February 09 2014 by Barry Herbers
As the creator of Braid and currently the head developer of The Witness, Jonathan Blow is easily among the most famous and renowned indie developers out there, so spending several paragraphs on telling you who he is probably wouldn't be the most productive thing in the world. If you don't know, Google him, and you'll find a billion other articles to tell you just that. But it's that second game I listed, The Witness—that's the enigma, isn't it?
We know it's hyped, gorgeous as all hell, led by an important developer, and of the insufficiently descriptive "puzzle-adventure" genre, but as for what it actually is... a lot of people are still scratching their heads. We got that in-game trailer a year ago, and there's been a scattering of interviews and videos since, but I still consistently hear the "it looks pretty, but what is it?" remark. And that's where Mr. Blow comes in.
See, I had the opportunity to pick the guy's brain a bit, get a little more insight on why we should be excited for this game about which we've heard so much and yet so little. Let's look at the "why"s behind The Witness.
Why the Panels?
We know that The Witness is, broadly speaking, a first-person adventure based around exploration and puzzle-solving, in an at least somewhat similar vein to games like Myst. So it's a point of confusion when you see The Witness' beautiful world in its trailer (here's the link), but then notice the actual puzzles seem to be acclimated to a bunch of weird, digital screens looking out of place in the vibrance of nature. As Blow himself points out, "it can be not obvious for people to imagine how that is supposed to be interesting."
Blow wouldn't knowingly make a game based around a concept he found boring, so then why the panels? As The Witness has a large emphasis on exploration and discovery, Blow can't go into all of the specifics, but he can explain the panels' general purpose, their conceptual reason for being there.
In a very basic sense, " [The Witness] uses the panels in a very versatile way that enables us to get around a lot of the problems that traditionally happen in this kind of adventure game." As Blow explains, there are "some common problems" that often arise in the various forms of "games where you wander around a world and solve a bunch of puzzles."
Blow describes that, due to the obscurity of many adventure game puzzle solutions, you're not always aware of whether you're equipped to solve a puzzle when you come upon it. "'Do I need some special dog food to feed the dog, so that the dog will trust me, so I can go through this door, and he won't bite me, or whatever'" is the question with which he exemplifies the issue. Alongside that, Blow also mentions the age-old conundrum adventure fans often joke about finding themselves in: the "drag every object onto every other object" situation, wherein a puzzle's solution can only really be found through trial and error.
The panels, he says, are " really a way of getting around all that stuff." You see a panel, you know it's a puzzle, and furthermore you understand the basis of how to solve that puzzle: tracing a line on a panel. Blow explains that a rule was decided very early in development—that you always know "what is supposed to be clickable and what isn't," the panels being one of the few things (alongside "maybe audio log-type recordings") in the former category. The Witness even used to have other puzzle apparatuses—"switches, and buttons, and levers, and things"—but they were dropped in favor of an all panels design. It all helps the team "keep the world as simple as possible," and he asserts that they've been very faithful to that rule.
"What happens is you walk around the island, and you see a panel in the environment, and that panel is a very clear indication that there's a puzzle here. And, y'know after you've done a few panels—which doesn't take very long—you have a very clear idea also of what you do to solve the puzzle, right? You just have to trace a line on the panel." — Jonathan Blow
Simple, right? Yes, and that's deliberate, because " the tracing the line on the panel is not supposed to be the interesting part." As Blow puts it, "The interesting part is supposed to be understanding what that line is," and he's convinced that "that can become infinitely interesting." The line itself is simply "like a password."
"...A line on some panel that takes some path from a starting point to an ending point, you can think of that as an arbitrary- like, it's a piece of information, right? It's a coded message, like imagine you were a spy, and somebody gave you something to indentify yourself later, right? And it was like a shape on a piece of paper, y'know with a line like sguiggling around this one square, going up and zagging left and then zagging right, y'know? You could imagine then going to the secret spy facility and entering that on a control panel there, and that gets you access into the room, right?
