A Rough Sketch: The Witness

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Posted by Ryan (1263 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.

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.

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.

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.

Staff
#1 Posted by Ryan (1263 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.

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.

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.

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.

Staff
#2 Posted by smitty86 (698 posts) -

PIPPEN!

#3 Posted by UberExplodey (942 posts) -

woooo!

#4 Posted by Mesoian (1574 posts) -
@smitty86 said:

PIPPEN!

FOR THREE!
#5 Posted by BulletproofMonk (2721 posts) -

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

#6 Posted by bkbroiler (1626 posts) -

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

#7 Posted by Mijati (922 posts) -

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

#8 Posted by Mijati (922 posts) -

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

#9 Posted by link_dc (97 posts) -

Cannot wait

#10 Posted by Grissefar (2842 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.

#11 Posted by TinyGallon (193 posts) -

No freaking chance I am reading this! Nice try GB

#12 Posted by Kiemoe (1055 posts) -

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

#13 Posted by Thoseposers (785 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

#14 Posted by patrickklepek (4623 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.

Staff
#15 Posted by MisterMouse (3554 posts) -

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

#16 Posted by ArclightBorealis (1563 posts) -

@patrickklepek: Sweet. Looking forward to both.

#17 Posted by dr_mantas (1885 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

#18 Posted by BeachThunder (11942 posts) -
@patrickklepek: Any video footage planned?
#19 Posted by ZombiePie (5672 posts) -

Thanks for reminding me about the cat hair mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knights 3 Ryan!

That puzzle still gives me nightmares

Moderator
#20 Posted by Spence_5060 (326 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.

#21 Posted by Vexxan (4620 posts) -

I like the looks of this game.

#22 Posted by KillyDarko (1888 posts) -

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

#23 Edited by ESREVER (2691 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.
  

#24 Edited by GilbertMordinAndSullivan (442 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.
#25 Posted by Arceion (203 posts) -
@TinyGallon said:

No freaking chance I am reading this! Nice try GB

why not it only takes a few mins
#26 Edited by Sjupp (1910 posts) -
#27 Edited by I_smell (3924 posts) -

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

#28 Posted by PaulRevere (207 posts) -

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

#29 Posted by jozzy (2042 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.

#30 Posted by therealminime (234 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.

#31 Posted by crusader8463 (14422 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.
#32 Posted by Dpower94 (233 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.
#33 Posted by Kyreo (4600 posts) -

Guys... I am excited.

#34 Posted by Milkman (16800 posts) -

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

#35 Posted by mbr (43 posts) -

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

#36 Edited by Bollard (5551 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!

#37 Posted by kennybaese (666 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.

#38 Posted by chiablo (929 posts) -

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

#39 Posted by Nomin (977 posts) -

A non-violent game from a man who blows. I hope he does not do disservice to his name.
#40 Posted by bkbroiler (1626 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.

#41 Posted by aceofspudz (938 posts) -

Blow makes the games thatgamecompany wishes they could make.

#42 Posted by Sander (414 posts) -

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

#43 Posted by subyman (624 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?

#44 Posted by sirdesmond (1241 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.

#45 Posted by maxB (314 posts) -

like the look of it, very clean

#46 Posted by atomic_dumpling (2473 posts) -

So, uh, panels, I guess.

#47 Posted by Surkov (992 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. 
#48 Posted by Claude (16254 posts) -

A year away. That's like twelve months.

#49 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11740 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.
#50 Posted by mikey87144 (1775 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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