The Witness Preview

We put our puzzle-solving skills to the test in Jonathan Blow's intriguing new adventure.

Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow, is not the type of developer to settle for anything less than great. His passion to create unique and engaging gameplay experiences is evident when you talk to him and is even more apparent when you play his games. He's a designer who wants to push and expand the medium in directions that haven't been explored, and it's difficult to play his games and leave without wanting answers to the dozens of questions that you're left with. An idea that began toward the tail end of Braid's development, The Witness is Blow's upcoming first-person exploration puzzle game that is similar to Myst in a way, at least, according to Blow, in terms of mood and feeling. You're stuck on this beautiful island alone, surrounded by clever puzzles, and you are the key in getting yourself out of there. There's no sign of life, but you'll find fascinating messages left on voice recorders by the person who designed the intricate network of puzzles on the island. We recently met up with Blow at his studio to play the game for a couple of hours, and even though the game had mostly placeholder graphics, sound, and acting, the simple gameplay and inventive puzzles were enough to keep us completely absorbed.

It's nice to just wander around and enjoy the view.

You begin the game in a dark corridor with nothing but a door ahead of you. As you make your approach to what appears to be a panel with a line on it, you'll quickly learn that when you press the A button, the frame freezes and you are given a cursor for interacting with the environment. This is all you will need to know to get around in The Witness. Blow talked about wanting to make a game about noticing things and keeping things as calm and as simply controlled as possible with minimal interactivity. All the puzzles in the game are presented by these blue panels, where you need to draw a white line from point A to point B to form the correct pattern. The first panel we came across was simple enough—there was only one path you could draw from left to right. By pressing A and tracing the unlit black line and pressing A again to activate it, the line turns green and the door opens. Generally when you solve a puzzle correctly, a click or an electrical hum indicates that something has opened and/or turned on. The line will display red if the input isn't correct, and there may be other indicators onscreen to give you clues. On the more complicated panels, white circles will blink, hinting at locations where you need to place the cursor and where it needs to go.

Once we were outside the sparsely decorated compound, we noticed some switches and several power lines that were connected to a locked gate. Here you're greeted with more panels, and while this was still considered a tutorial section, it didn't take long before we figured out how to power up and open the gate. Once it was open, the entire island was available for us to explore. There's no clear goal in the beginning, but as we walked down the dirt path, we came across a voice recorder that played a message from a man, possibly in his 30s, telling us that while we may not remember it, we came to this mysterious place of our own will, and the only way home is a puzzle. His voice was soothing and he reassured us that we were in no danger. In time we're sure that these messages will make more sense, but judging from the messages we did find, the content included a bit of social commentary and philosophical questions about what we do and why we do it. Other recordings delve into more personal topics about the man's receding hairline and his uneven facial features. All these pre-recorded entries are presented in a thoughtful manner, but we're still unsure of its purpose. Blow told us that each area of the island has its own theme that is represented by the puzzles as well as the story.

The answer is always in front of you.

As we took our time exploring every nook and cranny, we noticed that the terrain changed quite a bit as we moved from one area to the next. The island itself isn't very big, but each area, from the dry stony ruins to well-manicured trees, has a distinct feel. Panels in each themed area are often lined up in a row, and your goal is to figure out how to activate them all in order, whether it's figuring out a pattern with hints onscreen or using your environment to guide you. Once the panels are activated, the structure that is associated with those puzzles will open, and you'll be rewarded with more voice recordings and eventually activate a beam of light that directs you toward another building on the island: your way out. You don't need to complete all of the areas to finish the game, however--only five out of the seven. Even so, we're told that this game will be much larger than Braid, offering more than 10 to 11 hours of gameplay. This is all relative, though, depending on how quickly you can decipher these puzzles.

The panel set up interesting because even though you're using the same mechanic of moving a line from point A to point B, there are multiple ways to approach each puzzle set. Some areas require that you pay close attention to your surroundings, whether it's a grove of trees, the perfectly-groomed maze you just walked through, or where the harsh sun is positioned. But there are some that are more intuitive, and once you figure out the pattern, they're a breeze to solve. It's rewarding when you do solve them, because the puzzles are extremely well designed, forcing you to think outside the box at times.

Like in Braid, when you feel stumped, it might be easier to move on to another set of panels, which will then help you revisit previous puzzles because you will have learned a new way of approaching the problem. In The Witness, there are what Blow calls "boss puzzles," and it would help to have solved the other puzzles in the area before you can make sense of the more complicated one before you. Unlike in traditional adventure games where you must find a key to open a door, Blow says that there is no inventory in The Witness, but there are key door puzzles to help you get through. "The key is in your head," he explained.

