The Witness: Inside One of 2016’s Most Important Games

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The Witness: Inside One of 2016’s Most Important Games

I met with Jonathan Blow on a misty Monday evening in an unassuming San Francisco cafe. He was in exceptionally high spirits, but why wouldn’t he be? The rest of the world didn’t know it yet, but he was about to reveal a new trailer and a release date for The Witness: a passion project in which he has invested not only the last five years, but the entirety of the small fortune he earned via the success of his 2008 breakthrough Braid.

I spent the two weeks leading up to our meeting by playing through and completing the game itself — an alpha build that didn’t have all its final tweaks in place, but was dubbed content-complete. The Witness presents different kinds of trials than players might be used to: there are no tutorials or tooltips, it doesn’t give hints, and it never holds the player’s hand. On this island, the player’s intelligence is not only respected, but tested and challenged regularly.

The newest trailer for The Witness, coming to PlayStation 4 January 26th.

Having played somewhere in the area of 50 hours (I solved 388 of the game’s 600+ puzzles and saw the game’s ending) in two weeks, I’ve recently found myself imagining puzzles embedded in walls and the ground, stopping more often than is convenient to trace lines across them in my mind. Solar panels have been especially distracting. For Jonathan, this phenomenon is all too familiar:

“At some point it’s just in there so deep that you don’t see it anymore. That’s how these games are for me. Braid was a smaller, simpler game — there are one or two explicit feelings in Braid that were new when I started working on it. That feeling of scrubbing time back and forth and having that degree of manipulation over things, that probably went through my head a lot while I was working on the game, then at some point it was just internalized.

Jonathan Blow

I raise my camera to snap a candid photo of Jon — but he’s too quick, flashing a quick grin before I press the shutter.

“The Witness has a lot of different things in it, so that process takes longer. It’s really weird — I do, I think, have almost 100% video game dreams. It’s hard to tell because I never remember them, unless I wake up in the middle or if I try to remember first thing in the morning, but I don’t do that very often for some reason. Usually, they’re not specifically about whatever game I’m working on at the time, they’re usually more subliminal than that: I’m playing some game or I’m in some game world that’s very different from what I’m working on. But usually there’s some relation to the kind of design I’m working on. It’s interesting.”

“I do, I think, have almost 100% video game dreams.”

The simple, sometimes obvious beauty of The Witness’ unexpectedly massive island belies scores of complex, sometimes seemingly insurmountable puzzles. I played for 50 hours and finished the game, but I’ve only scratched the surface of this island’s deepest secrets. Jonathan estimates, in fact, that players can expect around 100 hours of playtime in order to achieve 100% completion. This is not an experience to be taken lightly.

When asked whether certain puzzles, areas or ideas were deemed too difficult and cut in favor of a more accessible experience, Blow doesn’t hesitate:

“No. Usually if I cut things it’s just because I don’t think they’re very good. I’ve cut hundreds of things from the game. Usually I cut them early — I start experimenting with something and decide I don’t like it. But there’s at least one puzzle in the game right now that almost nobody — like 1% of players — will ever be able to figure out.”

The Witness

The art direction in The Witness is especially noteworthy. Eschewing photorealism in favor of high-contrast, vibrant colors, its visual design plays into the game in meaningful and deliberate ways.

“The game, thematically, is about clarity,” Blow elaborates. “It’s about understanding the world clearly. Conservation of attention is part of the art style. If something grabs your attention, it had better be important. People aren’t used to thinking that way! I had to train the artists for the first couple years they were on the game: ‘That looks really cool, but it doesn’t do anything so it’s not allowed to look that cool. It’s not allowed to grab the stage and take over everyone’s attention; it has to sit back.'”

The Witness

Continuing on the note of clarity, mystery, and deliberate design, The Witness is often mentioned in the same breath as the revered — but notoriously difficult — 90’s classic Myst. Blow openly accepts these comparisons:

“Myst is definitely an inspiration in terms of the mood. There’s something a little intangible about it. Obviously the setting is very similar — there’s an island, you’re alone on it, and there are puzzles. From day one I was like ‘Okay, we’re doing Myst, but with modern design sensibilities.’ There have been lots of Myst-like games in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever played an homage to Myst.

“At some point, The Witness becomes its own thing.”

“At some point, though, The Witness becomes its own thing. Sure, you’re on this island, but the island is way bigger than the Myst island, and it feels different. I actually take a lot of adventure game things that happen from the Myst era as anti-examples: you’re never going to enter a room where there’s a machine with a bunch of buttons, you don’t know what they do, some of them aren’t even interactive because they’re part of the background, and you just click around until something moves. That was very common in those days, but from day one we decided we’re not doing that.

