Warning: minor spoilers about The Witness’ setting and world lie ahead.
What I saw of The Witness, Jonathan Blow’s first post-Braid effort, at E3 2013 was refreshing in several ways.
In a week dominated by carefully constructed demos and pre-recorded gameplay footage, The Witness was an exercise in spontaneity. Blow informed me and several others during a behind-closed-doors screening that the early build we were seeing was the game’s most recent version, packed up on Tuesday for the trip to E3.
Blow proceeded to take the controller reins and jump right into the game, periodically using debug commands to jump around the game’s vibrant, diverse island to parts both finished and unfinished. He pointed out the important stuff as we went, frequently tinkering on his own puzzles with genuine, "Hey, here’s my game" transparency.
He even showed us the game’s "end": a towering structure near the island’s center that opens when seven triggers are activated across the island. Just a mess of pixels and disjointed cubes at this point, the structure was made even more enigmatic by the teasing nature of its existence. We were brought to the edge of meaning, tantalizingly close to what this whole Witness thing is about, before being told that the game’s secret–Blow’s original vision, and his reason for making the game–will only be revealed when players find it after release.
All the better, because I left our demo with high hopes for The Witness and a keen interest in playing it myself come Spring 2014. Of course, my interest was piqued by its presence at the PS4 reveal back in February, but what little we saw of The Witness then seemed like a series of mechanically simple puzzles wrapped in colorful environments and surreal animations. At a very basic level, that’s still an apt description–but The Witness is actually about so much more.
Think of it like a thought experiment. Blow and his 14-person team want to capture the sensation of epiphany. Easing players into a world with no tutorials–ever–and letting them discover the importance of their surroundings is tantamount. The 30-hour journey will take players to every corner of a mysterious island, and each of ten themed areas will use a little of what players already know to encourage a unique mode of thinking specific to that area.
For example, while every panel puzzle in the game requires moving a line from one point to another across a maze, a calm garden area requires you to do it while hitting other markers along the way. Elsewhere, in an abandoned monastery atop a hill, the solutions to panels (which have many possible paths) are subtly hidden in the environment: a nearby tree whose branches extend in the shape of a panel’s maze; an intricate window design that, when looked through, reveals another solution. Across the island, through a windswept desert, lilac forests, and a ruined castle, the wrinkles keep coming. All the while, you’re steadily learning–on your own, without any helping hand–to look beyond the panels and notice the world around you.
It probably says the most about the game that the "A-ha!!" moments Blow mentioned were something I felt while merely watching. The mechanics, the unspoken teachings, are so simple, yet cleverly woven together with gorgeous environments to craft an experience that’s undeniably compelling, even if I’m not yet sure why.
And Blow isn’t ready to answer many of my questions. In a post-demo Q&A, I asked if he could share the reason or meaning behind the game’s ambiguous title. One vague response about observing your surroundings later, and I’m left with the distinct impression that there’s something more beneath the surface. Maybe we’ll learn what in the game’s audio logs, which gradually reveal the island’s history and The Witness’ core narrative. I asked Blow if the audio logs would be tied to puzzle completion, largely locked away at points that are initially unreachable. He said that is often the logical design choice, but that finding them is, again, about paying attention to your surroundings and thinking outside the box rather than specifically completing this puzzle or that puzzle.
So what does this all mean for you, the potential PS4 gamer, come early 2014? There’s cause to be excited, but like Journey, Bastion, and even Braid before it, you probably won’t know a lot about The Witness going in. That’s OK. Jonathan Blow’s engrossing, hands-off approach to guiding the player is refreshing, and that could be all The Witness needs to be the next generation’s first indie mega-hit.