According to Jonathan Blow, The Witness – his upcoming timed exclusive for PlayStation 4 – is “still indie, but kind of big for an indie”. With “about 14 people working on it,” it’s roughly 14 times the size of the team that worked on his last game: the time-manipulating indie sensation, Braid.
“I’m kind of surprised Sony has it in the theatre here,” says Blow of his latest game. “There’s no guns.” One could read this comment as yet another dig from the notorious dev towards the skew of the mainstream industry. But here it sounds more like an acknowledgement that The Witness is bereft of the frantic action typical of the attention-stealing games of E3. Rather, it’s an adventure/puzzle game that thrives on delivering a sense of ongoing achievement. “This game is for people who are interested in that feeling of fascination and discovery.”
[Please note that this preview contains some light spoilers – the game would be difficult to describe without them. -Ed]
“You begin in a tunnel and you’re told nothing,” begins Blow. “This is intentional and it’s constant. [The Witness] will never tell you anything verbally about how you’re supposed to solve a puzzle.” Instead, The Witness features a rich, bright and vibrant open-world island viewed from a first-person perspective, and players are free to explore it largely at their leisure.
Upon leaving the tunnel, one of the first things the player encounters is a door adorned with a panel. In fact, these panels are the primary way in which players interact with the world of The Witness. The first features a simple “trace” puzzle in which a line is traced from one point to another in order to open the door. Behind that door? Another door with another trace puzzle that’s ever-so-slightly more complicated. After that door, the player finally steps out into the open world of The Witness.
“We’re establishing a progression of getting you used to the idea that there’s these panels,” says Blow. “When you finish tracing this line, maybe it activates something.”
At this point, Blow points out that parts of the environments he’s about to show are at different levels of graphical fidelity, with some parts highly modelled and some not so much. This is not a typical demo prepared expressly for E3, says Blow, but quite literally, “the state of the game as it was when I left the office on Tuesday”. Despite one hard crash and one or two glitches during our demonstration, it’s an admirably honest approach to showcasing his upcoming work at E3.
Blow leaves the previous two doors behind and explores a little, only to encounter another panel. However, applying the same approach here doesn’t result in success. Fortunately, in a broken-down shed nearby are four panels that arithmetically reveal the secret pattern to solve the puzzles in this particular area. “Every one of these panels has an idea behind it,” continues Blow. “It’s a stream of communication, a stream of ideas. It raises questions in the player’s mind, and they answer them by experimenting with the puzzle.”
It’s an intriguing and very clever way of delivering the “key” to crack the codes of The Witness in a piecemeal fashion. Each progressive panel reveals something new about the solution without expressly telling the player how to do so, but each one might also pose new problems. In this instance, as Blow solves each panel, it becomes clear that the secret to this section’s puzzles is to trace a line through the grid that separates white dots from the black dots. With this “key,” the player is now ready to tackle the puzzles of this section, although new challenges just might complicate matters.
To illustrate the variety of puzzles on offer, Blow heads over to a forest area populated with bright-pink cherry-blossom trees. Naturally, there are a few panels scattered amongst the trees, this time featuring a branching pattern. When viewed up close, the panel features no obvious clues as to the solution of this puzzle. But Blow points out that after taking a step back from the panel, a tree bearing a similar branching pattern is framed in shot. Additionally, a single apple rests at the top of a particular branch. Tracing a line on the panel from the root of the pattern to where the apple sits on the corresponding tree results in success.
And yet this doesn’t mean that the player is necessarily equipped to solve the rest of the puzzles in this area, as each panel organically adds a further complication. For instance, one of the trees features branches that criss-cross. Another panel in an entirely different section features a “ghost” line that traces symmetrically alongside the one drawn by the player, and both must reach a destination. However, subsequent panels in this section aren’t symmetrical themselves, making things not so straightforward. “In tiny steps, we’re making it more and more complicated,” contends Blow, who advises that he designed around 900 such panels before settling on the 500 or so that will feature in the final build.
It becomes clear that often the environment holds the solution to certain puzzles. At another location – a Japanese-style garden – one puzzle is solved when an exterior pattern is viewed through a broken wooden panel from inside a hut. If a player fails a panel in this sequence, they must redo all of them; they must understand the secret in order to progress. “It’s a way that the game prevents you from brute-forcing answers,” says Blow.
Although each area features a somewhat linear progression, players can solve nine of The Witness’ 10 areas in any order, or even leave one partway through to begin another if they desire. Completing an area activates a laser that beams towards a particular point on a large structure in the middle of the island, and activating them all unlocks the end game.
The Witness does feature a story element delivered via collectibles and audio logs scattered or hidden around the island, but Blow intends to keep this close to his chest for the time being. He declines to respond to one journalist’s inquiry about the inspiration for the game, only offering that it’s deeply personal. He also implied that it just might be integral to the story.
Little could be gleaned about the audio from this build, particularly due to the booming noises bleeding into the theatre from all around us. But Blow did mention that The Witness’ audio comes courtesy of Wabi Sabi Sound audio director Andrew Lackey (the Dead Space series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3). It’s largely an ambient score that, according to Blow, includes an astounding number of footstep sounds – reportedly more than a typical AAA game. “There are no animal sounds in the game. There’s nothing living on this island except for you. There’s no music. There may end up being one musical track in a special [section].”
The PlayStation 4 controller’s touchpad functionality seems to be a good fit for The Witness, as it lends itself naturally to trace-heavy gameplay, but Blow is unsure if it will be incorporated at this point. “We’re going try it,” he says, admitting that the feature has not yet been coded or even attempted thus far. “We’re going to see how it works. It might feel good; it might not feel good.”
Either way, given this first glimpse it seems that Blow is well on his way to achieving what he has set out to achieve with The Witness. It’s hard to think of another game on the showroom floor as uniquely interesting as this one, and as such, it’s this writer’s personal favourite of E3 2013.