Unraveling The Witness With Jonathan Blow

Posted by patrickklepek (2212 posts) -
The Prisoner and Twilight Zone were the first comparisons that came to mind upon seeing The Witness.

Setting expectations at the door is the most reasonable thing a person could do when walking up the dozen or so plant-riddled steps to enter Jonathan Blow's just-up-the-hill apartment in San Francisco.

Stepping inside, there's not much to take in--no clutter--but maybe he cleaned up for us. It's very, very clean, outside of the obvious flatscreen TV, a sheathed sword hanging about a fireplace (and plenty of additional firewood nearby), and a few stacks of media. I notice an opened copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sitting near the top. Behind the couch Ryan and I are sitting on, there's a minimal amount furniture...except for a gigantic keyboard, naturally.

The Witness probably won't look much like this when Blow unveils the finished game next year.

Blow sat down in a chair next to us, loaded up an early version of his new game, The Witness, and spoke.

"I knew this was going to be a really ambitious project for an indie to try and do, so I didn't want to do it for a while," he said. "I prototyped some other things, but then eventually, I [said] 'yeah, this is the game I really want to make.' So, I started a new company because I have employees now!"

He laughed at the notion of having employees, but it's true; there are two, with more incoming. And even though Blow formed a company to release Braid, he started another company for The Witness, pointing towards the additional legal wrinkles of hiring pople as the primary motivator.

Blow is the brain behind the The Witness' design, but the complexities of creating a 3D video game at the scale fitting his vision required those with expertise beyond his own. He hired a 3D modeler and a 3D engine programmer. Hoping to avoid any personal conflict, he purposely didn't bring on any friends. Even with the new help, he still codes.

In terms of basic design (i.e. puzzles), The Witness is largely finished.

"I feel like now I'm already happy with the game design," he said. "It's a good game. I have a year to tune puzzles. [...] What you guys have played right now is what I finished up about a year ago. I consider it polished for prototype."

Since then, Blow has been tweaking how the player moves, how the interface feels.

Unlike virtually ever other press encounter with a game, Blow did not run us through a demo. He provided a brief introduction for context, warned what parts of the game weren't done (art, sound, story), and left the room. The idea of having him standing over our shoulder as we worked through his own puzzle logic was too stressful. Fortunately, it stressed him out, too.

This is the first puzzle in the game (right now). It looks simple--go from one end to the other--but it's just the beginning.

Ryan attempted to articulate what we played for the next two-and-a-half hours in a preview. If you want a more detailed explanation of what The Witness is from the player perspective, make sure and read that before going forward. Now, we're going to jump ahead to when our brains began to hurt, the moment most people would set the game down for the night.

In essence, The Witness is a first-person adventure with puzzles like Myst--but course corrected.

"I really enjoyed Myst when it came out, but I wasn't a professional game designer at that time," he joked.

What do I do next? I guess I'll click here. And here. And here. And here. And here. There, too.

Even without looking at Myst from a designer's perspective, the genre's had issues. What's the designer thinking? As much as I adored Sam & Max Hit the Road and countless other LucasArts adventures, I can't tell you the number of times I'd look up a solution and feel no remorse; there was no way that answer would have ever popped in my head. And don't get me started on the amount of money I may or may not have charged to my parents' phone line calling a 1-800 number for Tex Murphy hints.

There was a logic to the puzzles, sure, but the logic often wasn't apparent until you finally solved it. Some games were worse than others, but even the best of adventure games fell into the trap on occasion.

"In Myst or whatever," he said, "every frickin' lever looks different, behaves different, you don't know what it does. The gameplay is the 3D version of hunt the pixel. What part of this giant machine on the wall is interactive and what does it do? I tried to filter all that out. Once you filter all that out into an interface that's very clear, 'oh, that's a puzzle, I know that's a puzzle. I know basically what I have to do. I have to go from the beginning spot to the end spot, but there's something I have to know to know which way to go.' Once it's that clear, then you can do a lot of crazy, out of left field stuff."

In The Witness, the puzzles are front, center and clearly puzzles. They're all on clearly labeled monitors.

In addition to tackling puzzle games, Blow grumbled over the effect focus testing has had on video games. His ultimate struggle, it seems, is fine tuning the concept of difficulty in a world where challenge isn't really mainstream anymore.

