The Witness: Hands On

By Dan Grill on August 12th, 2011 at 12:36 pm.


In an antiquarian hotel room in London’s historic Clerkenwell, Braid creator Jonathan Blow is shaking his shaven head. His laptop has decided it doesn’t want to run The Witness, his new game and he’s copying all the files over to his spare laptop. (If you want to know what it says about Blow that he’s the sort of man who carries a spare laptop… go hire a haruspex.) The game, he tells me, has just over a year to go now, with the appearance and sound likely to change; the 300 puzzles, though, they’ll stay the same. As he copies, I watch the file-names flick by: …theater… trees… rocket launcher… caves… wait, rocket launcher? It turns out Blow was making a very different game after Braid, before the Witness and some of the files are still hanging around in The Witness.

Eventually, he finishes. We load the game, and he passes me the pad. I step out of the womb-like corridor into a clinical office, then out into the sunny yard and look down at my shadow. It is quite obviously that of a space marine. I look up, quizzical, but Blow’s already leaving the room. Apparently, he doesn’t want to put me off by watching.

So I start exploring. The unanimated space marine shadow is disconcerting, but like much of the game it’s place-holder. I’m using a gamepad controller because though he’s brought two laptops, he’s brought no mice. Outside the office is a small compound where the basic interactions of the world are explained. Several pads on posts stand near a wall, connected by a dark cable to a gate sealed by a force field. Beyond it is a bright world of sculpted landscapes, platonic objects and mini-golf buildings; it’s hard to believe Blow plans to replace all this.

As I complete simple line-puzzles on the panels, connecting a starting point to an end point, the cable from each changes to white, presumably transferring power to the next. Having completed them all, the gate partially unlocks; I hunt out a button behind some bushes and a lever behind more shrubbery, and deactivate the force field completely.

From this point, this is an open world game and it’s both stunning and simple to play. If you don’t want to have any of the puzzles spoiled, you’d do well to stop reading. Non-spoilery material resumes after the final picture.

Still here? Don’t blame me if a magical moment that would have put your future life on a blissful alternate timeline involving love, self-sufficiency and a lifetime’s supply of jelly-belly has been forever lost. Blame Quinns, he’s not here.


The first thing I encounter is a dictaphone on a podium. Clicking it, begins a monologue, presumably from the person who put you on the island; he talks about how warm the west of the island is, how cool and breezy the east is, and how he doesn’t expect you to trust him, as he’s pure “3rd act betrayal fuel” but that his “faith in you (the player) is unbreakable”. There’s a plot here, but a highly abstract one, and (as we’ll show in our interview, to follow) Blow’s restless mind has lots of conceptual axes to grind.

So, I run downhill, over to another series of seven blue panels, with new white and black squares on them. I quickly get stuck; I thought I had a working theory for how the puzzles worked but it stopped when I got halfway through. I have to give up and go over to another series of three panels in front of a copse.

Each of these is structured like a branching network, stretching upward, with multiple end points at the top. I play around with the first one and find the solution by accident. I glance behind it, and see a tree silhouetted against an adobe wall. ‘He really makes beautiful trees, I’m thinking when I notice that the end point I’ve chosen exactly parallels an orange hanging off the tree’s branches. Doing the next panel of the puzzle, I look at the tree behind that and spot another orange. I copy the pattern of its branches and the panel completes. Finally, the third tree is more gnarled and twisted over a wall; I have to clamber about to spot the orange and straighten the tree in my mind’s eye to make it fit the puzzle. The cable turns white.

The white cable coming out of these three buries itself in the ground; I follow the direction it’s disappeared in, as it dives in and out of the soil and brush, and get lost. The island is small, but it’s complex, hilly and strangely landscaped. Blow later explains to me that he’s hired architects to help him establish a pre-history for the island, re-landscape it and redesign all the buildings to reflect the multiple peoples who have lived there. It’s a lot of hinterland to put into the background of a puzzle game, and is the thing that most reminds me of the obvious referent, Myst.

