I recently learned about independent game developer Jonathan Blow‘s upcoming game, The Witness, and I can hardly wait for it to be released! Blow is best known for his critically acclaimed (and extremely fun) puzzle platformer, Braid. Braid was enjoyable not only for its unique gameplay mechanics and challenging puzzles, but for its robustness. Gorgeous graphics, haunting music, even the sound effects made Braid a rich and memorable experience. And for those who like a little mystery with their puzzles, Braid offered a subtle, enigmatic back story for its silent protagonist. Unraveling his past was almost as satisfying as solving the puzzles themselves, and the internet is full of debate on the true meaning behind some of the game’s more philosophical elements (and its mind-boggling ending). Throw in an optional hidden ending and you’ve got yourself one remarkable and satisfying game, across the board.
So to hear that Braid‘s creator and his team are working on a new game, which he describes as a modernized adventure game, is pretty much the most exciting thing ever. The Witness will be a 3D exploration-puzzle game set on an uninhabited island. Blow is keeping a development blog for the game, and while most of the entries focus on the technical challenges of the game (which fly right over my head), there are lots of cool screenshots of very preliminary in-game scenes and graphics, as well as some beautiful concept art. Blow also regularly updates an aerial view of the island as it transforms and things move around. As an outsider to the technical world of 3D modeling and game design, it’s pretty fascinating to get a look into how a map like this is created and developed.
As a designer, Blow has a lot of interesting things to say about the game industry, and about adventure games as a genre. In a recent interview with PC Gamer, he describes the traditional adventure game design as “broken.” He notes players’ various frustrations with these types of games, such as difficulty with limited text parsers, confusion over where to click or what is a puzzle, and uncertainty about whether a puzzle is yet solvable at any given time during the game. While other game genres evolved, becoming more modernized, refined, and generally better, Blow explains, even today’s adventure games seem to be stuck in an unplayable past, rife with player confusion. Many adventure game fans lament the death of the genre. “It’s not an accident that they died,” says Blow. With The Witness, Blow hopes to show one permutation of what the adventure genre could become if modern design practices and standards were applied.
Another one of Blow’s game design philosophies–game density–is playing a big part in The Witness. On the game’s development blog, Blow discusses the idea of game density; the idea that some games are unnecessarily long and drawn-out, and that while long media certainly has its place, a more dense and compact game experience could, in many cases, be much more satisfying for players. Blow translates this idea into action by experimenting with the actual size of the island itself. “Most open-world games want to impress you with the hugeness of the world, and the corollary to that is that you spend a lot of time walking / riding / driving between places,” says Blow in one post. “The Witness takes the opposite philosophy: it wants the world to be as high-density as possible, just packed full of interesting things.” Subsequently, you can watch the island shrink from update to update on the blog as the game becomes more dense.
For all we know about the philosophy and intentions behind the game’s design, Blow has kept most of the gameplay itself under wraps. After all, when your game is all about exploration and discovery, anything you reveal to the player beforehand is a potential spoiler. But Blow has mentioned a few details, and a secret demo of the game was available at PAX 2010. Stephen Totilo at Kotaku took some video of the demo:
Instead of needing the mouse cursor to collect and combine inventory, or click around the screen to reveal puzzles, it seems that puzzles will indicate their own controls associated with the controller (such as telling the user to press A to interact). This seems like a good example of Blow’s intent to create a more sophisticated and modernized adventure game and “fix” a broken genre. The puzzles themselves may be straightforward in their mechanics, but that doesn’t mean the game will lead players by the hand from point A to point B. Blow says the game will be very non-linear and will offer players total freedom once they move past the training stage.
As for the puzzles themselves, we know that the game will be jam-packed with them. The game currently has over 200 puzzles implemented, and Blow estimates a total of 400 puzzles by the time it is complete, though many of them will “bite-sized and quick,” he says.
The only specific puzzle elements apparent so far in the demo version were blue panels that featured maze-type tracing puzzles. Solving these puzzles unlocked doors and new areas of the map. In response to mixed reactions regarding these maze puzzles, Blow wants to make sure players know that the blue mazes are not the main focus of the game. “I wouldn’t make a game about solving a series of rote puzzles,” he says, and even implies that these blue mazes are only particularly prominent in the beginning of the game, where the footage was taken. But he also goes on to hint at a larger, grand design to the game, in which the blue mazes play a major role. “The blue mazes are a major aspect of the game, but they are not the point. The point is the magic that happens in the player’s mind when he understands the subtle things that the mazes are saying — because the mazes aren’t just puzzles, they are lines of communication that aggregate, become more complex and eventually say surprising things.”
Blow has also mentioned a bit of the story that will be driving the game along. Players will find audio logs scattered about the island that reveal information about the person to last inhabit the island, though Blow mentions in an interview with Gamasutra that the player may choose not to (and, mysteriously, is even somewhat encouraged not to) listen to them. Of course, a game like this is all about discovery–discovering where you are, why you are there, and who was there before you. Blow has stated that the game is very “self-existential” and approaches the “Why am I here?” question in “a very self-conscious, self-referential kind of way.”
The Witness is expected to be released sometime this year. And as for which platforms, Blow says “whatever makes sense.”
In conclusion, I’m pretty darned excited about this game. I don’t know about you, but the idea of exploring an uninhabited, but seemingly previously-inhabited, island full of puzzles and mysteries gets me all wound up faster than you can say “See you in another life, brother.” I’m really looking forward to exploring this world (or basking in its beauty, as it were) and indulging in all 400+ puzzles. Beyond just having fun with the game, I’m really interested to see what Blow does to modernize the adventure game genre and what impact that might have on future games.