“But part of the reason I can have that kind of reaction to things I don’t like about games of that era is because they mapped that space out. If they hadn’t come before us, we wouldn’t have that reference point. Even if I take things from Myst and say I don’t like them, it has to be a respectful ‘I don’t like them,’ because we’re building on what they did.”

The Witness

Indeed, The Witness does evoke memories of its genre’s forebear, but it doesn’t take long to start forging its own path. The island never stops being mysterious, but the more you explore the more you will begin to understand the way things are designed, to predict how a set of puzzles might play out and evolve.

The Witness is a subconscious relationship between creator and player; a piece of symbiotic art. It is a message — not a phrase or passage to be communicated, pondered and forgotten, but the seed of an idea meant to grow over days, or even weeks, ultimately bringing its audience closer to its architects.

Jonathan Blow

Talking about the design of one of The Witness’ particular sets of puzzles, Jon takes a moment to sketch out his thought process in my notebook.

When asked directly what he wants players to take away from The Witness when they play it, Blow is forthcoming and hopeful:

“It’s so big and complicated… they can take away what they want, honestly. The design of the game is about giving people the freedom to approach it in their own way. I’ve spoken of some thematic things and what the game is about, and to what degree people get that will differ from person to person, and that’s totally cool. Which types of puzzles people like is going to be different, and that’s totally cool.

“Your role as a designer is to give players opportunities.”

“But I do think there is a certain flavor the game has that will come across to most people most of the time, and that’s pretty interesting. It’s hard for me to verbalize what that is — it’s something about the non-verbal communication and exploring the world freely, and having this experience of epiphany over and over where you go from not understanding to understanding, repeated over and over.

“I hope most people get some reasonable portion of that and understand that that’s what the game is about, but as a designer you need to understand that people are going to have the experience they’re going to have. Your role as a designer is to give them opportunities; you can’t force people to have an experience, right? It doesn’t work very well. So that’s what I’ve been doing: trying really hard to put a lot of opportunities in the game. You try to design them so they’ll unfold in the best possible way all the time, and that’s a very challenging thing to do. That’s what makes game design interesting to me, is that it’s so challenging.”

The Witness

The Witness was originally announced in 2009, but landed on gamers’ radars in a big way when it was shown during the PlayStation 4 announcement event in February 2013. Blow is leading a small team called Thekla in its development, but he’s careful not to fall into the trap of launching before the game is ready:

“I want to make the best game that I can possibly make, which probably means not rushing it, right? Rushing it almost never makes things better. But speaking from a financial standpoint, there are all kinds of games released that had really cool ideas, but they couldn’t get them all done within their timeframe or budget. If you really want to differentiate yourself and be a game that people want to play, one way to do it is to just stick to your guns, push hard and get everything done that you originally thought.

“I need to be able to say ‘This game is worth your time,’ and that’s easier if I’ve worked as hard as I can to make it good.”

“If you go to shows like GDC, you’ll see talks where people say ‘Oh, we had all these ambitious plans but then we scoped it down.’ That’s a very common thing, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make the best game possible. That means it’s more expensive, but hopefully that means more people will want to play it. I need to be able to honestly go to people and say ‘This game is worth your time,’ and it’s easier to say that if I’ve worked as hard as I possibly can to make it good.”

When asked whether he felt that he and his team had accomplished this goal, he seemed confident.

“It’s the best game that I know how to make right now. It pushed my design skills to the limit, it pushed my organizational skills… it’s a very complicated game with lots of things in it, and they’re not independent things. They all reference each other and work with each other, so you can’t just work on one thing at a time. That’s what I set out to do, but it also makes it very challenging sometimes. But yeah — It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and that’s all you can ask for, right? I hope my next project will also be the best thing I’ve ever done, but for now it’s this.”

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15 Author Replies

  • The hype is real for The Witness. Can’t wait to play it!

    • The hype is well-deserved!

    • The first thing I thought after seeing the title of the article was “uh oh, the hype train is leaving the station. Jonathan Blow strikes again!” But the more I see of The Witness, the more I think it’s all justified (no pun on Justin’s name intended).
      Really looking forward to this game. Nice work Mr. Blow, and great article Justin.

  • I need it now! So excited! Time will fly as it always does during the holiday season and we’ll be playing this before you know it.

  • Braid came out in 2008, not 2010.

    • Good catch, thanks. I spent so long writing and rearranging parts of the story I forgot to double-check the date ^_^

  • Looking forward to this game! (and where is Paulogy???)

  • I can’t wait for this game! That said, I’m not sure it was ever explained in the article why this is one of 2016’s most important games.

    • Sorry if I didn’t properly communicate that in the story. I’d be happy to elaborate.

