A Rough Sketch: The Witness

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Avatar image for ryan
Posted by Ryan (2278 posts) -

Approaching the nondescript front gate of Jonathan Blow’s foggy hilltop San Francisco apartment, I had very little idea of what to expect from The Witness. This was the next game from the man who very nearly single-handedly conceived and executed Braid, a game that, if not the work of actual genius, was at the very least very, very clever. So even though expectations were nonspecific, they were also fairly high. Outside of a surreptitious showing at PAX, I hadn’t heard of anyone beyond Blow’s circle even laying eyes on the game. Even in my correspondences with Blow leading up to our extended gameplay demo, he had been reluctant to provide more detail than to say it was an “exploration-based puzzle game.” I certainly know I wasn't expecting something that could be sloppily, and perhaps unfairly and reductively described in shorthand as a “modern Myst.” But, much like how Braid could be summed up as “Mario with time manipulation” this is really just the start of the conversation.

No Caption Provided

Speaking about the game, Blow’s not shy about the comparison to something like Myst, or any number of adventure games driven by contextual puzzle solving, but he’s also very vocal about what he finds distasteful of games both old and new. Speaking of the adventure game format, he takes issue with puzzle designs that require you to, somehow, read the intent of the game designer, citing the infamous cat-hair mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 as a particularly egregious example. Even in Myst, going from one puzzlebox to the next, there’s rarely any consistent logic. This, he feels, is an unfair way to gin up some sense of challenge in your game. Which is not to say Blow doesn't appreciate a good cerebral challenge, something he feels is grossly lacking in modern games. Rollercoasters are fun, but there’s room for something more thoughtful, too.

So! What is The Witness?

The game starts with you, an anonymous, first-person avatar in a spartan, polygonal room, facing a door. On this door is a screen with a simple path drawn on it. Using the analog stick to to trace along this path, the door opens, and you enter a small, gated courtyard, with several more screens, now with slightly more complex paths on them, which appear to be powering the gate. Solving these panels in a similar fashion opens you up to the majority of the mysterious, peculiarly vacant island where the game takes place. There are a number of unique geographical features, as well as structures of seemingly various age, but what deliberately sticks out are these panels, which the island is littered with.

No Caption Provided

Discovering the logic behind these panels, which evolves and changes as you explore the various areas of the island, is the heart of The Witness, but it’s not a simple matter of trial and error. The panels are often grouped in sets of five, and are designed to teach you a new set of rules by which subsequent panels must be solved. Though certain regions require you to solve a set of panels before exploring them further, the island is generally open for you to explore. This can often lead you to panels which look familiar enough, but which abide by a set of rules that you’ve not yet been introduced to. If you find yourself stuck, the game encourages you to move on and revisit particularly puzzling panels once you’re better equipped.

New rules and elements are introduced, but the basic format of the panels themselves--the tracing of a line through a square grid--never changes. The abstract, seemingly simple nature of these panels can make the evolving subtleties of the underlying logic difficult to describe. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to explain them in detail if I could, as discovering the solutions on your own is the very thing that makes the experience so satisfying.

This is where the greatest similarities between The Witness and Braid are most apparent. As you learn the different rules by which the panels are governed, you also start to build up certain assumptions and expectations about how a panel should be approached, something that the game then turns against the player. As an admittedly, frustratingly vague example, the expectation that all of the information you need to solve a specific panel would be contained within that panel is something that The Witness plays with liberally. Suffice it to say, The Witness rewards a limber mind, and the game preys on the psyche's tendency to focus on what's in front of it, though it always puts the solution in plain sight--you just have to know what to look for.

No Caption Provided

Like Braid before it, The Witness seems like a heavy vessel for Blow’s specific brand of amorphic, perhaps autobiographical narrative style, though in my time with the game, I was unable to make heads or tales of the cryptic audio recordings I found hidden across the island. Like everything else about The Witness, this seems very deliberate.

Though Blow said that the puzzles that we saw in The Witness are essentially finished, the game is still a year away, time that Blow repeatedly stated would be spent “hitting the game with the production stick.” Which is to say that just about everything that we saw from specific level geometry to voice work and, presumably, the stiff, robot-shaped shadow your anonymous avatar casts, is all placeholder, so don’t put too much stock in the austere appearance of the early screenshots provided.

Appearances aside, I came away surprised and impressed by my experience with The Witness, though I also know that, on a certain level, words aren’t quite enough to describe the contradiction between the simplicity of the form and the complexity of the execution, as well as the subsequent satisfaction of grasping the solution. Jonathan Blow seems to know this, too.

