Delve deeper into the five-year development of an epic puzzle adventure
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 2010 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.
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 internalised.
“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.
“I do, I think, have almost 100% video game dreams.”
“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.”
The simple 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 favour 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 art direction in The Witness is especially noteworthy. Eschewing photorealism in favour of high-contrast, vibrant colours, 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.'”
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 — ’90s 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.”
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.
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 flavour 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 verbalise 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 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 organisational 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.”