Over the next half hour, I wander past several other incomprehensible puzzles, escapees from Mirror’s Edge: a tangle of red girders balanced along the shore like children’s toys; orange geometric blocks jutting from the light blue sea; a cylindrical black monolith standing by itself in a glade; a buddha hardly noticeable in the shadow of a tree decal; a hole in a wall that forms a human face if looked at from an exact angle; an ancient oak tree covered in shoots of new life and surrounded by dead twigs. All this is place-holder?

Eventually, I head towards a nearby Tonka-toy tower which is surrounded by four mazes. The mazes exemplify both the way that Blow’s puzzles progress and the way that he’s actually using the complex environment which we subsconciously treat as background as elements in his puzzles. To spot the solutions, you often have to step back and force yourself to become aware of everything; it definitely makes you observe the world more keenly, but two hours of it was enough to give me a headache.

The first maze is a simple path through some fences, which you then have to draw onto a puzzle map at the end. The overgrown second maze seems to have multiple paths, but the solution is in how the grass grows, which again you have to replicate. The sandy third maze proves to be an audio puzzle, which again you have to draw on a panel at the end. The final maze is an abstraction. When you get to the panel at the end, it bears little resemblance to the open maze you just walked through; it’s in those little resemblances that the solution is found though, partially a memory test, partially pure spatial reasoning. Like SpaceChem, the brainburning chase for the solution is all the fun.

Once you’ve completed all four, you get access to the tower itself; way at the top of it is a white button on a yellow box. Press the button and the box extends itself upwards, telescoping, before the top folds over and a pure white laser beam cuts across the sky, hitting a distant antenna atop a distant massive crag.

Chasing the laser to its target, I get distracted by other puzzles; a puzzle seemingly involving tetriminos next to another involving asterixes in a great blockhouse; an audio puzzle based around the rendering of ambient noise into puzzle panel form; a cheeky shadow puzzle; one that involves the superimposition of decal cut-outs over puzzle panels from particular perspectives; finally, what Blow later calls “a boss puzzle” that combines several of the mathematical puzzle rules, into a huge brain-teaser.


The environment is so much of the puzzles but it’s also more than puzzles; an awful lot of the surroundings is just ambient. For example, well-buried in the undergrowth, are several audio buttons that reel off quotes from famous people. I stumbled across what I thought was a white concrete podium topped with small arbitrarily deposited cylindrical blocks; Blow tells me later, this is a place-holder for a picnic, complete with gingham cloth, food and a glass of wine. Hidden amidst it is a button that reels off a monologue from Feynman that begins “A poet once said ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood.”

This is a game about working your mind hard, becoming aware of the world around you and coming to appreciate it how it can be integrated with puzzles about sound, shadows, texture, mathematics, location, light and memory, never knowing what’s going to be relevant to the next puzzle. Like Blow’s Braid, it’s also about the expression of both philosophical concepts and of intriguing, rapidly-changing mechanics, though neither of these are forced on you. They produce a coherency to the world, give a cleanness and light to The Witness that’s hard to express; you’ll snark me off the site for being this synaesthetic, but it feels like a mix of the contrasty cinematography of Ibsen’s The Seventh Seal, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the sudden glare of fresh snow.

Blow estimates that the game is looking to come in at about ten hours long, if you can manage a puzzle every two minutes. I’d say, considering how I was mentally-blocked on about 2/3 of the puzzles, that’s only a realistic number if players sleep on it; there’s no way I could work through all of this in one sitting. It’s also hard to believe that he considers this game still a year off, considering; but, looking at his designs for it, looking at the design portfolio he’s produced, it’s easy to understand that perfection is important to him. Sunday, we’ll have that angle from the man himself.

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84 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    Thirith says:

    Sounds intriguing – but Ibsen’s The Seventh Seal?

  2. Flukie says:

    Always got time for a puzzler.

  3. MadTinkerer says:

    “There’s a plot here, but a highly abstract one, and (as we’ll show in our interview, to follow) Blow’s restless mind has lots of conceptual axes to grind.”

    So exactly like Braid, then. Hooray!

  4. kikito says:

    Minecraft demake in 3…2…1…

    • Tony M says:

      I think the entire internet is trolling me by claiming every game with a right angle is a Minecraft ripoff.

    • Gnoupi says:

      Demake, as in “please someone do this in Minecraft”. I think you were trolled so much you see that everywhere.