...That line, the exact shape of that line is something like a password. So, the question for anyone of these panels is 'what's the password,' right?" — Jonathan Blow
Furthermore, despite the solving taking place directly on the panels, not all the parts of all The Witness' puzzles are necessarily restricted to them. Blow describes a "process of nonverbal communication" which The Witness employs to get across how exactly a given panel works. But while some of the puzzles—particularly the early ones, it seems—will be "determined completely by what's in the panel," this nonverbal communication can come through any means imaginable.
Of course, The Witness won't communicate through any means imaginable because Blow understands that some possibilities are "just easy and overdone," but it sounds like figuring out the game's puzzles will certainly involve more than just what's on the panels.
"That Feeling of Epiphany"
Past all of its surface elements, every game has a core experience, a feeling it elicits within us, and when it comes down to it, those feelings—whatever they may be—are generally the reason we want to play any given game. The obvious question then is "what are they in The Witness?" Blow tells me "epiphany" is a big one.
Given that epiphanies refer to ideas you discover on your own, he can't go into a lot of concrete examples without ruining some of that feeling when you play the game. However, what he can do is explain the philosophy behind how it's achieved.
As Blow describes, it's often the case that an adventure game might have arbitrary puzzles, puzzles that really serve no purpose. The example he gives is of finding a key which can be used to open a safe, and inside that safe there's the code to a combination lock. Blow asserts that " from a game design perspective, that just makes busy work" because the key could just as easily have the ability to open the combination lock. So why bother having two steps?
In The Witness, the team's trying to keep away from thatfrom things that make you "arbitrarily jump through hoops." Instead, the game does things that are more "interesting." Blow says the intrigue of the puzzles comes from the fact that "they're consistent and they generally involve some aspect of the world that you overlooked," thereby allowing you to have a moment of discovery, "that feeling of epiphany." Blow claims it "can feel magical" when a solution clicks with you, when you come to a particular understanding about the solution to the panel with which you're working. In The Witness, the puzzles are not just obstacles, because the method by which you come to their solutions is interesting in-and-of itself.
"There's generally something that was there the whole time, either in the world or in the arrangement of—in the rules of the symbols on the panels that tells you the information. ...That can feel magical when you come to an understanding about it, and suddenly you see it as natural and clear, and you say 'wow that's neat,' and it wasn't a trick, right? 'It was there the whole time, and I see it clearly,' and that's really cool. So, we strive for that feeling of epiphany in this game." — Jonathan Blow
What's the Structure?
How exactly does The Witness "flow?" We know it takes place in an open world, but how is that world constructed? How exactly do you even progress through The Witness? And does it have any sort of difficulty curve? Let's take a look at the structure of The Witness.
The Witness' world is divided into ten or eleven areas, and Blow says each of those areas is "very distinct," meaning the division of the island is very clear. Blow mentions how obvious it is to tell where the autumn forest is located from the castle area, and he says this is important because the puzzles in one area "are solvable only using information in that area." Blow jokes that, since The Witness is a long game, "you'd go crazy" if the knowledge necessary to solve a given puzzle could be found anywhere on the island.
Progression-wise, there's a fair amount of choice in how you go about completing all of the game's areas. Some do require that you understand certain puzzle mechanics, and Blow explains that those will generally be blocked off by a panel which requires you to employ your knowledge of certain necessary ideas before passing. But, those panels are " not that hard," and once you've opened them, "you can basically go to any of these ten or eleven areas in any order that you want."
So, in broad terms, The Witness is non-linear. But, within each of the areas, that's not generally the case.
Blow describes the structure of the specific areas as " usually pretty linear." There may be branching paths, or one area may be "broken into three or four pieces that are non-linear," but for the most part. Specific areas will tend to have their own defined sequence. As a result, your progression through any given area is obvious: you're "just getting further."
"So if I go in this castle, right? I'll see the tower as I come up the stairs, and at the top of the tower is one of these very easy to spot gold laser boxes, and I know, if I've been playing the game a little bit, that that's my objective, right away, is to get up there. And then 'how do I get up there?' Well, I have to work my way through this series of, y'know, blockages that prevent me from getting up there. And, y'know, I do that by solving these puzzles—and there's some freedom in how I do that. So then once I make it up to the top there, then I can turn on this laser..." — Jonathan Blow
To finish the game as a whole, though, you have to switch on a bunch of laser boxes found throughout the island. There are eleven in total (it sounds like they're found at the end of each area), but you only actually need to hit seven of them to be allowed to beat the game. The Witness has a lot of optional content, but besides the few "secret things that you could play the game without ever seeing," most of that content could also be done as part of the mandatory amount. "So, you don't have to be super completionist—unless you want to be."