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Avatar image for ryan
#1 Posted by Ryan (2278 posts) -

Approaching the nondescript front gate of Jonathan Blow’s foggy hilltop San Francisco apartment, I had very little idea of what to expect from The Witness. This was the next game from the man who very nearly single-handedly conceived and executed Braid, a game that, if not the work of actual genius, was at the very least very, very clever. So even though expectations were nonspecific, they were also fairly high. Outside of a surreptitious showing at PAX, I hadn’t heard of anyone beyond Blow’s circle even laying eyes on the game. Even in my correspondences with Blow leading up to our extended gameplay demo, he had been reluctant to provide more detail than to say it was an “exploration-based puzzle game.” I certainly know I wasn't expecting something that could be sloppily, and perhaps unfairly and reductively described in shorthand as a “modern Myst.” But, much like how Braid could be summed up as “Mario with time manipulation” this is really just the start of the conversation.

No Caption Provided

Speaking about the game, Blow’s not shy about the comparison to something like Myst, or any number of adventure games driven by contextual puzzle solving, but he’s also very vocal about what he finds distasteful of games both old and new. Speaking of the adventure game format, he takes issue with puzzle designs that require you to, somehow, read the intent of the game designer, citing the infamous cat-hair mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 as a particularly egregious example. Even in Myst, going from one puzzlebox to the next, there’s rarely any consistent logic. This, he feels, is an unfair way to gin up some sense of challenge in your game. Which is not to say Blow doesn't appreciate a good cerebral challenge, something he feels is grossly lacking in modern games. Rollercoasters are fun, but there’s room for something more thoughtful, too.

So! What is The Witness?

The game starts with you, an anonymous, first-person avatar in a spartan, polygonal room, facing a door. On this door is a screen with a simple path drawn on it. Using the analog stick to to trace along this path, the door opens, and you enter a small, gated courtyard, with several more screens, now with slightly more complex paths on them, which appear to be powering the gate. Solving these panels in a similar fashion opens you up to the majority of the mysterious, peculiarly vacant island where the game takes place. There are a number of unique geographical features, as well as structures of seemingly various age, but what deliberately sticks out are these panels, which the island is littered with.

No Caption Provided

Discovering the logic behind these panels, which evolves and changes as you explore the various areas of the island, is the heart of The Witness, but it’s not a simple matter of trial and error. The panels are often grouped in sets of five, and are designed to teach you a new set of rules by which subsequent panels must be solved. Though certain regions require you to solve a set of panels before exploring them further, the island is generally open for you to explore. This can often lead you to panels which look familiar enough, but which abide by a set of rules that you’ve not yet been introduced to. If you find yourself stuck, the game encourages you to move on and revisit particularly puzzling panels once you’re better equipped.

New rules and elements are introduced, but the basic format of the panels themselves--the tracing of a line through a square grid--never changes. The abstract, seemingly simple nature of these panels can make the evolving subtleties of the underlying logic difficult to describe. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to explain them in detail if I could, as discovering the solutions on your own is the very thing that makes the experience so satisfying.

This is where the greatest similarities between The Witness and Braid are most apparent. As you learn the different rules by which the panels are governed, you also start to build up certain assumptions and expectations about how a panel should be approached, something that the game then turns against the player. As an admittedly, frustratingly vague example, the expectation that all of the information you need to solve a specific panel would be contained within that panel is something that The Witness plays with liberally. Suffice it to say, The Witness rewards a limber mind, and the game preys on the psyche's tendency to focus on what's in front of it, though it always puts the solution in plain sight--you just have to know what to look for.

No Caption Provided

Like Braid before it, The Witness seems like a heavy vessel for Blow’s specific brand of amorphic, perhaps autobiographical narrative style, though in my time with the game, I was unable to make heads or tales of the cryptic audio recordings I found hidden across the island. Like everything else about The Witness, this seems very deliberate.

Though Blow said that the puzzles that we saw in The Witness are essentially finished, the game is still a year away, time that Blow repeatedly stated would be spent “hitting the game with the production stick.” Which is to say that just about everything that we saw from specific level geometry to voice work and, presumably, the stiff, robot-shaped shadow your anonymous avatar casts, is all placeholder, so don’t put too much stock in the austere appearance of the early screenshots provided.

Appearances aside, I came away surprised and impressed by my experience with The Witness, though I also know that, on a certain level, words aren’t quite enough to describe the contradiction between the simplicity of the form and the complexity of the execution, as well as the subsequent satisfaction of grasping the solution. Jonathan Blow seems to know this, too.

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Staff
Avatar image for smitty86
#2 Posted by smitty86 (708 posts) -

PIPPEN!

Avatar image for uberexplodey
#3 Posted by UberExplodey (997 posts) -

woooo!

Avatar image for mesoian
#4 Posted by mesoian (1621 posts) -
@smitty86 said:

PIPPEN!

