Since the critical success of Braid in 2008, Jonathan Blow has been working on a new game, one that provides a new way for players to experience games. The Witness is one of the most challenging games to accurately describe without missing everything that it is about. This is mostly because it is a game at its purest form, about the player’s true sense of discovery, and that is rare in games these days.
It’s difficult to describe what The Witness actually is without sounding totally crazy: The Witness is a first-person puzzle game in which the player must solve puzzles on touchscreen-like terminals scattered throughout a mysterious island. As soon as the player starts, they find themselves at the furthest end of a dark hall. With no instruction or prompting, the only thing to do is to move toward the light.
As the light draws closer, it becomes apparent that it is coming in through the room’s surrounding windows; a single door standing between the player and a rich, plush world filled with flowers and beauty. However, a simple puzzle locks the door; one that requires the player to simply guide a dot in a straight line to unlock the door to the outside world.
Finding a way around this newly discovered environment is up to the player; no quests are given. It’s a matter of figuring out what you are supposed to do, by doing what you might actually do in real-life. There’s a lit power cable on the ground, and if the player follows it, they’ll find a generator with a switch that de-engergizes one of the beams on a gate locking them inside the building’s yard. They then make the connection that they need to follow the other power cables and turn on those generators as well.
At this point, there still hasn’t been one instance where the game has prompted the player. No one is telling them to do this, but they somehow come to the conclusion that they need to. Everything has relied on how the player deemed fit to handle the situation at hand. This isn’t something that you usually see in games. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as simple as ‘Solve this puzzle by forming a line from the starting point to the ending point,’ it doesn’t happen in The Witness; the player is trusted to figure it out on their own.
It seems odd for there to be such a strong focus put on narrative in a game that insists on leaving the player alone, but the extremely personal beat that the story hits really drives home the situation. The player stumbles across tape recorders left throughout the environment for them, but unlike most audio logs in games, this isn’t some memory of the past; these recordings are directed straight at the player.
The first one says something along the lines of, “Hi, I’m sure you’re very confused about where you are and why you’re here. That’s okay though, you’ll find out in time. I want you to know that I care about you more than you know and want you to succeed. You aren’t in any rush, so slow down and enjoy your time here.” It isn’t a common occurrence to have the game speak directly to the player in a manner as such.
This recording made it clear that this person knew the player and knew why they were here. It left all sorts of questions circling but also offered a resolution to some of these questions, ending the message with, “Should you wish to know a bit more about me, you can find another one of these behind that set of trees over there.” This is where it starts to depend on the play style of the player and even what kind of person they are. While one player might want to find out everything that they can about this mysterious voice, others might let it sit, leaving things to unravel in due time. It’s all up to the player how they go about the world.
As the game continues to progress, Blow continues to introduce more difficult and complicated mechanics, but does so in a way that the player doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Each new mechanic is introduced in incrementally difficult puzzles that, while they may be solvable by just trying every single option until one works, leave the player wondering, “That worked, but why did that work?” and trying to find a logical solution before moving on to the next puzzle.
It provides the player with a weird sense of accomplishment almost to where they know they did the right thing, but they don’t completely understand why what they did was right. Most developers shy away from this style of rewarding players, because it often feels flat and doesn’t have as high of a sense of accomplishment that many players expect, but Blow banks on it, compelling the player to continue.
Jonathan Blow attacks one of the biggest shortcomings of the gaming industry head-on with The Witness: the lack of creativity and the fear of how players will react. Instead, he boils it down the most simple aspects of gaming: the player’s feelings. The idea that a developer has the confidence that not only will the player be able to understand the game’s mechanics but figure them out on their own is extremely refreshing and should be commended. Blow insists that The Witness will come out “when it’s finished” but said that we won’t have to wait any more than another year at the latest.