  5. Tori says:

    “If you don’t want to have any of the puzzles spoiled, you’d do well to stop reading” and so I did. Could I continue reading in some other part of the text, or is the rest all spoilers?

  6. Inigo says:

    Blow estimates that the game is looking to come in at about ten hours long

    Unfortunately, eight of those hours involve waiting for a cloud to travel from one side of the screen to the other.

    • Eagle0600 says:

      RAAAAAGE!

      Seriously, waiting 2 hours as a “puzzle”? Everything else about that game was fantastic, but that one puzzle I felt no shame about downloading a save for.

    • fuggles says:

      *some level of spoilering to follow so don’t read it if you haven’t completed Braid, unless you are are Eagle 0600 in which case I think you have missed the point* I believe that this is supposed to further reflect on the obsessive lengths people go to for personal quests that achieve nothing other than a personal feeling of achievement. You know, like the game itself where the protagonist chases the goal of the A-bomb at the expense of his real life. You spent 2 hours on a game prodding a man slowly and at best got 2 hours nearer death with a steam achievement. How cheating fits into that would probably be the plot of Braid 2.

    • Merus says:

      That wasn’t a puzzle, it was a warning.

  7. Teddy Leach says:

    Is this where I get to say I didn’t like Braid?

    • Plivesey says:

      Is this where I add that I also didn’t like Braid?

      Got it free in the humble indie bundle, played a few levels, found it quite boring and uninteresting. Sorry Braid-lovers!

    • ChainsawCharlie says:

      ^ This. And may I add that this Blow guys is pretentous. Or would that be considered rude?

    • edgeblend says:

      Come on guys. I really don’t mind difference of opinion (its what sparks interesting debate) but please flesh out an explaination of why you feel this way. Just saying you don’t like something or someone is pretentious isn’t cricket.

    • JFS says:

      How could you not like Braid? I mean, I hated some of those levels (in a friendly way), but it is one of the few, few games I have actually played through. I don’t think I’m the epitome of gaming taste, yet I wonder how someone could not like one of the less-than-half-a-dozen games that ever made me finish them (for your info, the others are Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island 1, Baldur’s Gate, Freelancer, Half-Life 2 and… hm.)

    • Plivesey says:

      This coming from Edge ‘I don’t really like mushrooms’ Blend :P. I felt the fact I found it boring and uninteresting was explanation enough. It played like a pretty mediocre platformer with some repetitive time-thing going on. It did nothing to make me want to continue playing, and when I have so many games to play, that just meant I stopped and never went back.
      Edit: You’ll be glad to know I enjoy all the other games in your list, JFS.

    • edgeblend says:

      The mushroom thing was a satirical point about how saying you dont like something out of context doesnt really mean anything, however i dont think it got the point across effectively so i deleted it. I would say to you though that Braids first levels are the least interesting of the lot, they are a kind of tutorial that may seem over simplistic to the hardcore gamer. However it does get much better and I sincerely hope you get a chance to play it further as the puzzles and get much more interesting and more gameplay mechanics get introduced.

    • Inigo says:

      I like mushrooms.

    • edgeblend says:

      @ Inigo, Mushrooms are overrated and pretentious! (check out my allegorical meta-joke)

    • Plivesey says:

      Perhaps I will give it another go edgeblend. That happens a lot with me – I play a game for a bit, and if it doesn’t grab me, I stop. Surely it should work hard to attract attention, and if it doesn’t within the first few levels I’m starting to think “I won’t enjoy this. Don’t waste your time.” However, people will say to me “Try it again, play it a bit more, you might like it”, I am happy to give it another try. Thanks to that, I’ve played Mount & Blade Warband for over 80 hours (which I didn’t think I’d like based on its demo), and I’ve played a lot of Just Cause 2 (again, didn’t enjoy the demo).

      For the record: I don’t like mushrooms because of their texture.

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      TheApologist says:

      Well, I didn’t like it much because a) I’m not clever enough for the puzzles, and b) I think it wants me to back out of levels I can’t figure out and go back to them, but it’s in a platform game where the progression of levels is otherwise presented linearly. Certainly, linear progression is a learned habit.

      In the end, every time I backed out of a level, which was often (see a)), I felt like a failure and not like the game was helpfully non-linear.

