A refreshing change from the usual pre-rehearsed hyperbole of E3.
By David Wildgoose on June 18, 2013 at 4:40 pm
Jonathan Blow was the most accomplished E3 presenter I saw all show.
While most demos consisted of rehearsed hyperbole, checking off each key message in easily quotable soundbites, Blow instead took his audience on a thoughtful journey of understanding. In doing so he conveyed perfectly what his new game, The Witness, is aiming to deliver to players.
Before I jump into the demo I should note that, along with Supergiant’s Transistor, The Witness is one of the leading lights of Sony’s renewed embrace of indie developers and so the demo we saw was running on the PlayStation 4. However, again as with Supergiant, Blow’s plans for a simultaneous launch on PC aren’t affected by his console-exclusivity deal with Sony. We’ll be playing The Witness on PC when it releases either later this year or early in 2014.
The Witness starts in a tunnel. You walk forward towards a door, upon which sits a panel. You trace a line from left to right across the panel, the door opens, and you step through into a lush garden. Around the garden are several more panels connected by a cable that disappears through long grass and weaves over stone walls. Following the cable will show you the correct order in which to approach the panels, each of which presents a new line-tracing puzzle. Solving a puzzle is about increasing your understanding of the rules of the world, a gradual accumulation of knowledge that can be applied in new ways at each panel.
Blow says he has long been a fan of adventure games, but despite that he finds many standard elements of the genre to be frustrating. He describes The Witness as an adventure game, albeit one that attempts to relieve the frustrations he has with the genre. For one, there is no pixel-hunting in The Witness; you won’t be clicking around the screen to find the right interactive point, but rather each puzzle is framed by its panel. Also, there is no trial-and-error combining of inventory items; you won’t be dragging every item in your pockets onto that locked door, but rather each solution comes from your understanding of the rules of the panel.
The Witness takes place on a large island, much of which is accessible from the very start. Like a gorgeously detailed version of Proteus, you view the island from a first-person perspective and walk around at a leisurely pace — though Blow was keen to drop hints that you may not actually be a person in this world. The panels are the only thing you can interact with on this island, but that’s not to say each puzzle is solved in isolation. Panels are grouped together in areas and your ability to solve the puzzles in an area depend on your capacity to understand how they relate to each other, how the different elements of each combine to introduce new lessons, and how the surrounding environment contributes to both. An early example features a panel depicting a line that forks multiple times, providing one starting point and eight possible end points. Stepping back from the panel you realise that it mirrors a nearby tree where one branch holds a solitary red apple. Thus the soloution sees you tracing a line to the matching fork on the panel.
The above examples may sound simplistic — and, indeed, the solutions are obvious once you know what they are — but Blow says he wants the player’s enjoyment of The Witness to come through that moment of epiphany. He says that shooters and other action games provide pleasure in terms of visual and aural feedback to your actions: successfully aiming the crosshair and pressing the mouse button rewards you with a satisfying death animation and sound effect, and perhaps a further reinforcement of a some loot or an XP boost. Blow says he wants the player to experience a similar — perhaps greater — sensation of pleasure when they realise something about how the world works and can then apply this understanding in solving a puzzle. Impressively, as Blow talked us through the process of arriving at the solutions to the puzzles he demonstrated, we were still able to experience that pleasure of understanding, of having our minds expanding to the possibilities inherent in the world of The Witness.
Blow is an articulate, intelligent developer. The Witness feels smart in the same way Braid felt smart. It feels like a game with a purpose, with a design razor-focused on its core elements. But as with Braid, you can’t help but feel there’s a lot more to it than what Blow is willing to discuss at present. The Witness is already an intriguing prospect and I can’t wait to peel back its layers to reveal what lies at the heart of its island.