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

June 29, 2020

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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All Comments

  • 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.

    Rosy Delamarter June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    Fil kearney June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • i thought this was about a game called jonathan which has really bad puzzles

    Y-Voice June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    ndv123ndv June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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

    milliphant June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    Palotás Péter June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • talks about braid and the witness
    background music from FEZ

    rush b cyka blyat June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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!

    JD Zellers June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Please stop following Jonathan "blow" with the word "job"

    Pannee Suttiprapha June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Say Jonathan blow backwards

    obviously alex June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 7:12 could be a meme if we just believe!!!

    PhoenixC Gamer June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • I'll never get tired of good old Joe Blow.

    Dapper Dhampir June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Johnathon Blow channelling Alan Watts in that opening qoute lol

    Ben Russell June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 3:44 Kappa

    Evoleo June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Ecoshift and ecochrome predate this.

    Akash Singh June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    angeldude101 June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    Kostynha June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    Spartans are never KIA June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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.

    Jeemon Jose June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • The Witness was one of the most frustrating games I have ever played, and I loved it.

    Our Most Valuable Customer Mr. K. Dilkington June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • He is nowadays my favorite indie designer, his games are just perfect

    Emilio de Vicente Caamaño June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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!

    עמית ריטר June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Well done! The second half of this video blew my mind. You taught me so much new info

    Cern June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Blow has the honor of making one of the best and worst puzzle games ever

    Dan Croft June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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!!!

    DaSHalpha June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 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!

    DaSHalpha June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • 7:22 I like that you'd only get this if you've played The Witness, while also not spoiling anything for those who haven't.

    GermaphobeMusic June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • This approach can be applied to teaching yourself a skill.
    Present you with a simple problem and look how we normally would solve it. Look at all the other possibilities and how it could be apllied
    The next step would be either a variant of it or a more complex (more layered) problem.

    By doing so you learn the skill not simply applying a solution, it also teaches you adaptability

    Skund June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • I wish I could play The Witness without getting a headache and feeling sick. What I did play I really enjoyed, but I can't play the game longer than 30 mins at a time! I have the same problem with Prey! I've been playing games for over 30 years and these are the only two games I have suffered anything like this from!!

    RuddsReels June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • But, but, but…. The Witness is a LOT of "what was does the designer want me to do?". Maybe I'm just dense.

    Weak Very June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Same thing with writing. It's more organic when you let the it flows and you follow or build based on the currents it provides.

    CheesecakeLasagna June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • This Blow's my mind.

    RGX2020 June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • He must've had a rough time in school with that surname.

    Mooncake June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • I have alot of respect for what is done with braid , i just found out about the game and as a platform developer i always let the programming start shaping itself to start coming up with unorthodox mechanics , he is on another level haha

    David Lad June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Alright. But what the fuck is up with that puzzle that you literally have to wait an hour after understanding what you need to do in both of Blow's games.

    TheJoyfulDragon June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Good video! I'm liked and share 904 times 😀

    Luz Garcia June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • Wow this is next level shit. You have to be a genius just to realize how smart this is.

    I Dunno June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply
  • The Dark Souls of puzzles

    Gerardo Becerra June 29, 2020 7:28 pm Reply

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