Two Hours With Jonathan Blow's The Witness

The last time I'd been to the island, it didn't make sense to me. I had exited a building that had birthed my presence into the island's sun splashed terrain. I'd confronted some blue panels in the manner a driver confronts a stop sign.

The panels were signs I didn't know how to read. They were puzzles, I guess, but they seemed too simple to be anything other than a trick. They let me trace a line into a maze, using an Xbox 360 controller wired to the PC I saw this island on, from a beginning point to end point.

I left the island last September. My visit had only lasted a few minutes.

I returned to the island last week.

The island looks better now, still drenched in bright light, still verdant and covered with uninhabited buildings. A visit to the island still begins in a building, still starts with an exit through a door adorned with a puzzle that seems too simple to have been included by the video game designer who put it there. I see this island entirely in first person.

I have video of my last visit to the island, video I shot in Seattle when it was still secret who made this place. I can compare the sites and show you the confounding simplicity I first encountered.

The blue panels were the key to the game, the man who led the making of the island would later tell me. But he told me almost nothing while I fiddled with them last week. He let me be, except for one moment, for close to two hours. He let me explore the island on my own.

My video from last year confirms the truth that the blue panels are locks and that my manipulation of the puzzles on them is the turning of keys. No one gives me the keys, because the keys on this island are ideas — methods for solving puzzles. You don't pick them up; you ascertain them.

On the island last week, having exited the building into a gated courtyard, I traced paths on the blue panels. Each panel was a grid maze. I could draw a line into them. I connected the grids' starting nodes with their terminal nodes. I did this with the confidence of an adult solving a connect-the-dots puzzle that contains four dots. Each panel puzzle was a little more complex than the one before, so maybe the last one was more of a seven-number connect-the-dots. Each appeared to transfer more energy into power lines that led to a locked door. Solving all the puzzles opened the door. This was interestingly non-verbal but all too easy. Minor intuition conquered minor confusion to yield the minor prize of the door in the gate outside the building opening up. I stepped outside into the larger expanse of the island, wondering what the point of this was.

The Witness is the new game from Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid. It comes with high expectations, given the critical and commercial success of that previous indie. Blow describes The Witness as a game about seeing, about how perception changes over time, how there are things we don't see even though they are in front of us. He describes it as a game about the senses, more specifically about "the senses as a gateway to understanding the universe." It's planned for PC and at least one console and is at least a year away from completion. There is much more to be written about The Witness. Look for an interview with Blow here on Kotaku later this week.

The first thing I imagine anyone will notice when they get beyond the courtyard door is a large white windmill painted with a few bold red lines. It stands near a small lake in a cradle formed by hills and boxy buildings that the maker of the island says will be replaced by things that look like real architecture in the year or so that remains in crafting this place. The windmill must be there for a reason. So too must each building, though perhaps the placement of each tree doesn't carry the same import. Those are the rules in video games. Buildings and windmills tend to matter; trees, not really. What also matters is recording devices on pedestals, one of which stands on the path right outside the courtyard gate. Activating it triggers the voice of a man, who pleasantly acknowledges that the introduction of a narrator like him is often construed as the precursor to a coming betrayal. But he says we're safe. He encourages us to take time to explore. He's the first hint that there is a story to this island.

Exploring is what I do on this island. I spy a row of blue panels on a small hill and walk over to solve them. They are more complex. So too are ones under a gazebo that increase in difficulty to the point where I can't complete them. My confidence is peeled away, leaving worry that I'm already stumped in a video game whose purpose I don't understand.

The rows of puzzles each introduce a new idea. Simple tracing was just the idea of the first, simplest puzzles outside the first building. These new batches of puzzles wordlessly introduce new problems that require new strategies. For example, one set looks like a series of mazes, similar to the first batch, except they contain dark spots at some of the maze's elbows, each of which needs to be traced through before the panel fizzes an affirmative sound and allows the next in the row to be solved. Another series introduces tokens that sit inside the squares defined by a maze grid. The intuitive puzzle solver will eventually deduce that they require that the line being traced in the grid pass by them in a specific manner. Within each series of puzzles, the basic idea is twisted from puzzle to puzzle. Perhaps, to give one basic example, the idea of multiple possible starting points is introduced, leaving the solver to figure out which is the best one.

When I solved the first row of puzzles, I received a reward: the courtyard door unlocked. When I solve the puzzles on the hill, I appear to receive no reward. I hear no chime; I'm handed no bauble. I am disappointed and the thought briefly flashes through my brain that my time has been wasted by the maker of the island. When I'm stumped by the final puzzle in the series under the gazebo, I begin to feel stressed.

I don't know what to do.

So I wander.

