Unattended, unlabelled, unmarked... the new game from the small team led by Braid creator Jonathon Blow was stealthily present at the Penny Arcade Expo this weekend. The adventurous - and those who recognised Blow standing off in the shadows - got a delightful surprise.
All I knew of The Witness before spotting it in the same booth that housed Spy Party and Monaco was that it was being made by Blow and a handful of other game creators, that it involves an island - it's "an exploration-puzzle game on an uninhabited island" - and has gorgeous lighting.
In other words, I knew just about nothing about The Witness. I didn't need to in order to want to play it. Blow and David Hellman's subtle time-bending Braid was the kind of scrupulously designed video game that earns its creators a player's long-term trust.
The version of The Witness at PAX is far from finished. The game will be complete a year from now at earliest, Blow told me once I got done playing and found him so we could discuss. He cautioned me that I was seeing a lot of "programmer art". This was the game's first showing in public, its puzzles still far from complete and refined. It was being presented in a manner intentionally detached from any references that might hype the Braid connection and bias its players. Blow wanted to see from afar what people made of their first touch of this game.
What I could make of The Witness is about as much as you can, watching it here in this two-part video I shot at PAX. The Witness seems to be a quiet game set on a lovely landscape landmarked with puzzles. I played it with an Xbox 360 controller, witnessing the island in first person. Many of the puzzles I found involved using the controller to draw routes on blue squares that were set vertically on posts at the level of museum paintings, trying to inscribe the proper pattern that would solve the challenge and possibly lead to a new one. The puzzles were not just in the posted squares, but in the more natural environment. One of the earliest challenges, seen partially in the video here, involves figuring out how three wires or tubes, all connected to a locked gate, can be electrified in order to progress. Trying to solve this, you wind up looking behind trees and bushes and over a roof. You find clues that lead to new mysteries that lead to solutions of their own. Early, it is clear that this is a game for the patient, the unflustered and the observant.
From my brief conversation with Blow about the game, I heard a confirmation of my own sensation that this is a game about discovery. The pace of the game seems to be that of a gradual dawning. You stroll in first-person view. You look at beautiful or intriguing things - a windmill in the distance, a figure that look like a man or a statue of one - and you approach. There appears, in so many places, puzzling things. You ponder them. You try to solve them. You're given no instruction and no order, not in the PAX version, what to do next. You try to make sense of it. You play.
Blow didn't bristle when I told him that the game made me think of Myst. But I suspect that if The Witness is as much Myst as Braid was Super Mario Bros, then it can still be something very special.