FOR THREE!
Avatar image for bulletproofmonk
#5 Posted by BulletproofMonk (2748 posts) -

The art style looks kind of Portal-y. I like it.

Avatar image for bkbroiler
#6 Posted by bkbroiler (1724 posts) -

Boy, the visuals for this game don't look too hot. Looks like early Maya wallpaper art.

Avatar image for mijati
#7 Posted by Mijati (1071 posts) -

That sounds also, although sad to hear it's still a year away.

Avatar image for mijati
#8 Posted by Mijati (1071 posts) -

@bkbroiler: As said in the article, a lot of that is most likely placeholder art.

Avatar image for link_dc
#9 Posted by link_dc (100 posts) -

Cannot wait

Avatar image for grissefar
#10 Posted by Grissefar (2904 posts) -

So this is why there is no video content thus far on Giant Bomb this week. I don't know that I like all those words and I thought Ask Me Anything was going to get rid of them. There is a reason why I like Giant Bomb and Gametrailers after all, instead of... video game books.

Avatar image for tinygallon
#11 Posted by TinyGallon (193 posts) -

No freaking chance I am reading this! Nice try GB

Avatar image for kiemoe
#12 Posted by Kiemoe (1094 posts) -

Hopefully the art keeps that general look and feel, I really like what I've seen thus far.

Avatar image for thoseposers
#13 Posted by Thoseposers (922 posts) -

I didn't care much for Braid but this sounds decent enough, and even though they'll be redoing a lot of the graphics i gotta say i like the style it has right now

Avatar image for patrickklepek
#14 Posted by patrickklepek (6436 posts) -

BTW, we have a big discussion about the game on the Bombcast this week, and I'll have a second feature up tomorrow (hopefully), based on our conversation with Blow.

Avatar image for mistermouse
#15 Posted by MisterMouse (3601 posts) -

 looks bright and inviting from the pictures... need to read through the article when I find time though.

Avatar image for arclightborealis
#16 Posted by ArclightBorealis (1722 posts) -

@patrickklepek: Sweet. Looking forward to both.

Avatar image for dr_mantas
#17 Posted by dr_mantas (2558 posts) -

This is one of the few games I've been very excited about in a while.

There is some interesting stuff about (mostly) the tech behind it on the website

Avatar image for beachthunder
#18 Posted by BeachThunder (14459 posts) -
@patrickklepek: Any video footage planned?
Avatar image for zombiepie
#19 Posted by ZombiePie (6794 posts) -
Moderator
Avatar image for spence_5060
#20 Posted by Spence_5060 (411 posts) -

This game looks kinda crazy. I like it. Even after reading the article still kind of have no idea what kind of game I would be getting myself into.

Avatar image for vexxan
#21 Posted by Vexxan (4631 posts) -

I like the looks of this game.

Avatar image for killydarko
#22 Posted by KillyDarko (1991 posts) -

If this game is anywhere near the superb quality of Braid, then I'm sold.

Avatar image for esrever
#23 Edited by ESREVER (2882 posts) -

I remember seeing a video of this game like a year ago. At least I think that was this game. The description and the moving a line puzzle sounded very familiar. 
I like the idea of this. I'm a huge fan of escape the room games partly for the puzzle elements and the mysteriousness of the world you are trying to escape from. 
The Witness sounds a lot like this, just in real time and not point and clicky. 
 
I always had the urge to do a CSS map in this style, but didn't know how :(  
Here is the video footage I was talking about. This is from 10 months ago.
  

Avatar image for gilbertmordinandsullivan
#24 Edited by GilbertMordinAndSullivan (459 posts) -
@Grissefar said:

So this is why there is no video content thus far on Giant Bomb this week. I don't know that I like all those words and I thought Ask Me Anything was going to get rid of them. There is a reason why I like Giant Bomb and Gametrailers after all, instead of... video game books.

Ask Me Anything has always had video playing underneath the conversation - there's no video of this game yet. Sure, Ryan could have set up a camera and read this text to us, but why should he? 
 
EDIT: Proven wrong by one post before me, but still, I don't think GB has the video capture they personally use for most Ask Me Anythings. Anyway, who knows, maybe one is on the way? They'll at very least talk about it during the podcast.
Avatar image for itspozer
#25 Posted by ItsPozer (253 posts) -
@TinyGallon said:

No freaking chance I am reading this! Nice try GB

why not it only takes a few mins
Avatar image for sjupp
#26 Edited by Sjupp (1948 posts) -
Avatar image for i_smell
#27 Edited by I_smell (4219 posts) -

If you read this article backwards it's actually about Bomberman.

Avatar image for paulrevere
#28 Posted by PaulRevere (224 posts) -

I love Myst so I'd really be happy if this game was along the same vein.