      It’s important because it doesn’t walk the same path that so many other games do. It asks more of players than games usually do, and it isn’t afraid to leave them behind if they aren’t up to the challenge. That said, no puzzle in the game is unsolvable (confirmed by Jon during our interview), and the game somehow, without ever saying anything, does eventually equip the player with all the knowledge they need to overcome all of its obstacles (at least, as far as I saw). It doesn’t cater to the player, but it also makes them feel smart, and it does so via its seamless design rather than pages of dialogue.

      To boil it down, it’s important because it proves that a game like this, which I think people might be afraid to create, can exist and stand against anything else out there.

  • Excellent writeup, Justin. I was already so very excited about The Witness, but this somehow has piqued my interest even more :-).

    Jon is certainly a fascinating fellow, and the game he and his team have created seems to be a reflection of that ingenuity and care. That level of craftsmanship is rare, or that it is allowed to grow to its own conclusion without some artificial deadline is, so I can’t wait to see how it all turns out :-)

    • Thank you, Paul. Yes, talking to Jon was incredibly fascinating. I hope I have the opportunity to do it again in the future.

  • This is easily my current most desired game!

    • Mine too! I want to play it again and try to uncover all its secrets — though it sounds like that’s going to take a very long time.

    • I think that is part of my attraction towards the game. But I also have a soft spot for both puzzle games and games where world/interaction design is paramount (regardless of the genre). The Witness seems to epitomize careful articulation of an intricate and inter-connected world, rather than something built around a handful cool-looking scenes, play mechanics, or plot-twists. I get this impression from reading your, uh, impressions, and if this is the case, then The Witness is indeed a very important title and will prove to be a rarity among games.

      The creators of Monument Valley (a mobile game) have recently come out with a simple VR puzzle game, that seems to be being well received. It strengthens my hope that VR will be a consideration for The Witness — such a self-reinforcing game world make a perfect realm to experience, explore, and generate waking memories in.

  • Great article Justin! The Witness looks visually stunning and the world seems to just pop out at you. I love puzzle games and I can’t wait to get my hands on this title. Oh, and I totally agree, The Witness is definitely one of 2016’s most important games.

  • I had been starting to worry about the silence surrounding this game until it finally popped up again the other day. Very happy to have a release date and excited to get my hands on it. Great interview, Justin!

  • Great interview Justin – It’s nice to see this type of article pop up on the blog every now and then. Is this something you would normally put on the blogcast instead of writing it out? If so, I think it was a good choice to post the interview this way – Jonathan has some very interesting things to say about game design, and it was an excellent read.

    I admit I struggled somewhat with Braid, but the concepts introduced were very interesting. I’m intrigued to see what The Witness is all about!

    • Thank you! I tend to conduct written interviews differently than Blogcast interviews. For something that will end up on the Blogcast I put on my radio voice (at least as much of one as I have) and try to keep things moving along pretty briskly. They usually end up being around 20 minutes or so. My conversation with Jon was much more laid back; we ended up talking for nearly two hours, then I picked out the most interesting bits to write this story.

      Plus, the coffee shop was really loud so the recording ended up being pretty annoying to listen to. XD

  • When you say The Witness island is way bigger than Myst, are you talking about the main island in Myst or the whole game with the other worlds included? Also, this island in The Witness, is the whole map what we’ve seen in overhead shots, or do the different colored areas represent connected “worlds?” Really wish I could play it this year!

  • Lol “Finsihed the game. ” XD

  • REALLY looking forward to playing this one!

  • Justin,

    I really enjoyed reading this, well written insight into what I think many people hope will be a very influential game of this generation. I know that there is a chunk of people out there who do not appreciate the smaller studio indie work (as opposed to AAA titles). Even PS4 occasionally gets dubbed “IndieStation” for the free PSN choices.

    That said I think this game can be one of many influential ones coming out soon, where REALLY dedicated developers with obsessive compulsion to detail go and prove that smaller studios can become big hits in their own right. I don’t believe Psyonix is a huge studio but Rocket League has become a big hit. Think of all of the hype for No Mans Sky now, and the witness as well. These can be the games that send messages to players and developers alike: if you put care and TIME into your game, and not rush it, the final product will be better for it. And THAT is a positive outcome for everyone who enjoys gaming.

    It was a pleasure to read the conversation between you and one of those minds!

  • Been waiting for this since Feb 2013. Can’t wait any more!

    I love puzzle games, adventure games, colorful cel-shaded graphics, and indie games. This is an all-in-one package!

    Great write up Justin. :)

    • Thank you, Justin. :) I love all those things too, and this is a world-class example of each (though I’m not sure “cel-shaded” is the proper terminology for this art style).

  • This game is the primary reason why I bought a PS4 ! I found a lot of other interesting games since then, but I can’t wait until January to put my hands on this little gem !