I walk along a path, past the windmill, toward a hill. I climb it and find another simple puzzle, a blue panel on its own that begs to be inscribed with a simple "s". That's all it is, though I later make a connection that the maker of the island asks me to keep secret. At the time, I'm perplexed.

I wander some more, past a castle tower and down along the frustrating outside of a green hedge maze that appears to be joined by a yellow one that I also can't access. I find a blue panel that appears to be 20 times more complex than any other I've seen. It is marked by some symbols I've seen and others that look alien. This is when my inflating confusion is punctured by the happy pin of epiphany. These puzzles are teaching me a language, a grammar for solving problems. This 20-times-more-complex puzzle I've found is a Pynchon paragraph, only half of whose words I understand. The game of this island assembles in my brain. I'm here to learn the nouns and verbs of simple puzzles to solve more complex ones.

I know what this game is now. Excited, I wheel around and enter a building. I solve much tougher puzzles in this building. In the midst of this, the maker of the island comes into the room that runs the computer through which I've accessing this place. He remarks with surprise that I'm in an advanced place. I get the sense I'm not supposed to be there. That makes me want to stay. In this building I learn new puzzle ideas. I learn what to do when the token icons in a blue-panel puzzle grid are different colours. I learn what a starburst icon appearing in a puzzle means. I learn the deviousness of puzzles that combine some of the simple codes I've learned to present much tougher problems of puzzle translation. I do something in the building that becomes the second secret I'm asked to keep.

I leave the advanced building with new confidence. Soon I encounter what I later learn are some of the island-maker's favourite puzzles. There are just three of them in the series he and I will later describe as the shadow puzzles. The first is a trace-able grid maze that introduces the trick of having to have its maze traced in a path that doesn't intersect the shadow being cast on it by sun shining through tree branches overhead. The second puzzle is the same but seems impossible due to a large blotch of shadow on the lower half of the puzzle. But it only seems impossible until I give up, back away and realise that my body in this world created the blotchy bottom of the shadow. The third introduces another complication with shadow. The designer likes this puzzle — as well as a series involving apples in trees — because they involve something other than logic or brute force... they require patient observation and intuition. They have a different magic to them.

I get myself to a beach where I find a puzzle panel that isn't blue. It appears to be composed of clear glass. I'm not sure why. I find another audio recording and listen to that pleasant man speak in depth about how he feels about his face, how he changed his mind about the relevance of looks. He ends his soliloquy by thanking his face "for helping me to practice seeing." I don't understand the man's purpose, but I'm told that there is a reason he has arranged for my island self to be on this island solving puzzles. Near the beech I find an elevated platform. On it, I solve increasingly devious panel puzzles. I need to sketch their solutions in a notebook to aid me.

A year ago when I went to this island, I could not help but think of Myst, the massively successful game of quiet puzzles on an exotic island that was a mainstream hit decades ago and an inspiration for bad copies and perhaps no great successors. I did not understand why the man who, with a team, made this island and who had made Braid, a sort of Super Mario Bros. with vexing time manipulation, to put it too crudely, would waste time making a modern Myst. But back when I was solving the shadow puzzles last week, I drifted to a new comparison: Metroid. That Nintendo classic, which the maker of the island has played little of, was also about observation, about piling up a memory of unsolved conundrums, harbouring the patience to pass them by, then discovering, much later, the missile or the freeze beam that suddenly would make obvious how the old conundrums could be solved. In Metroid I improved by arming my heroine, doubling back and blasting the previously unblastable barriers. On this island, my upgrades were in my brain. I improved by becoming better at seeing and thinking about what I could see. My new powers were my new thoughts, my new vocabulary.

My second visit to the island ended in about two hours, though I didn't want it to. I'm told I could have stayed in it for more than 10, that there are hundreds of blue panels to solve, piles of ideas that coalesce into a new language of seeing and solving. The plot has a point. The puzzles have a purpose. Much work still has to be done in this place, but it is a wonderful land to visit where there is a new language to learn for reasons we'll figure out together, I think, the next time we visit.


    very interesting

    Now this is pretty exciting. While I never finished Myst, I LOVED the atmosphere, and I'm getting a very similar vibe from this too.

    Sounds like a cool idea. Can't wait to give it a spin.

    I wish more games had the sense of atmosphere and mystery and awe that the original MYST had. I've beaten the game 3 times over the years and the island from MYST still evokes those feelings for me.
    Going forward I think that's the sort of feeling and experience that should and will make games unique and set apart from other forms of media. It's something that no other art medium can really hit in quite the same way.

    I wonder. If someone else designed and released this game, would reviewers be willing to be stumbled or lost for so long before giving up and writing a mediocre review? Would players give it the time of day?

    Makes me wonder how many unconventional but great games have gone under the radar... simply due to the fact that they weren't designed by somebody who we simply trust to make something brilliant.

Join the discussion!