Jonathan Blow is betting $2.5 million you’ll like The Witness as much as Braid
“I hope that what I’ve done here will prove meaningful in some tiny, unusual way. Now it’s your turn to be here,” the voice told me. “There’s no way for you to remember this, but you chose to come here, of your own free will. This is one way off the island, and what it is, is a puzzle.” The Witness is Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to the successful and popular Braid. My demo of The Witness began in a corridor, with a wall at my character’s back. I could only move forward, and then I was presented with a simple puzzle to open a door. The game’s mechanics are taught to the player in a seamless, welcoming manner. The first 20 minutes of the game were a carefully choreographed dance that taught me everything I needed to know. This grasp of design is why people listen when Jonathan Blow speaks. I was given about 30 minutes to play the game. Blow himself left the room while I explored the island. “Games are funny. Especially puzzle games,” he told me. “The psychology of puzzle games is that it works way better when people are not being watched while they play.” It took Blow a few demos before he worked this out, and now he finds it uncomfortable to be in the same room with the players. “When someone is sitting in front of a puzzle, they’re trying to figure it out, and before they’re even thinking about the puzzle there are mechanisms going on their head about being watched by other people,” he explained. “If it’s an action game it’s not that big of a deal, but if it’s about how smart someone is? It’s like an evaluation of them as a human being.” Jonathan Blow is a very intense person, and I had the sense that he doesn't leave much to chance. I asked him why I was playing the game on a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, and he told me that it made it easier to leave the computer on the table, instead of moving it to the desk to improve ergonomics when playing using traditional PC controls. He also pointed out that with a controller I could have full control of the game and he still had access to developer commands on the keyboard. Then he asked me if I preferred to play with an inverted control scheme. Imagine speaking with a version of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory with about 5 extra points in Charisma.
The game is both a work of passion, and a huge risk
Blow began designing The Witness before he was finished with Braid, but the idea was thrown away. He thought it was too ambitious to do a full 3D, first-person game with decent graphics after the hand-drawn look and aesthetic of Braid. He was also afraid of blowing all the money he saved up, and having to get a real job. He actually shuddered when he described the act of working on a game he didn't control. Blow spent six or seven months building prototypes for other games, but The Witness was always in the back of his mind. Finally he decided to hire a team, he put his Braid money to work creating the game he was passionate about, and here we are. The game takes place on a mysterious island, and you’re free to explore and solve puzzles at your own pace. The game’s world is internally consistent, and does a wonderful job of teaching you the skills and thinking strategies you’ll need to succeed. When you find a puzzle, you will know that you found a puzzle. Often the difficulty will go up in an incremental fashion, and then you’ll find larger puzzles that will require you to use what you’ve learned in past puzzles to find the solution. If you think of each small puzzle as a minion, and the larger puzzles as a boss, you have the right idea. If you become frustrated, you can wander off and try something else. The island is a calm, inviting place. Who wouldn't want to spend a few hours in the sun, thinking their way through logic problems? You may be trying to escape the island in the game, but it also feels as if players will be escaping to the island during their time with the game. Blow said the game will last around 10 and 20 hours, compared to Braid’s four or five. This game will have a much more concrete story, and much of that story will be delivered via recorders scattered around the island, such as the one quoted at the beginning of the story. Blow looked down on audio logs from other games that sometimes gave you key codes or directions to hidden weapons lockers, as if players needed a reason to listen to each one. “If they’re good, shouldn’t you want to listen… because they’re good?” he asked me, as if wondering if he’s insane. You should listen to the audio exposition because it’s a rewarding part of the game, not in hopes of being told a secret. I tried many puzzles during my time with the game, and each one proved clever and enjoyable. Wrapping them in the mystery of the island and the question of why you’re there gives you even more reason to explore and continue to move forward. After he returned to the room, I asked Blow about people looking up walkthroughs and ruining the game for themselves. “I’ve thought about doing counter-measures to that. Some of these puzzles, I could program in variants or change the position of certain items. The wiki would have to account for all the different versions,” he said. “Maybe it changes things once per computer depending on your IP address. I’ve thought about this, but I’m probably not going to do it. You can’t keep people from ruining things for themselves.” The game, based on what I had played, was brilliant. It’s also very different than anything else that has been considered a success in the market. The best you could say is that it’s a mixture of Professor Layton and Lost, but even that doesn’t really match the tone of the game. I’ve been vague in my descriptions, but that’s only to keep as much of what happens a surprise when you play the game for yourself. The exploration and sense of isolation both work together to create the mood; too many details could hurt the experience. Blow may have name recognition among indie gamers, but that could work against him with the release of The Witness. It's possible he'll have to overcome fan expectations, not use them as a marketing tool. The game looks and plays nothing like his previous hit, and the budget is much larger. “I don’t know what the budget is, and in order to keep myself sane I don’t look,” Blow said. “It’s all the money I made off Braid. $2.5 million. Maybe $3 million, I don’t know. It depends on how long it takes.” This isn’t just another release for Blow, this is a developer going all in with the money he made on his previous project. He won’t have to explain to investors what went wrong if the game tanks, he’ll simply be left with nothing in the bank. It’s a huge risk, but Blow seems unconcerned with financial success, at least outwardly. “I’m trying to make the best game that I’m able to make, and hoping that practical matters like getting enough people to buy it will sort themselves out,” he said. Another reporter is on the way, so I left to go to my next appointment. Part of my brain is still on the island, however, working on puzzles. Back in the hotel room, Jonathan Blow is explaining the game to another writer before leaving the room.