Gaming

Jonathan Blow’s Secret Project

The anniversary edition of Braid will be released soon (13 years since its release), while The Witness celebrated its 5th anniversary last January. Puzzle lovers are eagerly awaiting the next project from Jonathan Blow, this independent developer who has so far always hit the mark with his works.

Although its third game has not yet been officially announced, a lot of information is circulating on the web. So we put it all together, to make you as impatient as we are.

A screenshot of Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game currently in development

“Game 3” is the project in question. It doesn’t have a title yet, or at least it’s still a secret. It will be a Sokoban type game. You know that kind of puzzle where you move boxes around on a grid? I’m sure you’ve tried one before, whether it’s a flash version, on Atari, Nes, iOS (or whatever platform exists, really).

Example of classic Sokoban

The appeal of this genre is that they are pure logic puzzles where planning and problem solving are essential, unlike Puzzle Quest or Puzzle & Dragons type match-3s, in which it is rather, it is your sense of observation that is put to the test.

An excellent example of the classic formula: the game Crew 167: The Grand Block Odyssey, by Quebecois Jonathan Chouinard. The goal is to place a crate on each switch, knowing that when pushed, they keep sliding in a straight line until it hits a wall (like Goof Troop, or the board game Ricochet Robot). It is therefore necessary to plan their route, judiciously using the low walls or other blocks. It gradually introduces new mechanics that increase the difficulty a notch. There are blocks whose movement is limited to a fixed number, others which disappear after a count, etc. It also contains a sci-fi scenario that will keep your attention between two difficult puzzles.

We can imagine that for his “Game 3”, Jonathan Blow will include an implicit scenario, but one which leads to reflection and to the interpretation of the players, if one relies on his last two projects. Although this time, we are perhaps a little more concrete, since we can sense a fantastic theme. (Are these dragons in the screenshot below?) The very clean visual style reminds us of The Witness, but it was created by a whole different team, knowing that the artist who was responsible for the last game, James Stout, currently working on Twelve Minutes (which is strangely also in aerial view).

All assets currently in the build of Game 3

Interestingly, we can see several characters there. In one of the many game development streams on Jonathan Blow’s channel, we can see that each of these characters has a specific power. A musician who can move blocks without touching them, a magician who can use mirrors to create a duplicate of himself (with whom we can change places).

Several characters to control in the same level in Game 3

We also understand that several can be present in the same puzzle, and that it is possible to use one or the other. It reminds us of Path of Giants, another very nice and inexpensive puzzle game. By controlling several characters, we turn more to the planning of the movements and the order in which we must perform the actions to overcome them.

Even puzzle games aren’t immune to being turned into open-world

Why is it so exciting if hundreds of derivatives of the Sokoban genus have been around for decades? Because we know that Jonathan Blow never does more than scratch the surface of a concept: he explores it in all possible facets, as we have seen it with the 650 puzzles included in The Witness. In 2017, he told us that this new project already contained 25 hours of gameplay (source), composed of levels that fit on a single screen. This is also one of the challenges of development: the puzzles are side by side to form a gigantic world. To adjust the difficulty curve, some may be moved to a whole different environment, asking the team to redo the design.

A lot of work seems to be put on the decor around the Game 3 puzzles.

Planning an open-world puzzle game can be tough. You can feel it while playing A Monster’s Expedition, which is beautifully orchestrated to make us travel the entire map without realizing it. It is impressive. It’s made up of little islands, and our only way to move on to the next is to chop down a tree and roll the log through the water to form a bridge. The big twist, it is when we realize that we can stand on a log and push on a rock so that our little improvised boat takes us to the other end of the map, into uncharted territory. (This is the genius of the thing: everything is calculated so that the difficulty progresses slowly, and that each group of islets adds its own mechanics, even if one has the impression of traveling in a random manner).

The endless possibilities of sokoban

You see? The sokoban genre is super versatile: just add a mechanic, and the basic concept is enriched with hundreds of puzzle possibilities. This is even more true when the game itself allows you to change the rules. Hope you had the chance to try Baba is You, the mindfuck of the decade. He’s also a Sokoban: the crates are actually words and when put together, it changes the rules of the game. Baba (the little white creature) “is You”, until you push the word “rock” instead of Baba, and then suddenly you are all the rocks in the level. Because now “Rock is You”. We tell you: there is no limit to what we can do with the “sokoban” genre.

Why is the development of “Game 3” taking so long?

Knowing that the team at Thekla doesn’t do things by halves, they decided to develop their own machine rather than going with Unity or Unreal. It gives them more leeway in terms of gameplay innovation, but also a lot more work. They have created their own programming language, “Jai”, which they will make available in open source when completed.

The secret is that Thekla is developing a fourth game in parallel, extremely ambitious, which would be released in small doses, over a period of 20 years! A completely crazy concept for which they chose to develop the Jai, in order to have total control over its possibilities. Maybe Game 3 is deliberately simple in terms of mechanics, a question of building the bases of the machine.

We know that Jonathan Blow wanted to create something other than puzzle games, but obviously he couldn’t help it for his third game. It must be said that he was a big fan of Stephen’s Sausage Roll, released a few months after The Witness. Just like the latter, no tutorial is included: you have to discover everything for yourself.

It leads to moments of unforgettable surprise / discovery since it requires the player to solve a problem by inventing a solution by trial and error, rather than just applying the possible actions that the game has taught you. Know that Stephen’s Sausage Roll is of incomparable difficulty, by its incredibly well thought out level design. Maybe it made Blow want to see what he would be able to do with the concept of Sokoban.

It smells of sausage, this Game 3

Another small revolution

You may have forgotten it, but Braid was one of the first games on Xbox Live Arcade to cost 1,200 points (the equivalent of $ 15), rather than the usual $ 5 or $ 10. From that moment, the average price of games on the platform increased, but also their quality. It was a first step towards today’s reality, where the ambition of independent games continues to increase, since they have more latitude on the budget side.

The same goes for The Witness, which surprised more than one with its price of $ 40, which is however totally justified given the quantity of content and the quality of the product. Jonathan Blow’s message to developers:

“I don’t think it’s good for people to undervalue their work, because then you teach the public that what you do isn’t worth much.”

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/02/witness-40-experiment-worked-creator-reports-5-million-first-week-revenue/

The puzzle game world just needs a little more confidence in their product, which is still struggling to recover from the days of $ 1 (or even free) mobile games.

Maybe we’ll come a day when indies even more ambitious and grandiose than those of today will dare to raise the bill to $ 60? If the content and the quality are there, why not?

Another environment of Game 3

An announcement a few months before the release

Sadly, we are not yet near the official announcement based on the senior programmer job posting posted on Twitter last month. Blow said in an interview that due to the unpredictable nature of development (the creation of the new programming language), giving a launch date too early is risky. Then there are so many games in development that announcements made too early end up being forgotten, drowned in the deluge of releases.

My estimate: an official announcement at the end of 2021 for a release in mid-2022. We keep an eye open and during this time, we redirect you to the other funny sokoban dotting this article, namely:

See the game in action in this video on its development!

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