  • “The Witness is a subconscious relationship between creator and player; a piece of symbiotic art. It is a message — not a phrase or passage to be communicated, pondered and forgotten, but the seed of an idea meant to grow over days, or even weeks, ultimately bringing its audience closer to its architects.” That paragraph leaves me utterly speechless with the beauty of its crafting. This is a game I want to play. Thanks for the write up, Justin! :)))

    • Thank you very much, deliriums! I was a worried that paragraph might have been a bit over the top, but I decided to stick with it. It’s hard to properly condense 40-50 hours of experience into words people will read in a few minutes, but this is what came out when I tried to boil it all down.

  • What a great time to love puzzle games! Can’t wait for this! The Witness and after that there will be Manifold Garden, too!

  • “Your role as a designer is to give players opportunities.”

    Then why are you taking the OPPORTUNITY for me to play this game in a way that doesn’t remove any chance of a connection to it from me.

    Ugh this looks so good, but it won’t be playable for me because of the perspective.

    • You’re going to have to elaborate.

      If you mean the player’s “connection” is already scripted into the game as opposed to independently making their own, I can understand that. If you mean the first-person “perspective” is forced upon the player as opposed to third-person, I can understand that too.

      At the risk of the late Roger Ebert’s ire, the reason video games are differentiated as art is because of “connection” and “perspective”. A player is allowed to interact with, and make choices in the game. A director dictates the experience a film-viewer receives. There is only one possible outcome, “opportunity”, in watching film.

    • What’s your problem with first-person games?

    • @n0cdk3y I do mean perspective as in first/third person.

      For me, first person essentially ruins the experience. It ensures I have no connection to the character, since I cannot see them so I know nothing about them.

      And it does this with no benefit. Because technology is not yet at a place where we can create a real first person experience that makes me feel like it is ME doing this, since I lack any awareness of the character I’m supposed to ‘be’. Rather than ‘first person’ it feels like I’m looking through an awkwardly suspended camera.

      So since I have no connection to the character, and I don’t feel like it’s me… I’m just left kind of awkwardly disconnected from the entire experience. No connection means no enjoyment for me.

    • Well, there isn’t a character. As far we know, you don’t play a character in this game. This game is about you exploring the island, not about a certain character exploring an island. The first person view is fundamental to the game’s aesthetics.

    • Would you say you are a Witness to the character’s experience? ;)

    • @doofus EVERY game is about a character. Even if that character is not meant to have a personality, there is still a character. Someone has to be exploring this island. And since we lack the technology for self-insertion to be possible, that means a character is doing it and I am simply controlling them.

  • I wish this was a video. :(

  • I don’t mean this to sound like I am being disparaging of Mr Blow but I found Braid to be like a Thomas Pynchon novel or TS Eliot poem. it may well have been brilliant but it was too difficult to get through (without using Cliff’s notes) if you weren’t thinking in exactly the same way as the creator.
    I will pick this up as well but if it is another ‘look how smart I am as a designer and how dumb you are as a player with your engrained expectations of gameplay which I am subverting to be edgy’ thing I am noping out pretty quickly.

    • Jon and his team have definitely made efforts here to give players opportunities to walk away from an area if they’re feeling stuck. I hit a few walls while playing, but stepping away and coming back later with a fresh perspective was usually all I needed. Sometimes it makes sense to walk away from an area completely, too. Solving different puzzles in one area usually helped me realize certain things about the way they’re designed, which helped me figure out the ones I had been stuck on.

  • I loved Braid on PS3. Any chance of bringing it over to Vita?

  • Looks fun. Seems like there has been a lot of negative buzz about this game. Not sure why.

    • That is interesting — on Reddit, NeoGAF, and here on the PS blog, the reaction has been really positive.

      If you’re right, I suppose I just haven’t visited the places that are negative toward the game.

      I’ve have seen a few posts where people (incorrectly) think it’s a maze game that could just as well been on a sheet of paper, with the island as a pretty backdrop. I think such fears would be allayed if they read opinion pieces like this one…

  • It was really nice to read this,Jonathan Blow seems like a cool person.
    Liked the part where it says the game doesn’t hold our hand.Ha The Witness will sure be an interesting experience.

  • Looks very awesome! but we need Jak 4 and Sly Cooper 5! People love THESE animated games, so why can’t you make more ?

    Also, i heard dat Sony want to make live adaption films like Uncharted and even God of War. But realistic games like Uncharted, TLOU, Horizon Zero Dawn would be very difficult and expensive to make a live-adaption, but if you make a film adaption to these most beloved animated games instead, it would be much easier to make and would also have higher chance to become a hit.

  • That’s ok. Myst didn’t pay homage to Zork. So it’s all good :)

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