      It was a shame though, because I welcome a bit of well worked through pretension in games. We don’t have enough of it.

    • JFS says:

      I see :) I’m relieved that my taste doesn’t seem to be *that* strange. I was just wondering what was wrong with the game, but of course it cannot appeal to everyone. I, for one, am not a fan of Portal, which to quite a lot of people seems to be at least the game of the decade, so I understand your point.

    • edgeblend says:

      @ Plivesey
      Awesome :) I’m actually really pleased to hear you’ll give it another go. Wow, two people with different opinions working it out in a sincere and grown up discussion… Only on RPS!

      ps. I recently did exactly the same thing with Just Cause 2, bought the game this week and am really enjoying it. Mushrooms still suck though.

    • Bhazor says:

      I didn’t like Braid for many reasons. Bad platforming which takes pixel perfection to new depths, the broken key dick move Yahtzee talked about where you need to restart the whole level if you use it on the wrong door, those frickin’ “walk the goombas through the piranha plants” puzzles which took me an hour of tedious back and forthing, the alegorical story (which I always hate even when done well, Braid wasn’t done well), some of the sound effects were absolutely infuriating especially when you have to back and forth for ten minutes to get them just so (nyumph-WAGGGGHHHH-nyumph-WAGGGGGHHH) and it just got on my tits at times.

      All that said the puzzles were genuinely brilliant and twisted. Just a shame about the execution of some of them.

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      Lars Westergren says:

      >the broken key dick move Yahtzee talked about where you need to restart the whole level if you use it on the wrong door,

      I didn’t come upon any puzzle where that couldn’t be fixed by rewinding time a few seconds? Was there any place where the breakable keys were unaffected by time powers? I think I only did it once, then I internalized that “right, doing that would create a time paradox, that’s why the key breaks.”

      >those frickin’ “walk the goombas through the piranha plants”

      I agree, that puzzle really was tedious, I think it took me an hour of trial and error too. But I think there was only one of them?

    • JFS says:

      Yeah, some of the stuff really was frustrating. At the same time, I found beating those levels quite an achievement… which is strange, as I usually tend to give up quickly if games get too hard. That said, I don’t have any real pro arguments, just the feeling that Braid was frustrating, but not unfair. The twistedness of the puzzles, as mentioned, was brilliant. The story… well. It’s a platformer.

    • Creeping Death says:

      @ChainsawCharlie; yea, I would say that was rude considering you don’t even know the guy.

      Chalk me up as another that didn’t like Braid. I can’t really put my finger on it, I just didn’t think it was that interesting.

    • Xercies says:

      I quite liked Braid, i thought it was rather clever with a lot of the puzzles, especially on the later worlds. The allegorical story to me is something not in the Game, i love the actual ending to me of the game it is really clever. The whole allegorical ending is not clever and doesn’t fit at all with the game i feel, its just something he tells you through books.

    • thegooseking says:

      >those frickin’ “walk the goombas through the piranha plants”
      I agree, that puzzle really was tedious, I think it took me an hour of trial and error too. But I think there was only one of them?

      There were two of them.

      And they were both actually really easy; the challenge came from the fact that they were doable using the mechanical theme of the level, so people who weren’t thinking would try to do that. The ‘right’ way to do both of them, though, was to ignore the mechanical theme and just pause time.

    • CMaster says:

      Yeah, I thought Braid was pretty good (but not amazing, and I’ve forgotten it mostly).

      However, it was quite frustrating when you got to those levels where you could spend 10 minutes getting to a certain point, get it wrong, and then have to start the whole level over again because the thing you got wrong was immune to time manipulation.

    • ChainsawCharlie says:

      @Creeping Death, well that comment is based on the interviews and videos of him.

      On the game, I just thought it was a wonky platformer. The time idea was nice and it looks OK. Just the controls feel odd and the puzzles are tedious. There are tons of mediocre platformers done all the time. I don’t see how this is different.

    • Urthman says:

      There’s nothing pretentious about mushrooms. People who don’t like them are mostly not good enough at eating to really “get” mushrooms. They can just stick to their dumbed-down onions and leave the mushrooms to those of us smart enough to appreciate them.

    • playworker says:

      I enjoyed Braid, but I don’t really like mushrooms, can we start some kind of Pro-Braid, Anti-Mushroom social club?

