The Witness' presence on the PlayStation 4 is a coup for Sony – few independent games are as highly anticipated, given that the game is coming from acclaimed Braid designer Jonathan Blow. Blow showed off an extended demo of The Witness to press at E3, and I came away more eager than ever to dive into the game's vibrant island and its many elusive puzzles. Five features stood out as being central to understanding the nature of the project.
Blow began his conversation by discussing the importance of non-verbal communication with players of The Witness. Throughout the game, Blow and his team have gone out of their way to find ways in the environment, puzzles, and pace of the game to communicate clearly without the need for words. For instance, many areas of the game include puzzles that don't actually unlock or change anything in the game world. Instead, these puzzles are built to teach a concept to be used later. In one collection of puzzles, learning the nature of colored white and black blocks and how to move between them is a necessary trick before tackling a more complicated structure that uses the same puzzle mechanic in combination with other systems learned in other locations.
Open Game Structure
The Witness is entirely set on an island, and that island is split into ten themed areas. The size of each of these areas is different, and there are a different number of puzzles to find in each. Some areas have branching paths, such as a castle area with two distinct puzzle collection that each lead to its conclusion – only one path needs to be completed to progress.
However you get to the end of an area, you'll light up a beam of light that shoots out toward a mountain at one end of the island. Once seven beams of light shoot up to the mountaintop, players can proceed to the end game by climbing to the top and completing one last puzzle. Complete all ten areas/light beams, and Blow promises a special ending surprise.
Similar Puzzles, Dizzying Variety
All of the puzzles Blow showed off during the E3 demo involved the tracing of a line through some sort of maze, but it's remarkable how much variety exists within this simple structure. In one area, the correct line to trace can only be determined by observing the environment and looking at the shape of tree branches in the nearby forest. In another area, whenever the player traces one line, a second matching line is drawn at the same time, so a path to the maze's conclusion must work for both paired and symmetrical lines.
Puzzles vary in complexity and expected time to completion, but each is designed to make the player think in a new way.
Two Story Threads
While Blow didn't show off any of the narrative elements of The Witness during his demo, he assured us that they are still a big part of the game. Throughout the island, players find audio logs that remain behind from those who were here on the island before the player. By listening to these optional audio logs, you can unravel the mystery of the island and why it is the way it is. Blow describes the game as having two distinct and largely independent narrative tracks – the one illuminated through the audio logs, and the more abstract narrative communicated through the puzzles. However, learning about both the puzzles and the island's background helps to tie the experience together into a unified whole.
A Beautiful Island
While the central gameplay loop of The Witness is all about puzzles, the beauty of its setting can't be ignored. The strange island upon which players wander is filled with strange sights, striking architecture, and colorful flower gardens. The art walks a fine line between hyper-colorful realism and a watercolor aesthetic. The latter becomes more prominent the more distant you are from an object, lending the view a dreamy, cloudlike quality. The bright greens of the trees and deep blue of the sky makes for a breathtaking combination, and the many nooks and crannies of the island assure that The Witness should be a fascinating and attractive open world to explore.
For more on The Witness, check out Jonathan Blow's video discussion of the game and the benefits of independent development.