Feature Article

I Spent 20 Hours Playing The Witness, Then Spoke to Jonathan Blow

No man is an island.

Until recently, demos of Jonathan Blow's new game were consigned to short demos. But as of today, The Witness has a Jan. 26, 2016 release date, and I had the chance to play a sizable chunk of this puzzle game's open world.

Blow last occupied the limelight in 2012, when the Canadian film Indie Game: The Movie examined the creative processes of independent game developers. Braid, the project that garnered Blow attention, released in 2008 to critical praise, reinforcing the Xbox Live Arcade as a home for independent titles and paving the way for Blow's next venture. Along came The Witness, which would take Blow more than six years to create.

"Turns out, that can be a long time," he told me recently. "Especially when you're making a game. You come out of that with questionable levels of sanity." Blow laughed.

As opposed to Braid, which many players completed in about five hours, The Witness is massive. Blow told me completionists can spend 80-100 before seeing everything the puzzle game has to offer.

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It takes place on an isolated, colorful island with glowing orange leaves, abandoned laboratories, overgrown churches and passageways frozen in time. A certain loneliness pervaded my time on this island, and I quickly recalled the mysterious Myst--Blow himself cited the 1991 title as a major inspiration for The Witness. In both games, the illusory nature of the setting is the biggest puzzle of all.

And this is a puzzle game, after all. It tasked me with solving panels, these innocuous screens covered in labyrinths of smooth lines. I completed them by moving glowing lines through the pathways, from point A to point B, with increasingly difficult patterns to figure out. They led me to more, and down the line, some will unlock doors, activate power lines, and result in a plethora of different transformations. There are over 667 of these panels, Blow told me. During my 20 hours, I solved 310. The Witness is hard.

"The game is sort of experimental," Blow said. "It's all about figuring out how we learn in games. The panels in The Witness are all doable right off the bat. But you won't necessarily know how to do that. There are no keys, and the fun is in gathering the knowledge you'll need to solve each one. Trust me, you'll find a lot of panels you can't solve right away." Blow asked me not to spoil any particular puzzles, or any revelations I might have had, and I agreed--these "Aha!" moments were the best part of my experience.

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To be clear, I was overwhelmed at first. I didn't think a puzzle game would be well suited for an open world, in which I'm free to travel at my own whims, in search of the next thing vying for my attention. But after 20 hours, I'm convinced a puzzle game can exist in this structure. Exploring revealed new panels, and therefore helped me progress through difficult areas elsewhere.

And much like in Myst, the mystery comes from your surroundings. And finally solving the mystery comes from gaining new perspectives, and considering things from new angles, across this sprawling island.

Blow said The Witness is his critique on open world games. Many modern variants make great use of this sprawling structure, but others simply put placeholders inside the world--collectibles, boring NPCs, fetch quests--in order to justify the size of the game.

"It's always refreshing when a game can lead you through the world in a meaningful way," he said. "It's always refreshing to know that the time you're spending in these worlds is worth something. In The Witness, the process of moving from place to place, and solving new panels that seemed impossible before, I think that's meaningful."

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This learning process was taxing for me, especially after extended play periods on the hushed island. Each series of panels presented me with a new challenge, and even the tutorial panels didn't tell me how to solve the problem outright, but only gave me contextual clues. I learned to manipulate colors, interpret Tetris-shaped block clues, and navigate my way through waist-high hedge mazes.

And the secrets of the place began unfolding before me. There's still so much I don't know, and still so many panels I couldn't solve. The Witness is a colossal game, not just in size, but also scope. It's downright difficult, but the more time I spent in it, the more confidence I came away with.

"The process of learning each panel, and unlearning what you thought you knew before, is what drives The Witness," Blow said. "I'm excited to see how people go about solving individual areas, and figuring out where it's all leading them. There's a lot to see, and exploring is as much of the process as the puzzles themselves."

The Witness releases early next year for PS4 and PC. Of the 20 hours I spent with it, most of them were mentally exhausting. But they were also rewarding, and I came away with a better understanding of the events surrounding me, and more knowledge as a result--a better set of tools. There's still so much I don't know about The Witness, and come January, I'm sure I'll return to figure it all out.

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mmahardy

Mike Mahardy

Writer and Host. New Yorker. Enthusiast of gin, cilantro, and rock and roll.

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