Another point that he made was that he wanted this to be a rich experience, with interesting exploration but in a smaller setting. He mentioned that big-budget shooter games hire an enormous art team, but most players run right past the art that was "painstakingly modeled." According to Blow, The Witness is the opposite. "Instead of running past, you have to notice it or you won't finish the game," he said. "This idea was interesting to me."

The boat's on auto-pilot but it's a good way to see the island from another viewpoint.

Even in the game's early stages with minimal music, sound, and placeholder art, touching up those features would only enhance the already engaging experience. The writing, the design, and the puzzles are the core experience of The Witness. It's unfortunate that the game is still at least a year away from release, because the game was tough to put down. But we're eager to keep track of Blow and his team's progress as they add the finishing touches to The Witness. No platform has been announced yet, but be sure to stay tuned to GameSpot for additional coverage.

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Discussion

63 comments
Granpire
Granpire

@NewMeanings What does this game have to do with Minecraft?

NewMeanings
NewMeanings

This game was based on mine craft, but made more complicated. That's basically all it is.

Whitebloodsun
Whitebloodsun

hmm...i dont know why...but i always been drawn to this kind of game...must be my secret nature i think...

athenian29
athenian29

My Dad was - and remains - a huge fan of the Myst games, and he used those games to get me into gaming. I'm sure he and I both will love this game when it comes out - I can't wait! :D

Cantido
Cantido

@Ovirew Well Braid is a story about obsession and wanting what you can't have. Yes we are literally playing as Tim, yes there is a Princess, and yes Tim is a kidnapping jerkwad. All the stuff about children and alcoholics and atomic bombs are sidestories with the same theme.

grim0187
grim0187

Seems interesting, but I wanna see it without the placeholder graphics.

franzito
franzito

But the key is always in your head! ; ) Seems a great game.

keech
keech

@Ovirew In short, maybe sometimes things should be censored. But 90% of the time I would say no, and I never think something should be censored or restricted just because someone somewhere is going to have an over emotional reaction to it. You cannot squash someones freedom of speech and expression based on someone else's emotional state of mind. Censorship requires objectivity. If that hack Michael Moore can make a thinly veiled documentary about gun control based on the Columbine shooting without anyone batting an eye, then I fail to see why a game like that should be swept under the rug. As for the ending of Braid, there is more there than what's at face value. The game makes several subtle and direct references and quotes to The Manhattan Project. Leaving some to believe It's all a metaphor for the dangers of reckless ambition and progress without forethought. But honestly, trying to figure out what Braid is all about is like trying to make sense of the tv show Lost. Everyone has a different idea of what It's really about.

calvinx6
calvinx6

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

FarmFreshDX
FarmFreshDX

I'm glad to see some comments about Myst. Looking at the picture on the article, thumbnail, I could see four or five landmarks that were straight out of Myst Island. I loved Myst and still do (the novels were actually mind-blowing, even if you're not a fan of the game) so I hope this can get the same atmosphere and cleverness that made Myst so great. I will never, ever forget walking into Achenar's torture chambers and realizing that switch that lights the room up is actually electrifying a cage to torture people. That kind of isolation and discovery without having it forced on you is what makes these games great. I hope The Witness is the same, it'll have my money.

The_PS_Critic
The_PS_Critic

Myst was and still is a great game, I have it on my shelf right now, but the chances of me ever beating it are slim. Same goes for Riven, hopefully this game will change that trend.

lizzardman666
lizzardman666

This game is definitely inspired by Myst. Looking forward to it.

snugglebear
snugglebear

I'm addicted to 'room escape games" so I have a feeling I may be spending a lot of time playing this. Like someone said the other day, I'm not sure how I feel about all of the puzzles being centered solely around the panels, but I'm sure I won't much care when I'm in the middle of things.

Ovirew
Ovirew

@Cantido Just out of curiosity, how did you view the ending of Braid? I know a lot of people had these complex analogies for what the ending meant, but I pretty much took it at face value. I figured it was something like, the main character was a troubled alcoholic who was chasing after some girl and trying to force himself upon her, and throughout the game was slowly realizing he was making excuses for behavior and was really the one at fault. Am I wrong? Lol.

Ovirew
Ovirew

@keech Yeah I didn't remember all of the details. I guess it's not as bad that he was looking at it as more of a freedom of speech/independence thing... Like you know, "What if people start to censor what I do in my games because some people find it offensive?" I can understand it from a creative perspective. But at the same time, this Columbine game pretty much took a serious issue/event and turned it into one big joke. It had you killing characters named after real people that were murdered by their classmates. And Blow didn't want that censored. But don't you think, maybe sometimes, things need to be censored? If the person who made this game didn't base it off of Columbine, and used an original school with original characters and a similar situation, I might not be so wary over the whole issue. In fact in that case, maybe they could have used the game to show how other social issues led up to this kind of incident, and it could have been prevented. But the fact is, this is fiction based off of a real moment, something that really happened... And it gets a bit messy there.

