshadowing, hiting or even a resemblance of logic, sure once you figure it out, you can shoehorn a logic into it, or make an arbitrary rule that fits that, and only that puzzle, I cheated in the Withness and u know what, my experience was even better due to that, but to give you some examples. Color Lift, I watched a playthrou, I read the explanation, and it still makes no sense, there is no logical patter where a 2 colored room enviromentaly hits at you that u're suppose to remove X color to get Y. Same with the RGB house in the village, that think lacks every inch of graspable logic, and this is a pattern in The Withness if you don't see enviroment, hear sounds, or percive colors the exact way the developer does, you either brute force the puzzle or just say "fk it" and you drop the game or you watch a guide. Don't get me wrong, the game is good, but some puzzles ruin the players experience, not by being hard, I haven't complained about the tetris puzzles, those were fking brutal for me almost all the way throu, but there is logic behind it, a single easy to understand but hard to implement logic. When I get stuck and finaly figure out I find myself asking more that "How the fk I was expected to know that?" instead of the A-ha! moment. This game features 500+ puzzles, around 10 is soo uterly unreasonable, irrational, illogical, and lacks any inteligent designe that it almost made me drop this beautiful game. So do urself a favor, stop listening to the elitist pricks who say "YOU SHOUDN'T USE A GUIDE YOU'RE RUINING UR OWN EXPERIENCE" and use a guide in case you already thought throu every possible way you could think of, and you still don't get the answare. Shoehorning logic into something thats irrational, just beacouse there is 1 specific rule that applys to that single problem, not going to make u smarter, it only makes the game worst, beacouse we fail to accept its flaws.

  7. Your videos are top notch. I’m not involved in games or game design, but the concepts in your videos often overlap with other disparate areas of my life such as dating, or language-acquisition. Thanks for such great content!

  8. When I first saw a world puzzle in the Witness, I initially thought it was a neat Easter egg, how some of the landmarks resemble the puzzles themselves. Then, I think it was around the desert area, I actually clicked on one of these, and when the game responded, my mind was blown.

  9. this guy really understand what mathematics is. He's just not using numbers, he's using a build world with rules, like numbers have rules for combining them (addition, multiplication); then from these rules are consequences, and those consequences can be shown in levels, like equations that shown properties of these rules (a*(b +c) = a*b + a*c).
    Solving the level would be proving those equations and that gets you to the "I understand" feeling, that's the same feeling when you actually understand what that equation really means (f(x) = a*x, f(b+c) = f(b) + f(c); homomorphism between a number "b" added to another number "c" and these numbers multiplied by a constant "a" ).

    Perhaps no numbers could represent what he's doing but it's math nonetheless.
    I really love the fact that he's doing it with something else, even tough I'm sad no one seems to think that way or realize that; not sure which.

  10. I disagree with the statement at about 6:25 regarding the puzzles feeling more fair. The Witness wasn't quite as bad but did suffer from some of Braid's incredibly abstract "puzzles" where it didn't follow any sort of discernible rules the game taught you or gave you clues about. A lot of it was only accomplishable by trying the most random ass thing you could think of enough times until you found something that worked. I also don't consider time trials to be particularly effective "puzzles." I was far more impressed by games like the Talos Principle, in both the puzzle execution and philosophy.

  11. I'm not a creationist, but it's fun to imagine a world being created by god and then the universe and nature forming rules on their own.

  12. The Witness was one of the most frustrating games I have ever played, and I loved it.

  13. He is actually now making his own language for programming games, He has his own YouTube channel were he just shows us what he, it's quit remarkable!

  14. The Witness is only $16 on PSN right now, it is a steal for a game of this caliber. If you don't have it and are curious based on what you see in this video, pick it up!!!

  15. Just started The Witness a few days, oh my God, it is such a good and unique puzzle game. Didn't know til today it was designed and produced by the creator of Braid but it all makes sense now how it is so good!

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