Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness, has shown more of his new puzzle game. It’s a game inspired by (and even, it seems, codenamed) Sokoban, the old Japanese game about pushing boxes in specific orders to cover all the marks on the floor.
Blow showed footage during his talk at Spanish conference Gamelab, which I popped along to a few weeks ago. It’s taken a little while for the videos to appear online.
In the footage, the viewer looks down into a leafy kind of compartmentalised level to see three characters and six doorless rooms. There’s one big crystal which needs moving but when you move around, blocks pop up barring the way. What to do? That’s the puzzle. Character abilities will help you out – in the video a wizard uses a kind of teleportation spell to move the crystal – and there’s an undo mechanic to keep your experimentation swift.
“A game where you push blocks around doesn’t sound very exciting. There’s a lot more to it.” -Jonathan Blow
There’s a montage of many more levels but they don’t have graphics yet – most of them don’t, apparently – and it’s these one-screen puzzles the game will largely be made up of.
It sounds small but when Blow flashed a glimpse of the game at Reboot Develop last year he said there were already 25 hours of gameplay! In the year since “we’ve built a lot more gameplay” Blow said in a shared interview with myself and VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi, following this year’s Gamelab talk.
“We haven’t really officially announced the game yet so I don’t want to say too much,” he added as I probed, “but we’ve shown it in these talks. It’s weird. It’s a level-based game. There’s a lot of levels. We have a lot more levels than we had last year.”
Two programmers (including Blow) and five artists are making the game, but at the same time Blow is inventing a programming language for the game to be built on, hence the hold up. It’s this language his talks at Reboot and Gamelab have really been about, and I don’t understand the half of it. The gist appears to be saving people time and creating a more direct, less convoluted language, and his new game certainly appears to run briskly as result. But then it’s not exactly Horizon: Zero Dawn is it?
Anyway! What we’ve seen of Blow’s new game looks quite, well, simple. “A game where you push blocks around doesn’t sound very exciting,” agreed Blow. But, he assured me, “There’s a lot more to it.”
The Witness, Blow’s beautiful and enigmatic last game, came out in 2016 following several years in development. It brings us to the million-dollar question regarding his new game of “When?”.
“It’s always hard to schedule games the way I do it,” he told me. “We don’t do it like Electronic Arts. We don’t pick a quarter and ship the game. We’re just trying to make the best game. When it’s close to done, then we know.
“With The Witness we announced the release date as soon as I knew what it was, which was five months before release out of a six-and-a-half year development. That hurt us. If I had known the release date sooner we could have gotten a very good publishing and retail deal, because retail people need to know when the game is going to be there in advance. We didn’t – but we made a good game.
“With this game,” he added, “it’s even harder than usual because it’s in this experimental programming language. I really can’t say yet. I can’t even tell you when we’ll officially announce it. Probably closer to release than we have in the past because the current game environment – we used to announce stuff really early and people would look forward to it. Now it’s so noisy out there. Maybe once it’s mostly playable and we know a release date, we might do the full thing.”
This Sokoban game isn’t the only one Blow has in development. He’s been working on another one for years already, since 2012/2013, when The Witness was in the works. He told Dean Takahashi this other game already had a playable prototype with 40-50 hours of gameplay! And he said he intends to work on it for a many as the next 20 years! But because of that he also wants to rewrite it using his new programming language.
“And it wouldn’t be that long on one release,” he said, referencing the 20 years, “it would be instalments. Not really episodic but instalments and elaborations on the same game over the course of 20 years, making it bigger and bigger and more complex.”
As a final question I asked Blow if we’d ever see The Witness on Nintendo Switch now it had been successfully ported and released for smartphones. “I wouldn’t say never,” he began, ominously, “but we worked on that game for a long time. We could have done more ports but I felt like it was a good idea to give the team a break and work on some new things.
“We’re working on new projects now. We’re not really working on ports of The Witness but that could change. Something could happen. We could outsource it and quality control in-house. But we’re not currently doing anything.”