Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Witness Preview

Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow, is not the type of developer to settle for anything less than great. His passion to create unique and engaging gameplay experiences is evident when you talk to him and is even more apparent when you play his games. He's a designer who wants to push and expand the medium in directions that haven't been explored, and it's difficult to play his games and leave without wanting answers to the dozens of questions that you're left with. An idea that began toward the tail end of Braid's development, The Witness is Blow's upcoming first-person exploration puzzle game that is similar to Myst in a way, at least, according to Blow, in terms of mood and feeling. You're stuck on this beautiful island alone, surrounded by clever puzzles, and you are the key in getting yourself out of there. There's no sign of life, but you'll find fascinating messages left on voice recorders by the person who designed the intricate network of puzzles on the island. We recently met up with Blow at his studio to play the game for a couple of hours, and even though the game had mostly placeholder graphics, sound, and acting, the simple gameplay and inventive puzzles were enough to keep us completely absorbed.
You begin the game in a dark corridor with nothing but a door ahead of you. As you make your approach to what appears to be a panel with a line on it, you'll quickly learn that when you press the A button, the frame freezes and you are given a cursor for interacting with the environment. This is all you will need to know to get around in The Witness. Blow talked about wanting to make a game about noticing things and keeping things as calm and as simply controlled as possible with minimal interactivity. All the puzzles in the game are presented by these blue panels, where you need to draw a white line from point A to point B to form the correct pattern. The first panel we came across was simple enough—there was only one path you could draw from left to right. By pressing A and tracing the unlit black line and pressing A again to activate it, the line turns green and the door opens. Generally when you solve a puzzle correctly, a click or an electrical hum indicates that something has opened and/or turned on. The line will display red if the input isn't correct, and there may be other indicators onscreen to give you clues. On the more complicated panels, white circles will blink, hinting at locations where you need to place the cursor and where it needs to go.
Once we were outside the sparsely decorated compound, we noticed some switches and several power lines that were connected to a locked gate. Here you're greeted with more panels, and while this was still considered a tutorial section, it didn't take long before we figured out how to power up and open the gate. Once it was open, the entire island was available for us to explore. There's no clear goal in the beginning, but as we walked down the dirt path, we came across a voice recorder that played a message from a man, possibly in his 30s, telling us that while we may not remember it, we came to this mysterious place of our own will, and the only way home is a puzzle. His voice was soothing and he reassured us that we were in no danger. In time we're sure that these messages will make more sense, but judging from the messages we did find, the content included a bit of social commentary and philosophical questions about what we do and why we do it. Other recordings delve into more personal topics about the man's receding hairline and his uneven facial features. All these pre-recorded entries are presented in a thoughtful manner, but we're still unsure of its purpose. Blow told us that each area of the island has its own theme that is represented by the puzzles as well as the story.
As we took our time exploring every nook and cranny, we noticed that the terrain changed quite a bit as we moved from one area to the next. The island itself isn't very big, but each area, from the dry stony ruins to well-manicured trees, has a distinct feel. Panels in each themed area are often lined up in a row, and your goal is to figure out how to activate them all in order, whether it's figuring out a pattern with hints onscreen or using your environment to guide you. Once the panels are activated, the structure that is associated with those puzzles will open, and you'll be rewarded with more voice recordings and eventually activate a beam of light that directs you toward another building on the island: your way out. You don't need to complete all of the areas to finish the game, however--only five out of the seven. Even so, we're told that this game will be much larger than Braid, offering more than 10 to 11 hours of gameplay. This is all relative, though, depending on how quickly you can decipher these puzzles.
The panel set up interesting because even though you're using the same mechanic of moving a line from point A to point B, there are multiple ways to approach each puzzle set. Some areas require that you pay close attention to your surroundings, whether it's a grove of trees, the perfectly-groomed maze you just walked through, or where the harsh sun is positioned. But there are some that are more intuitive, and once you figure out the pattern, they're a breeze to solve. It's rewarding when you do solve them, because the puzzles are extremely well designed, forcing you to think outside the box at times.
Like in Braid, when you feel stumped, it might be easier to move on to another set of panels, which will then help you revisit previous puzzles because you will have learned a new way of approaching the problem. In The Witness, there are what Blow calls "boss puzzles," and it would help to have solved the other puzzles in the area before you can make sense of the more complicated one before you. Unlike in traditional adventure games where you must find a key to open a door, Blow says that there is no inventory in The Witness, but there are key door puzzles to help you get through. "The key is in your head," he explained.
Another point that he made was that he wanted this to be a rich experience, with interesting exploration but in a smaller setting. He mentioned that big-budget shooter games hire an enormous art team, but most players run right past the art that was "painstakingly modeled." According to Blow, The Witness is the opposite. "Instead of running past, you have to notice it or you won't finish the game," he said. "This idea was interesting to me."
Even in the game's early stages with minimal music, sound, and placeholder art, touching up those features would only enhance the already engaging experience. The writing, the design, and the puzzles are the core experience of The Witness. It's unfortunate that the game is still at least a year away from release, because the game was tough to put down. But we're eager to keep track of Blow and his team's progress as they add the finishing touches to The Witness. No platform has been announced yet, but be sure to stay tuned.

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