Avatar image for jozzy
#29 Posted by jozzy (2053 posts) -

I don't think his games are meant for me, didn't like Braid and don't like the sound of this one at all.

Avatar image for therealminime
#30 Posted by therealminime (280 posts) -

I'm getting some great Myst vibes, which is a good thing as Myst was one of the first games I played all those years ago. I trust Mr. Blow to craft something interesting at the very least.

Avatar image for crusader8463
#31 Posted by crusader8463 (14758 posts) -
@Pozer27 said:
@TinyGallon said:

No freaking chance I am reading this! Nice try GB

why not it only takes a few mins
It's more then a paragraph. That would require too much attention for most people.
Avatar image for dpower94
#32 Posted by Dpower94 (249 posts) -
@Grissefar: The game isn't finished. Not only does that mean Giant Bomb can't have a video feature like Ask Me Anything, because they don't have the game, it means that the creator of the game doesn't want footage released yet. Most people would probably be more put off by no info about this game than a lack of video content. This is the best they could do with the information they have.
Avatar image for kyreo
#33 Posted by Kyreo (4682 posts) -

Guys... I am excited.

Avatar image for milkman
#34 Posted by Milkman (18856 posts) -

It's not really your fault Ryan but after reading this, I still have absolutely no idea what this game is.

Online
Avatar image for mbr
#35 Posted by mbr (44 posts) -

@bkbroiler: Do you even know what Braid looked like when he first showed it at the IGF back in 2006? Here you go:

No Caption Provided
Avatar image for bollard
#36 Edited by Bollard (7431 posts) -

I really hope the style of the game doesn't change too much - it looks fantastic already! 
 
Actually, ignore what I said, those screenshots look BEAUTIFUL, please do not change a thing about the graphics!

Avatar image for kennybaese
#37 Posted by kennybaese (728 posts) -

I really dig the way the game looks as is. Some of the textures are kind of rough, but all of the super clean lines are kind of cool I think. Just make the grass and trees look a little better and I think the visuals on the game will really be amazing.

Avatar image for chiablo
#38 Posted by chiablo (1043 posts) -

Is it going to be as annoyingly pretentious as Braid was?

Avatar image for nomin
#39 Posted by Nomin (1004 posts) -

A non-violent game from a man who blows. I hope he does not do disservice to his name.
Avatar image for bkbroiler
#40 Posted by bkbroiler (1724 posts) -

@mbr: @DarkDude: Ah apologies. I skipped the last few paragraphs.

And I actually like the way that Braid screenshot looks. You can see a lot of the personality that ended up in the final game. These screenshots have none. And since I'm not really into Myst-like games, there's not much else to hook me.

Avatar image for aceofspudz
#41 Posted by aceofspudz (937 posts) -

Blow makes the games thatgamecompany wishes they could make.

Avatar image for sander
#42 Posted by Sander (425 posts) -

I'll give this game a good look just because Blow stuck it to the Xbox Live arses.

Avatar image for subyman
#43 Posted by subyman (726 posts) -

I didn't really care too much for Braid, but I liked the ideals behind it. I will mark this down as one to look out for. Summer of Arcade 2012 anyone?

Avatar image for sirdesmond
#44 Posted by sirdesmond (1372 posts) -

Still don't feel like I have a good grasp of what all exactly this game is but maybe that's actually having a good grasp on it.

I'm intrigued.

Avatar image for maxb
#45 Posted by maxB (399 posts) -

like the look of it, very clean

Avatar image for the_atomic_dumpling
#46 Posted by atomic_dumpling (2530 posts) -

So, uh, panels, I guess.

Avatar image for surkov
#47 Posted by Surkov (1019 posts) -
@crusader8463 said:
@Pozer27 said:
@TinyGallon said:

No freaking chance I am reading this! Nice try GB

why not it only takes a few mins
It's more then a paragraph. That would require too much attention for most people.
I think TinyGallon was commenting on wanting to stay in the dark about the game(as am I). I know I'm going to buy it, so I'd rather be completely surprised when it finally comes out.  
 
It's not a matter of laziness. 
Avatar image for claude
#48 Posted by Claude (16648 posts) -

A year away. That's like twelve months.

Avatar image for arbitrarywater
#49 Posted by ArbitraryWater (14482 posts) -
@chiablo said:
Is it going to be as annoyingly pretentious as Braid was?
...Do you really have to ask? Jonathan Blow is someone who has been at the forefront of both the indie scene and the "games are art" platform for a while now. Honestly, I couldn't care what sort of lame metaphor for man's inhumanity to man this ends up being, as long as the puzzles are good like Braid.
Avatar image for mikey87144
#50 Posted by mikey87144 (2097 posts) -

Great article. I think this is going to be one of those games you have to play to properly understand.

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