ROMSES
ROMSES

Oh my) On the second screen there is a sign of Berserk mark)) Kentaro Miura will play it for sure , lol)

napalmburnz1
napalmburnz1

Im def. gonna follow this one. I have very fond memories of Myst, one of my favorites from long ago. Such a fun game when i was a kid.

Cantido
Cantido

I'm not buying anything from him until he explains Braid's ending! (I kid. Take my money!)

keech
keech

@Ovirew While you (mostly) have your facts right about Super Columbine Massacre, your post skewed the context entirely. Johnathan Blow and many other independent developers didn't say it was some amazing or groundbreaking game. They defended it because it was banned from being shown at an independent gaming festival. They felt it was wrong to censor it, especially given the nature of the festival.

lightwarrior179
lightwarrior179

Seems very much like Myst but looks like with Blow there will be a couple of clever ideas at hand. Hope it turns out to be an enjoyable adventure game that not only makes us revel in nostalgia but also turns into a memorable gaming experience as well.

dv_mrkn
dv_mrkn

looks really promising - puzzles are getting better and better!

warhawk-geeby
warhawk-geeby

@Phil-teh-Pirate I bought a pair of roller-blades last week.. And listened to 3 CD's of 80's anthems last night.. It's definitely time for Nostalgia!

Phil-teh-Pirate
Phil-teh-Pirate

First Person Point and Click adventure? Perhaps its time to dust off my 90's Adidas jogging bottoms and revel in some nostalgia.

Raykuza
Raykuza

I don't much care for Myst, but I love me some Jonathan Blow. I'll be sure to give this a try.

mrfidget
mrfidget

My impatience prevented me from ever getting far in Myst. I solemnly swear I will try even harder to beat this game. I believe in Jonathan Blow.

Lozzica
Lozzica moderator

I am so excited for this game!

LukePlayer
LukePlayer

Looks cool, will have to buy or rent this one. Now just use this engine to remake the MYST island XD.

Ovirew
Ovirew

@the_requiem that's exactly what I thought when I saw the picture, MYST. Looks nice, haven't played a game like that in a while. I think the only problem I have with this game is Johnathan Blow. Not so much because of him, I thought Braid was a decent game, but mainly because he and many other game developers supported Super Columbine Massacre (???) whatever, which was a game that satirized the Columbine shootings. The game was made in RPG Maker from my understanding, but the people you fought were actually named after real victims of the incident, and you played as the kids that went around shooting everyone. I just think it crossed a very big line, and that game's creator should have said, "You know, maybe this is a bad idea", but that little light in their head didn't flash. Blow and many other developers defended the game when it came under criticism because they felt it was a groundbreaking game or was artsy, or some crap. And simply because of that, I can't seem to like John Blow or really appreciate Braid anymore.

brok
brok

Looks good, but are the puzzles all going to be just on panels? I hope not.

the_requiem
the_requiem

Myst meets Portal... what is there not to love.

starduke
starduke

You go there of you're own free will, the key to get out is in your head, and you have to solve puzzles to get out. The voice recordings are of a dude possibly in his 30s with a soothing voice. Sounds like a new fangled looney bin, with you trying to do puzzles to get sane again.

KillerJuan77
KillerJuan77

Myst with easier puzzles and a lighter tone? ME WANT

ThePowerOfHAT
ThePowerOfHAT

Reminds me of good ol' Myst, except with a lighter tone. I'm loving this.

trick_man01
trick_man01

Don't know why, but the graphics remind me of Minecraft :S

magicalclick
magicalclick

graphics looks good. Hope the game is fun.

kvan33
kvan33

Sounds interesting, but I would hope the puzzles take more forms than just interactive panels

TechnologoDoom
TechnologoDoom

nice! this is the first real news i've heard of this game since it was announced and briefly demoed earlier this year. Blow is a heck of a dev!

YoBrandino
YoBrandino

First thing that came to mind when seeing the photos was Myst. Definetely looking forward to this!

THA-TODD-BEAST
THA-TODD-BEAST

This game is going to consume me just like Braid and Limbo. I can't wait!

AjaxNeron
AjaxNeron

I'm looking forward to this game now. :)

Scottisme
Scottisme

love the graphic style and i could do with a puzzle game to break up my usual games