The Witness is a beautiful, expressive game, but Jonathan Blow is keeping its secrets firmly hidden
The Witness is about secrets. In a behind-closed-doors demonstration, the game's creator, Jonathan Blow, showed journalists why The Witness's approach to secrets is brilliant, but in doing so may have turned The Witness into the most boring game of E3.
It's a beautiful game, and it's been in development for years by one of the most intelligent and interesting designers currently working. So there's a certain amount of trust in Jonathan Blow at this point. I have faith that he wouldn't be here if he didn't have something amazing in his back pocket, that he wouldn't have grown his game studio from one employee to 14 if he didn't truly believe in this game.
But the interesting thing about a Jonathan Blow game is that you can't talk about most of what makes a Jonathan Blow game interesting.
Death to tutorials
For forty minutes at Sony's booth I watched Blow explain how The Witness is going to get rid of tutorials forever. The game is meant to communicate everything the player needs to know without ever using spoken words or text to convey instructions. The environment itself will teach you.
“So we take a much different approach to tutorial than a lot of people,” said Blow in his presentation. “This is how the game starts, you're just in a tunnel, it doesn't tell you anything. You don't know who you are, you don't know why you're here.”
What followed was a long-winded walkthrough of probably the first hour of gameplay. Blow explained how every mechanic in the game will be explained non-verbally. It's more difficult than it probably sounds. It's pretty much the holy grail of game design: to create a game that speaks entirely for itself while communicating with the player effortlessly.
“Part of the agenda of this game is to be about a long series of unfolding secrets,” said Blow. “Secrets feel more magical and mysterious when you feel like you're exploring them, rather than the game feeling like it's dropping you hints and telling you what to do next all the time. So the aesthetic of the game is that everything is computed non-verbally. And that's what makes the puzzles interesting.”
Blow walks us around the island, and shows us that most of the puzzles in the game are solved on little maze panels. They look like small touch screen kiosks at the airport or the mall. You walk up to them, and attempt to solve the maze-riddle by drawing a line through increasingly complex puzzles.
As they get more complex, the puzzles begin to tie themselves into the environment. In one example, the solution to a complex puzzle was diagrammed in the shape of the tree that was right behind the panel. In another, the player could look at a panel outside of a house through a specific broken window, and the window's shape revealed the correct answer.
“What is really going on here, which we never really say, is that we're trying to teach the player that this is the type of game where you want to be aware of your surroundings,” said Blow.
It's a fascinating topic, and there's an incredible amount of design savvy and psychology that goes into understanding how to talk to the player using only a series of puzzles and environments.
We're not talking about that today
After twenty five minutes or so I was sold that The Witness is doing some brilliant things with its design, and that it is a calculated and intelligent approach to designing a modern adventure-puzzle game. Hopefully, it's approach will help lessen some of the frustration that has plagued the genre for casual players.
I came away with the understanding that Jonathan Blow really knows his stuff, but at the same time I was left with very little reason to be excited about The Witness. Few people have ever purchased a game because of its approach to tutorials, however brilliant.
The problem was that Sony and Blow weren't willing to talk about anything that actually made The Witness interesting.
The entire game is a secret, and that means that any hints at those secrets or any spoilers ruin part of the game. It might also weaken the critical conversation about the game after it is released, impacting sales. So when Blow was asked about the game's title, he declined to answer. And when he was asked about the story, he refused to offer any details of any kind, not even a barebones “here's the setup” explanation. When I asked what had inspired him to want to make a game about secrets, he declined again.
He just chuckled and said, “This is a many layered and complex game, and the original vision around what's so great about this game and what made me want to make it… I haven't shown yet. I don't want it to be spoiled because I want players to have that experience. There are things about this game that we haven't disclosed and we're not going to disclose that will only be discovered when players play for the first time. So we're not shooting all of our bullets here. But it has to do with the general themes of the game about being aware of your surroundings and understanding what's going on.”
A Jonathan Blow game is a work of art, and The Witness is a visually beautiful game with equally beautiful design. But I find myself feeling like I'm at an art gallery preview with a painter who not only refuses to show the paintings, but is intent on giving us an in-depth explanation of the brush strokes that were used.
For better or worse, even after 40 minutes with Jonathan Blow, The Witness is still about secrets.
The Witness is in development for PC, iOS, and PlayStation 4, and is being planned for release in early 2014.