"I think of this being around the time Tomb Raider came out and where, somehow, a puzzle became figure out what lever to pull and then the door opens," he said. "What I've been trying to do with this, and also with Braid, is how can I get real puzzles into a game without fucking the game [up] in the old style [like Myst]? You don't prevent the player from finishing."

Braid made you feel stupid, really stupid, but only because the solutions seemed so obvious.

The Witness is as much like Braid as it is different, but what the two share in common is the sense of accomplishment when a particularly evil puzzle is solved, the mixed feelings of frustration and wonder when the solution, which seemed so distant just moments ago, becomes painfully obvious. It was there all along, you just hadn't looked at it just right. To explain those moments is to spoil what made Braid, and what may make The Witness, special experiences.

In Braid, however, there was a sense of guilt when you left a puzzle and moved on. You had given up, even if you had every intention of coming back. Leaving a screen has a certain finality to it, which Blow's attempted to solve in The Witness through the 3D environment. There are segments of puzzles across the island, each with its own particular ruleset, but if you get stumped, just walk away. There's no loading screen, nothing. If the solution magically comes to you later, just walk back over.

Puzzles in The Witness are chained together by rule sets, getting more and more complicated.

"It's an open world, you can do whatever you want, but when you get to a certain area, it's linear," said Blow. "You get a feeling of progress. If it was just a bunch of puzzles out in the middle of a flat plain it's like 'okay, I did that, but I don't know why or what's going on.' This is adding just enough context."

The Witness already looks pretty great, even in its visually primitive form. Over the next year or so, Blow will be hitting the game with a "production stick" to transform it. He's working with architects to create the buildings, and developed a whole mythology to the island simply to inform its look.

There's a reason these houses, castles and other objects are here, even if the game never says why.

"The shape of the island right now is just what happened as I was designing the game, like 'oh, the castle should be up high or whatever' but it's not planned," he explained. "What we want to do is invest it with another layer of reality by making it real geology. If there's a ridge here, it happened because of some geological event."

Someone put those puzzles there, too.

Blow was eager to tell us more about the island's secrets, but we actually stopped him from saying too much more. There's only so much he could say, anyway, as the story is still being sketched out. There were some portable radios scattered throughout the island to be discovered, but the writing and voices were all temporary. Everything could change before release.

We'll all know how it turns out in a year or so, when Blow thinks the game will be ready for release.

"What I would have told people was the worst thing about adventure games, you can actually make good...somehow," he said.

#1 Posted by patrickklepek (2212 posts) -
The Prisoner and Twilight Zone were the first comparisons that came to mind upon seeing The Witness.

Setting expectations at the door is the most reasonable thing a person could do when walking up the dozen or so plant-riddled steps to enter Jonathan Blow's just-up-the-hill apartment in San Francisco.

Stepping inside, there's not much to take in--no clutter--but maybe he cleaned up for us. It's very, very clean, outside of the obvious flatscreen TV, a sheathed sword hanging about a fireplace (and plenty of additional firewood nearby), and a few stacks of media. I notice an opened copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sitting near the top. Behind the couch Ryan and I are sitting on, there's a minimal amount furniture...except for a gigantic keyboard, naturally.

The Witness probably won't look much like this when Blow unveils the finished game next year.

Blow sat down in a chair next to us, loaded up an early version of his new game, The Witness, and spoke.

"I knew this was going to be a really ambitious project for an indie to try and do, so I didn't want to do it for a while," he said. "I prototyped some other things, but then eventually, I [said] 'yeah, this is the game I really want to make.' So, I started a new company because I have employees now!"

He laughed at the notion of having employees, but it's true; there are two, with more incoming. And even though Blow formed a company to release Braid, he started another company for The Witness, pointing towards the additional legal wrinkles of hiring pople as the primary motivator.

Blow is the brain behind the The Witness' design, but the complexities of creating a 3D video game at the scale fitting his vision required those with expertise beyond his own. He hired a 3D modeler and a 3D engine programmer. Hoping to avoid any personal conflict, he purposely didn't bring on any friends. Even with the new help, he still codes.

In terms of basic design (i.e. puzzles), The Witness is largely finished.

"I feel like now I'm already happy with the game design," he said. "It's a good game. I have a year to tune puzzles. [...] What you guys have played right now is what I finished up about a year ago. I consider it polished for prototype."

Since then, Blow has been tweaking how the player moves, how the interface feels.