    • Wulf says:

      I’m with Mr. Leach, sorry. I really wanted to like Braid but at the end of the day it was lost on me. It felt awkward, tedious, and dull. The graphics had a lot to do with that because the art direction simply just didn’t work for me. I know it was very artistic, yes, but not in a way that I could appreciate on a personal level, I just didn’t click with the aesthetics. It felt brown like Quake in weird ways.

      It also somehow took the fun away after a certain point, too. At some point there it just felt more like work than a game, and perhaps that was part of Blow’s intent, but when it got to that point I just couldn’t force myself to play it any more. I was probably stuck on that two hour cloud thing, I suspect.

    • Xercies says:

      You know you don’t have to do that 2 hour cloud thing right? i mean i never did!

    • Waltorious says:

      I would like to encourage others who didn’t enjoy Braid to give it another go… at least get past the first world, so you can see how some of the rules start to change and things get more interesting.

      Also:

      “the broken key dick move Yahtzee talked about where you need to restart the whole level if you use it on the wrong door”

      SPOILER ALERT:

      This section appears in a level in which walking to the right moves time forwards, whereas walking to the left moves time backwards. When you find the key, there are two doors, one of which you must approach by moving right, and the other of which you must approach by moving left. If you try to use the key on the door while moving left, it will not unlock because you are rewinding time as you move (i.e. you “re-lock” the door as soon as it’s unlocked, because you’re moving backwards in time). If you use it on the other door, while moving to the right, then time is moving forwards so you can open the door properly.

      So there actually is some logic to that puzzle. Having said that, I didn’t realize this logic until the second time through that level, and I actually think it’s a rather poorly designed puzzle given how hard it is to understand. So in the end I agree with Yahtzee et al. but I figured I’d share the fact that it’s not completely pointless and arbitrary…. just poorly implemented.

    • Kamos says:

      I’ve met Mr. Blow “in real life” and I must say he’s a pretty cool guy. Yes, he has some crazy ideas and strong opinions, and I didn’t have much fun playing Braid either. So what?

      ‘He/his game is pretentious’… What a load of crap.

    • Thants says:

      OK, the thing people need to understand about Braid is that it’s not really a platformer. It’s a puzzle game that just looks like a platformer. And, TheApologist, it doesn’t need you to come back later. All the puzzles (except maybe one) can be done when you first get to them.

  8. Askeladd says:

    Is this game for ‘causals’? I want to introduce some people to a real game.

    • stahlwerk says:

      No, this game is purely spontaneous.

    • Bhazor says:

      No this is much more a formal tux and tie affair. No trainers.

    • Griddle Octopus says:

      Yes; the game, like Myst, is suitable for everyone. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the simple interface and controls but complicated concepts make it exactly the sort of game I’d want to give someone as their first game. It’s the sort of thing that I’d Ipgive to a little kid so that as they grew they unlocked more of it.

    • Magnetude says:

      I just want to give a small golf clap for Stahlwerk’s comment, which I worry has gone unappreciated.

    • captainfuzz says:

      Hear Hear!

    • Askeladd says:

      Did I fix it?

      On Topic: It seems like a game where you dont need to use skills that you only learn through playing games. That makes it seem like a complex game that is a way to even introduce adults to gaming.
      Everyone like games right?

    • Magnetude says:

      No you didn’t fix it, and please don’t try

      (He’s making a rather clever joke about a typo you made – I’ll stop being mean now)

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      Lambchops says:

      Oooh, that’s a joint comment thread win for Andrew and Stahlwerk.

  9. ArcaneSaint says:

    No, a magical moment that would have put my future life on a blissful alternate timeline involving love, self-sufficiency and a lifetime’s supply of jelly-belly has been forever lost, DAMN YOU QUINNS!!

  10. stahlwerk says:

    This made me very excited, thanks, Dan. I like Blow’s “mechanics first, eye candy later” process. (Although to be fair, they already did a whole lot of engine programming parallel, as evidenced on their blog)

    Edit: Second screen shot looks a bit like a sane version of Cargo.