Blow says that he very much favors this approach because " puzzles have different meaning to different people." A puzzle that's easy for one person might be hard for another, or a puzzle that's really interesting for one person might be really boring for another. Blow brings up that some part of just about every puzzle-adventure game ever made has a section that some people find both difficult and uninteresting. With The Witness, he wants to "get around that." If you do decide to go the completionist route, "you get a little something extra at the end of the game," but that's entirely up to you.
"So what can happen sometimes, and this happens a lot in adventure games, is you get both of those phenomana together. Like, some set of puzzles is really hard for some people, and they're also not interested in those, and then they have to play their way through this really, for them, sucky part of the game in order to get to the end. And that exists in basically every puzzle adventure game ever made, and, y'know, I wanna get around that, so you can basically solve any seven our of the eleven, and you're free to do whatever interests you the most, right? And then once you've got that, if you wanna go do the other four, that is totally cool..." — Jonathan Blow
Is There a Story?
We know The Witness has a story, and there have been mentions of some sort of audio logs, but what exactly is narrative going to mean for the game proper? Is it one of The Witness' major draws or does it lean towards being understated background information? What's the purpose of the story? How it is presented? Without spoiling anything, let's ask.
Presentation-wise, the team actually still has yet to decide on the " level of obviousness" with which The Witness' tale will be presented. Blow says that, at first, he planned to make it fairly blatant, maybe "straight-up stated." However, as development progressed, he started to lean towards making it "more subtle and embedded in the world," and apparently the team's "still dialing that knob" too.
In terms of the story's actual content, Blow's got some pretty interesting stuff to say, namely that " it's not really made to be an entertainment story." As he tells it, there are a lot of games with stories based around "dramatic twists and turns," big reveals, and the like, and he's got no problem with that—"that's all fine"—but The Witness is going a different route. Without giving anything away, Blow describes the game's story as "a serious speculative fiction story or science fiction story" which is "an exploration of a central idea."
"It's not really made to be an entertainment story, y'know. So, if you take—I don't know—you take a game like BioShock Infinite or something, right? And what the story's about is, y'know, 'oh these dramatic twists and turns, and there's a surprise ending, and all this stuff,' y'know, 'oh my god, I didn't realize that this character had this relationship to this other character.'
And you know, that's all fine, but a lot of games do that, and so what this game is doing is a little different. It's more like a—I would almost say—a serious speculative fiction story or science fiction story where the author is really thinking about a subject and wants the story to be about that subject most of all, and so the story is an exploration of a central idea." — Jonathan Blow
According to Blow, The Witness opens with no tutorial. "You're just in this hallway, and there's a door at the end of the hallway that you can go through." That's all the information you're given, and the information you, the player, learn "is just what you figure out." "By extension, your character also doesn't know anything," and so, similar to the classic trope, you've implicitly woken up with amnesia. Blow says The Witness is actually "playing a little bit with that," and throughout the game you'll be discovering answers to "some of the central mysteries of the game"—"who you are, who built this island, why the hell there are all these puzzles on this island."
"So you kind of implicitly are waking up with amnesia knowing nothing about who you are or where you are in a certain classic tradition that some of these games do. the story is sort of the gradual unfolding answer to that. And, so what the story is doing is it's playing a little bit with that, so you wake up with amnesia, and you don't know who you are, or what this place is, and why you're here, and what you should be trying to do. And the story is sort of the gradually unfolding answer to that about who you are, who built this island, why the hell there are all these puzzles on this island, y'know, and all that. The story is sort of answering some of the central mysteries of the game." — Jonathan Blow
To anyone who was confused on what The Witness actually is, hopefully this has helped clear it up a bit, as well as point out that some things shouldn't be made clear. To anyone else, I hope this was an interesting read. Jonathan Blow, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Now what are everyone's thoughts on The Witness?