While Jeremy and I were head down with the PlayStation 4 this week at the Sony Review Event, we also had the chance to wander the hotel and see some other games on the horizon. In my short time traveling around the event area, I came across single room with a sign marking it as the place where I could try out The Witness. I never played Braid, the first game from The Witness creator Jonathon Blow, but I was feeling adventurous.
Inside the room was The Witness co-designer Orsi Spanyol reading a novel and PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny playing the game. Weird, I know. Cerny cordially handed the controller over to me and exited the room while Spanyol reset the game. And thus began my trip.
Right from the beginning, The Witness began to converse with me. All the puzzles take place on glowing panels with a gentle hum in the background. These panels litter the island, standing in plain sight or hiding behind certain obstacles. The first puzzle establishes the ground rules: move the cursor to a wide circle to start, puzzle a button to begin the puzzle, draw a line to the end, and press another button to offer up your solution. Simple. The first puzzle is a straight line, which opens a door. The next few puzzles change it up, drawing different types of lines, but reinforcing the same basic idea. The puzzles are pretty easy, but that's because The Witness is teaching you how to interact with it.
The game feels like Myst at times. You're on the island alone, solving puzzles. After my play session, I asked Blow - who had entered while I was playing - if he was prepared for the Myst comparison.
"I am obviously asking for it, right?" he joked. "On one level, it's the same high-concept; you're on an island and you have no information about how you got there. Myst starts you the same way. That part is deliberate. In terms of mood and things like that? I'm following it pretty closely."
But while The Witness may feel like Myst, the game doesn't have the sometimes-obtuse puzzles that inhabit that earlier game. Blow said that's by design.
"The goal here is to get to the idea as quickly as possible, in as focused a way as possible"
"One thing that happens in Myst is you walk up and you're in a new area," he explained. "There's some button or lever and you start messing with it. You have no idea what it does. You're just messing with stuff and it's not that interesting by modern design standards. It's fine to do that a little bit, but you want to get very quickly to the ideas behind the puzzles. The goal here is to get to the idea as quickly as possible, in as focused a way as possible, to avoid any adventure game clumsiness that keeps you away from the ideas."
And The Witness does get you to the ideas quickly. Solving puzzles opens doors and provides power to items. As you complete puzzles, the world changes around you. The only indications that you've failed is your line switching from white to red when you submit your solution, accompanied by a game show-style buzzer. There's no penalty for a wrong solution and no help from the game in solving the puzzle. You're on your own; just you, the island, and the puzzles.
"There's a feeling of isolation in this place where you are," said Blow. "You're not going to see anyone else. We're very careful with all of the sounds-- if you listen ambient sounds in most games you'll hear birds or creatures. There's signs of living things. There's none of that in this game. It's a really interesting sound experiment: how do you make something were even aurally, you're completely alone."
Sometimes you'll come to a puzzle you can't complete, but that's most likely because you don't speak its language yet. You don't know that lines should go around certain blocks, or through others. You lack the tools to interact with that puzzle. That's not a problem; go exploring and eventually, you'll learn those tools. It took me five minutes to realize that a white block beside a black block means my path has to go between them before I finish my line. It'll frustrate you at times, but finding the final solution makes you feel intelligent. It's important to try things out.
"[The Witness is] for people who want to explore, who are interested in solving puzzles on their own initiative," Blow told me. "This game doesn't handhold you at all. You have to decide where you want to go and if you're interested in solving this thing. That's my ideal player, someone who wants to be in a situation that asks something of them. You've got to put forward a little bit of effort, but the game lives up to the effort."
"[The Witness is] for people who want to explore, who are interested in solving puzzles on their own initiative. This game doesn't handhold you at all"
The island itself is calming: all bright colors and interesting landmarks for you to wander towards. And that's good. Sometimes, I just walked away from a puzzle for a bit. Again, the game doesn't force you down a path and it doesn't penalize you for doing what you want. Success is based on figuring out the puzzles, not making a jump or completing a task in a certain timeframe.
"With Braid, there were certain things I was trying to do," replied Blow when I asked him why he created the Witness. "One of the things I was trying to do with that game is factor out all the platforming skill. With Braid early on, I had to decide how much of a platformer it was and how much of a puzzle game it was. As it converged upon being a puzzle game, I decided to try and focus on the puzzles and make sure that it's very clean. If you understand the solution to a puzzle, you ought to be able to execute it with no additional difficulty. The platformer is just where the puzzles take place. That part didn't come out as well as I'd like. Most people can play it if they put in the effort, but to really reach what I was just talking about, you have to be an experienced gamer."
The Witness is instead about turning that idea around and focusing just on the puzzles. Even the narrative is mostly optional in the game, delivered through non-direct means like Dear Esther or Gone Home. I didn't get to hear any of the narrative, because the team is still working on writing and recording the story.
"[The story is told] via audio logs that you find in the world," said Blow. "We've gone through several versions of the story over time. You open this new door and there's a recording you can listen to if you want, but it's completely optional. Some of them, you'll only find if you look harder. They're hidden away in places."
I intended to play the game for a quick 15 minutes. 35 minutes later I looked up and Blow had entered the room. He must've been there for awhile, because he was on his laptop listening to something and typing away. I had just been so involved in the game that I had shut out the rest of the world.
I'd say that's the sign of a pretty good game.
The Witness is coming to PlayStation 4 in the first half of 2014. If you're not getting a PlayStation 4, The Witness is also coming to iPad eventually, but Sony's next-gen system is the only home console getting the game. Before I left the room - I have to give other people a chance to play the game, folks - I asked Blow if developing The Witness was harder or easier than developing Braid.
"It's both," he admitted. "It's a harder game to design. Psychologically, it's easier because it's not all me. If I feel slow one week, it's not the end of the world because the momentum keeps going. Whereas if you're the main person making a game, if you don't do something, it will never get done. That weighs on you heavily, in a way that people in bigger teams don't ever see. It's nice not to have that now."