    • Urthman says:

      Oh yes. I loved the artwork he went with for Braid, I’m really excited to see what kind of look he’s going to end up with for Witness. These screenshots are already more enticing to me than just about any other upcoming game previews.

      But then “a Myst game, done by the guy who made Braid” is one of the things I’d have said if someone asked me to describe my dream game, if I were inspired enough to imagine such a thing.

  11. Burning Man says:

    Haruspex…. wha…. what?

    *googles* “In Roman and Etruscan religious practice, a haruspex (plural haruspices; Latin auspex, plural auspices) was a man trained to practice a form of divination called haruspicy, hepatoscopy or hepatomancy. Haruspicy is the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals, especially the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry.”

    ……….

    And what would your mother say if she knew you used such language, young man?

    • fuggles says:

      Well, if Harry Potter can use big words like WhoreCrotch then so can RPS.

    • BooleanBob says:

      She would say “Cor! That Gridopolis fella has clearly played at least to the character choice screen of Pathologic, and therefore has hella indie art-game cred.”

      (<3 Dan)

      (also <3 <3 <3 Pathologic)

    • Griddle Octopus says:

      It is the best of words – and BooleanBob, I have played at least two days of Pathologic, yes, but I know the word from my Latin lessons. It’s like an Auger+++

    • Saldek says:

      Page: The haruspice must flow. Why contain it? Let it spill over into the schools and churches …

      Simons: Haruspice?

      Page: It’s an Auger. Or better than an Auger. A Steyr AUGER.

    • Josh W says:

      Honestly I thought you were suggesting we analysed Blow’s guts to find the source of his societies disease, which I thought a little harsh.

  12. DiamondDog says:

    What I’d like to know is does it have any connection to the film Witness?

    • BooleanBob says:

      No, but there will be a puzzle where you have to cheat your way to victory against a class of school kids in an egg and spoon race, as an arch and knowing reference to the song Witness (1 hope).

  13. karry says:

    So when should we expect the stream of professed believers in Witness’ plot as a deeply spiritual and Gospel-like divine text ? I swear, there’s something every year, with someone claiming that something is more profound than all holy books of the world combined.

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    Jackablade says:

    I think you may have lost me by prefixing the words “mathematical rules” with “several of the”.

  15. Ravious says:

    Sounds very intriguing. Braid gave me a “feeling” regardless of other game mechanics that most video games rarely give me. Something real’er, deep’er. If Blow’s next game can do the same thing (and from the RPS writeup it sounds like it will), where do I pre-order?

  16. reticulate says:

    Can we call Blow an auteur yet?

    Because he seems to be one.

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      Does it matter if you call anyone an auteur?

      No.

    • reticulate says:

      Touche, sir.

      I guess.

    • Berzee says:

      Since the definition (if you remove the part about movies) appears to be something like “does most of the work in making a thing, and you can tell it’s him who made it”…yes, probably?

    • Josh W says:

      Definately, as almost all auteur movies weren’t actually made as legend says, so this might count more as an auteur creative peice than the originators of the term, despite the fact he has a small team (architects, programers etc) working through it with him.

  17. thegooseking says:

    Edit: reply fail again.

  18. CMaster says:

    So Dan seems to be RPS’s “roving reporter” who the hivemind sends to things when they can’t be bothered hauling themselves out of Castle Shotgun. How you finding that, Mr Octopus

    • m3metix says:

      As a reader this Griliopoulos guy is working out quite well. I think the best compliment I can give it is that I didn’t even notice it wasn’t written by one of the main RPSers until after I was finished reading it (I just assumed Walker wrote it).

    • Waltorious says:

      Walker secretly writes everything, under various pseudonyms.

      EVERYTHING.

    • Josh W says:

      So that’s who built the library.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Lambchops says:

    I’m intrigued. I enjoyed Braid (the allegorical stuff I could take or leave but the ending itself was nicely executed and it was a solid puzzler) and more puzzle based action is right down my street.

    Screenshots are quite pretty as well, which is a bonus.

  20. Koozer says:

    Reminds me of Super Mario Sunshine. This is a good thing (and I don’t mean the visuals).

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    shoptroll says:

    Looking forward to this. Seems like something for anyone who liked Braid and/or Professor Layton. Really digging how the puzzles are ingrained with the surroundings. Or is it the other way around?