Unlike virtually ever other press encounter with a game, Blow did not run us through a demo. He provided a brief introduction for context, warned what parts of the game weren't done (art, sound, story), and left the room. The idea of having him standing over our shoulder as we worked through his own puzzle logic was too stressful. Fortunately, it stressed him out, too.

This is the first puzzle in the game (right now). It looks simple--go from one end to the other--but it's just the beginning.

Ryan attempted to articulate what we played for the next two-and-a-half hours in a preview. If you want a more detailed explanation of what The Witness is from the player perspective, make sure and read that before going forward. Now, we're going to jump ahead to when our brains began to hurt, the moment most people would set the game down for the night.

In essence, The Witness is a first-person adventure with puzzles like Myst--but course corrected.

"I really enjoyed Myst when it came out, but I wasn't a professional game designer at that time," he joked.

What do I do next? I guess I'll click here. And here. And here. And here. And here. There, too.

Even without looking at Myst from a designer's perspective, the genre's had issues. What's the designer thinking? As much as I adored Sam & Max Hit the Road and countless other LucasArts adventures, I can't tell you the number of times I'd look up a solution and feel no remorse; there was no way that answer would have ever popped in my head. And don't get me started on the amount of money I may or may not have charged to my parents' phone line calling a 1-800 number for Tex Murphy hints.

There was a logic to the puzzles, sure, but the logic often wasn't apparent until you finally solved it. Some games were worse than others, but even the best of adventure games fell into the trap on occasion.

"In Myst or whatever," he said, "every frickin' lever looks different, behaves different, you don't know what it does. The gameplay is the 3D version of hunt the pixel. What part of this giant machine on the wall is interactive and what does it do? I tried to filter all that out. Once you filter all that out into an interface that's very clear, 'oh, that's a puzzle, I know that's a puzzle. I know basically what I have to do. I have to go from the beginning spot to the end spot, but there's something I have to know to know which way to go.' Once it's that clear, then you can do a lot of crazy, out of left field stuff."

In The Witness, the puzzles are front, center and clearly puzzles. They're all on clearly labeled monitors.

In addition to tackling puzzle games, Blow grumbled over the effect focus testing has had on video games. His ultimate struggle, it seems, is fine tuning the concept of difficulty in a world where challenge isn't really mainstream anymore.

"I think of this being around the time Tomb Raider came out and where, somehow, a puzzle became figure out what lever to pull and then the door opens," he said. "What I've been trying to do with this, and also with Braid, is how can I get real puzzles into a game without fucking the game [up] in the old style [like Myst]? You don't prevent the player from finishing."

Braid made you feel stupid, really stupid, but only because the solutions seemed so obvious.

The Witness is as much like Braid as it is different, but what the two share in common is the sense of accomplishment when a particularly evil puzzle is solved, the mixed feelings of frustration and wonder when the solution, which seemed so distant just moments ago, becomes painfully obvious. It was there all along, you just hadn't looked at it just right. To explain those moments is to spoil what made Braid, and what may make The Witness, special experiences.

In Braid, however, there was a sense of guilt when you left a puzzle and moved on. You had given up, even if you had every intention of coming back. Leaving a screen has a certain finality to it, which Blow's attempted to solve in The Witness through the 3D environment. There are segments of puzzles across the island, each with its own particular ruleset, but if you get stumped, just walk away. There's no loading screen, nothing. If the solution magically comes to you later, just walk back over.

Puzzles in The Witness are chained together by rule sets, getting more and more complicated.

"It's an open world, you can do whatever you want, but when you get to a certain area, it's linear," said Blow. "You get a feeling of progress. If it was just a bunch of puzzles out in the middle of a flat plain it's like 'okay, I did that, but I don't know why or what's going on.' This is adding just enough context."

The Witness already looks pretty great, even in its visually primitive form. Over the next year or so, Blow will be hitting the game with a "production stick" to transform it. He's working with architects to create the buildings, and developed a whole mythology to the island simply to inform its look.

There's a reason these houses, castles and other objects are here, even if the game never says why.

"The shape of the island right now is just what happened as I was designing the game, like 'oh, the castle should be up high or whatever' but it's not planned," he explained. "What we want to do is invest it with another layer of reality by making it real geology. If there's a ridge here, it happened because of some geological event."

Someone put those puzzles there, too.

Blow was eager to tell us more about the island's secrets, but we actually stopped him from saying too much more. There's only so much he could say, anyway, as the story is still being sketched out. There were some portable radios scattered throughout the island to be discovered, but the writing and voices were all temporary. Everything could change before release.

