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Bearing Witness

August 8, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Gamasutra travels to Jonathan Blow's studio to take a look at The Witness and discuss the development of the game, in a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from design to business considerations.]

Braid. Though it was far from the first title to hit the service, it defined the Xbox Live Arcade game: original, thoughtful, and fundamentally unlike anything shipped on a disc.

It also defined the dream of the independent developer. It went on to be a tremendous success -- winning awards, moving to other platforms, and in the process of both, selling so many copies that developer Jonathan Blow has been able to assemble a small team to pursue the multi-year development of his latest title, The Witness.

The Witness is completely funded (at a budget Blow estimates at 2 million dollars) by Braid's success. It will be finished when Blow says it is, and has no firm target for release, no publisher, and no announced platforms.

Recently, Gamasutra was invited to Blow's new studio in Berkeley, California to play The Witness (on a Windows PC) and speak with Blow about development of the game.

Understanding The Witness

Unlike Braid, The Witness is a 3D adventure game, though it shares with its predecessor a fixation on challenging puzzles. It's also already -- even though it's far from finished -- quite atmospheric, a quality Blow says is "important" to him.

The game begins in a small room. A locked door has a blue panel on it; to open it, you solve a very simple puzzle by tracing a white line across the panel. Exit into a yard behind the building, and you'll have to solve three more to escape. At this point, the player is confronted with a large island covered in trees, small structures, and puzzle panels of varying complexity, all mazes of white lines on blue panels.

All of the game's puzzles are confined to these panels; you explore the island, where they dot the landscape, and solve them one-by-one. Some unlock doors, others power machinery, and some serve no purpose beyond teaching you how to solve more challenging puzzles. Every structure in The Witness has these panels in, on, or near it.

Changing rules, introduced gradually, force the player to make mental hops from concept to concept, gradually learning to think in different ways. Though the two games are quite different, you can tell that the mind behind Braid designed this game.

Though Blow doesn't like a lot of what the mainstream industry does with games -- as you'll soon read -- he does like how it makes core gameplay clear. It's one thing that he's taking from the FPS genre and applying to his adventure game.

While classic adventure games could be incredibly confusing, unintuitive, and ambiguous, The Witness stays readable. "As soon as you see [a panel], you know what it is," says Blow. "It's like, 'That is a puzzle, I know that. There's no ambiguity. I know that's a puzzle, I know how to solve it in general, I know I'm going to start tracing at one of the circles and go to one of the exits."

All the same, he says, "The point of the game is not really to have puzzles, which is going to sound stupid because this is a game full of puzzles, right? The point -- what the puzzles are about -- is each of these communicates a little thing." When Blow designs the game world, he says, "I actually sit there without necessarily designing puzzles at first; I just explore what the possibilities are. And then the puzzles are ways of illustrating those, or communicating those."

The Genesis

So what led Blow to follow up Braid with The Witness? The ideas for some of the panel puzzles came first, he says. In particular, two, which both have clues in objects that populate the world: apple trees and carved walls. "That was originally the concept for the game, and then I decided, well, I need to build more of a system, instead of a bunch of one-off random stuff." A world began to take shape.

That, then, had a natural consequence, says Blow: build a world, and you need more puzzles. "Eventually, I started adding the more logic-oriented puzzles too, and it makes a pretty interesting dichotomy between things. And the fact that it's located on an island -- it's just one of those things I knew as soon as I thought of the game. It just makes sense, in a lot of ways," he says.

The background of the character the player inhabits is unclear. The story is filled in by recordings in much the same style as BioShock's audio logs. A friendly-sounding narrator tells the player that it's natural that they don't remember coming to the island -- but not to fear, as they chose to be here.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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