E3 2014: The Witness Hands-On Preview – Re-Invent the Wheel

Braid is a fantastic game, but its story is personal in ways that instill, for me, the slightest bit of nervous unease. When artists distribute their work to the masses, they’re essentially offering up a gift; one containing an intimate piece of their life, experience, or very existence and being. Though I always admire such offers, I occasionally find myself frozen and unable to accept — a deer caught in the unadulterated headlights of game-making as an artisanal craft. This is a phenomenon that, in its various forms, may very well be responsible for mountains of misinterpreted and misunderstood art throughout human history. And it’s ALL MY FAULT. But I digress.

Jonathan Blow’s new game The Witness aims to affect on more than just an emotional plane, and instead tackles nagging issues and limitations that have plagued adventure games since their inception. I had the chance to speak with Jonathan extensively about what that entails, but only after I being thoroughly engrossed in the game’s miniature open-world for the better part of 45 minutes.

The Witness begins in darkness, which leads to a larger enclosed space, which then leads to a wide open landscape just waiting to be explored. If you haven’t seen trailers or gameplay of The Witness before, the majority of its puzzles are based on tracing; essentially moving the joystick along engraved, pre-existing lines in order to solve puzzles. Upon escaping the initial enclosed area by linking a number of these puzzle panels together (thanks to a bread-crumb trail in the form of illuminated wires), I found myself wondering how fresh tracing puzzles could reasonably continue to feel over the course of a thirty-hour adventure. By the time I was done, I instead wondered if Thekla would include 200 hours worth had they been given the time.

The most unique thing about The Witness, for me, is the arrant freedom granted to the player. The game lacks not just a tutorial but any guided instruction at all, and as a result your subconscious detective skills begin to kick in whether you want them to or not. At one point I spent a substantial amount of time taking on a series of pink tracing puzzles, my mind focused on nothing but the single goal of completing them. When I’d reached the fifth panel of seven and still hadn’t figured out the “trick,” a novel thought occurred to me — “I don’t have to finish this right now.” I turned around, wandered through some tall grass, and before long I’d encountered new challenges, one of which opened that first gate blocking access to an entirely new area.

As you may have guessed, this was no coincidence; Jonathan told me that in a nonlinear system, providing plenty for the player to do is equally as important as simply providing a sandbox rife with knobs and levers. Not only that, but players need to see and feel the effects of their actions. This doesn’t mean solutions need to prevent themselves without challenge, but rather that there needs to be some indication of how puzzle elements affects the environment, and what ought to be tried next as a result. He noted that pulling a lever in Myst is cool because it’s liable to do anything, but its also incredibly overwhelming for the very same reason. If games were real life, I’d give up and wait to be rescued from most adventures after the first ten minutes. With The Witness, I actually get the sense that I really could find ways to learn, progress, and ultimately survive were its events to occur tomorrow, and that’s a level of satisfaction I’m not sure I knew videogames were ready to dish out.

After my and another attendee’s 45 or so minutes of fuddling, Jonathan took control and showed us some scenarios from later in the game. In one instance, trace puzzles were mounted against a wall with no apparent instruction on how to complete them. You could guess, sure, but you’d likely only a complete a few, and spend a whole lot of time doing it. Some exploration of a nearby building revealed what appeared to be decorative cutouts along some of its wooden inside walls. In actuality, the cutouts could be peered through, and used as a sort of stencil to perform a trace on the outdoor puzzle panels across the way. It was an incredibly clever puzzle implementation, and though I don’t think I’d have picked up on it if left to my own devices, I was assured that the knowledge needed to progress that far in the game would render me plenty prepared. I’m really, really hoping that prediction is correct.

The Witness still lacks a solid release date, but from the sound of things 2014 is a very real possibility. I’m not sure how I feel about a game like this throwing its weight into the holiday triple-A fray, and it may very well be that an early 2015 release serves its purposes a whole lot better. Regardless, I can’t seem to get The Witness out of my mind, and in a sea of non-playable demos and pre-rendered demonstrations at this year’s show, I can’t imagine feeling more refreshed than I did when I stepped out of Thekla Inc.’s humble back room. There’s always the chance I’ll freeze up again when offered something approaching what most folks call art, but considering what The Witness strives for on gaming’s most fundamental and (in my view) important levels, I have a feeling that I’ll be just fine.