We'll all know how it turns out in a year or so, when Blow thinks the game will be ready for release.

"What I would have told people was the worst thing about adventure games, you can actually make good...somehow," he said.

#2 Posted by ImHungry (377 posts) -

can't wait!

#3 Posted by scarace360 (4828 posts) -

Im down for it.

#4 Edited by Winsord (1304 posts) -

I really didn't like Braid very much; not so much that I thought it was a bad game, it's just that it wasn't for me. This however, looks like it's right up my alley.

#5 Posted by Ventilaator (1501 posts) -

"Blow was eager to tell us more about the island's secrets, but we actually stopped him from saying too much more."
 
I wonder how this was phrased, because if I were mr Blow, I would hear it as "We don't want to be here anymore because this sucked so just shut up already we want to go"

#6 Posted by Legend (2664 posts) -

Can someone give me the TL;DR version of this wall of text? My brain can only process pretty pictures and videos. :P Seriously, though, looking forward to this.

#7 Posted by Madz (66 posts) -

Oh god, ahahahaha that screenshot of unfinished Braid is so hilariously cute.

#8 Posted by VoshiNova (1753 posts) -

Im so in!

#9 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

Can somebody explain what the puzzles entail? This game sounds interesting, but it feels like something where I'll have to watch gameplay videos or read reviews before getting it. I don't want that. However, I am a fan of anybody who says "fuck old adventure games" :P. (Seriously, though, fuck 'em. After playing Machinarium, I find it difficult to defend something like Monkey Island.)

#10 Posted by TheMailToad (17 posts) -
@Ventilaator I actually interpreted it as Rayn and Partick not wanting anything about The Witness spoiled for themselves other than the 2 hours they played.
#11 Edited by dabe (299 posts) -

I'm happy intelligent game design is something being actively practised and implemented into video games (to a broader audience also). Not only that, but I'm happy Giant Bomb is covering this game with features/articles et al.

#12 Edited by Klei (1768 posts) -
@Video_Game_King said:

Can somebody explain what the puzzles entail? This game sounds interesting, but it feels like something where I'll have to watch gameplay videos or read reviews before getting it. I don't want that. However, I am a fan of anybody who says "fuck old adventure games" :P. (Seriously, though, fuck 'em. After playing Machinarium, I find it difficult to defend something like Monkey Island.)


Monkey Island is awesome. This game, on the other hand, looks ordinary. I guess i'm one of those who didn't like Braid. Like, at all.
#13 Posted by Ventilaator (1501 posts) -
@TheMailToad said:
@Ventilaator I actually interpreted it as Rayn and Partick not wanting anything about The Witness spoiled for themselves other than the 2 hours they played.
Me too, and that's what it actually was, I just think that just saying "Hey don't say stuff" could theoretically be taken in a completely wrong way.
#14 Posted by Thoseposers (791 posts) -

@patrickklepek 5th paragraph you misspelled 'people' :P

#15 Posted by coonce (1429 posts) -

interesting preview .... i really want to see some gameplay footage of this game.

#16 Posted by Glix (14 posts) -

This looks pretty awesome.  It got me to get Myst on my iPhone.  Bad idea, Myst on iphone sucks.

#17 Posted by thehexeditor (1404 posts) -

The fact that Mr. Blow dropped an f-bomb is surprising to me. I would like audio proof of this.

#18 Posted by KillyDarko (1888 posts) -
@Video_Game_King said:
After playing Machinarium, I find it difficult to defend something like Monkey Island
Same here. I found Machinarium to be the best point & click adventure I've ever played; it's clever, yet very intuitive and that hint system is just amazing in its simplicity.
As for The Witness, I'm expecting puzzles on the same level of difficulty as Braid. Those were hard, but very much solvable, if you think carefully and in a logical manner. Did you play Braid? I thought it was great and I'm very much looking forward to this new one.
#19 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -
@KillyDarko
 
Hell yea, I played Braid! Also, yes, Machinarium is probably the best adventure game ever. Man, the Humble Indie Bundle is awesome.
#20 Posted by ChibiSoma (33 posts) -

Hey, check it out. Another pretentious game from the pretentious game designer who thinks games are more than games and spends absurd amounts of time whining about the state of the games industry.
 
Yeah, I think I'll fuckin' pass.

#21 Posted by KillyDarko (1888 posts) -
@Video_Game_King said:
@KillyDarko
 
Hell yea, I played Braid! Also, yes, Machinarium is probably the best adventure game ever. Man, the Humble Indie Bundle is awesome.
I know, right? I haven't even had the time to try all the games in there, that with the HIB 2 being included in the pack and all. Also, great review on Braid ;)
#22 Posted by DG991 (1340 posts) -

@ChibiSoma:I disagree good sir. He may be extreme in his passion for video games and expression, but he provides a refreshing change from the modern day over used genres. Braid is one of my favorite games ever.

I will happily buy this on release day.

#23 Edited by Dooftastic (85 posts) -

Part of the fun of Myst was the mystery around where a puzzle started and stopped. I got through it when it first came out without hints of FAQs, and I'm not a super genius, so I assume it didn't prove overly-tough for other people.

#24 Posted by emem (1974 posts) -

I really hope the difficulty won't be much of an issue for people.

I personally think that the biggest part of the Braid experience was that feeling of accomplishment after beating a level (and finally the game) with all its challenges. I would want my children to play games like Braid.. it's basically food for the brain, if you know what I mean.

#26 Posted by ectoplasma (987 posts) -

Really enjoying those write ups! Thanks!

#27 Posted by Deathpooky (1443 posts) -

After the amazing puzzle design of Braid, I'm really looking forward to this.

#28 Posted by Absolute_Zero (238 posts) -

@patrickklepek Great articke! Did he say anything else about Brian Mortiary's (sp?) involvement?

#29 Posted by HerbieBug (4208 posts) -

Puzzle game inspired by The Prisoner and The Twilight Zone?   Yes, I would like that.  
 
Who are you?  The new number 2.  Who is number 1?  You are number 6.  I am not a number!  I am a free man!

#30 Posted by Ragdrazi (2283 posts) -

I am so down for this. Although I didn't like how much trash was talked on Myst there. The vast majority of Myst's puzzles just required you to attempt to interact with a set of controls in every way possible. There was a lot of trial and error, but it all had a logic to it.

#31 Posted by Nick (698 posts) -

Super excited for The Witness. I love all types of games but it's these indie developers like Jonathan Blow and Jenova Chen that I think are really elevating the medium.

#32 Posted by Loiske (10 posts) -

I really like the artistic style, looks so refreshing :D

#33 Posted by A_Dog (738 posts) -

I want to dig deeper into Jonathan Blow.

#34 Posted by Vexxan (4614 posts) -

Never played Braid but I'm really looking forward to seeing more of this game.

#35 Posted by waypoetic (92 posts) -
#36 Posted by George_Hukas (1317 posts) -
@Video_Game_King said:
Can somebody explain what the puzzles entail? This game sounds interesting, but it feels like something where I'll have to watch gameplay videos or read reviews before getting it. I don't want that. However, I am a fan of anybody who says "fuck old adventure games" :P. (Seriously, though, fuck 'em. After playing Machinarium, I find it difficult to defend something like Monkey Island.)
I get the old adventure genre hate, I'm right there with ya. I just don't get why he's making an adventure game in the first place. Hopefully it turns out to be more than just a hub world for his puzzles. 
 
I will defend Myst to the death, though.
#37 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -
@cide
 
You don't have to, because I haven't played Myst. It's probably because everybody hates the non-PC versions (and not for "there's no mouse" reasons), and I don't want to fuck around with old game resolutions and stuff.
#38 Posted by CrossTheAtlantic (1146 posts) -

I find myself way too excited to find out he's working with architects to design the structures. Awesome.

#39 Posted by dvorak (1497 posts) -

I love Myst. A lot. But I know it's dated, and this game kind of just looks like the natural evolution of that genre of adventure game. There's a big difference between Sam and Max (which I also love) and Atlantis.

Atlantis, Myst, RHEM, and the like are fantastic games, but certainly dated.

#40 Posted by BluThundur (7 posts) -

I really enjoyed Braid, so I'm totally down for this.

#41 Posted by Apparatus_Unearth (3245 posts) -

Looks like the Zune logo is on that blue box. :)

#42 Posted by SYMPHONICOLOSSUS (35 posts) -

@ChibiSoma: I realize you made this comment eight months ago, but I'm gonna reply anyway: FUUUUUUUUUUCK YOU!

#43 Posted by j3ffro919 (244 posts) -

I realize that the 2012 release date isn't happening, here's to hoping it isn't too deep into 2013.

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