The Witness (2014 video game)
Game poster created by one of the team artists "Luis Antonio"
The Witness is an upcoming 3D puzzle video game by Thekla, Inc. The game was announced in August 2009 for PC and iOS; though designer Jonathan Blow had initially intended to create versions for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles, he later opted to forgo development on these, believing the consoles unable to perform what he needed the game to do. Later, Blow announced that the game will be a time-limited exclusive title for the PlayStation 4 over other consoles, though this will not impact releases for Windows and iOS. In interviews, Blow described the work as "an exploration-puzzle game on an uninhabited island."
The Witness is a puzzle adventure game, experienced in the first-person view. The player, as an unnamed character, finds himself on an island with numerous structures and natural formations. The island is divided into ten sections arranged around a mountain that represents the ultimate goal for the player. Within each section, the player will encounter numerous puzzles, and once the player has completed all puzzles in a section, a gold turret will emerge from around that section and shine a light towards the mountain. The player needs to complete seven of the ten section sections to be able to access the puzzles within the mountain and complete the game.
The puzzles within each section are based on a similar theme, with early puzzles in the sections designed to help the player identify the theme and understand how to solve the later puzzles. All puzzles are based on a mechanic of tracing a path through a maze-like route; the goal of these puzzles is not always to simply complete the maze but to find the right path of several that completes the puzzle correctly. For example, one puzzle involves finding a path that successfully divides marked white and black areas on the panel. While many puzzles will be obvious, placed on panels through the island, other puzzles may be visually incorporated into the game's architecture, such as a tree that has branches that mimics the paths, or as symbols that appear as decorative elements on walls and floors of the buildings. In an early build shown at the 2010 Penny Arcade Expo one puzzle requires a player to etch the maze solution on a pane of glass, using background elements of the setting seen through the pane as walls of the maze, while another maze involved following an underground cable across the island.
Blow has stated that there is more to the game than these mazes, in response to concerns from players; to Blow, "the point is the magic that happens in the player's mind when he understands the subtle things that the mazes are saying - because the mazes aren't just puzzles, they are lines of communication that aggregate, become more complex and eventually say surprising things".
The Witness was envisioned after Jonathan Blow released Braid. After seeing the title become a success in 2008, Blow took time off from "serious development", and instead spent time to prototype new game concepts, spending a few months on each. The concept that proved to be the basis for The Witness was the one prototype that Blow considered to be "very ambitious and challenging", including the development of a 3D gameplay engine, and feared that he would "fall back to square one" before the success of Braid should it fail. Despite the challenges, Blow continued to go forward with The Witness, as it was also the most compelling of the prototypes he had crafted. Direct development work on the title began in late 2008.
The game concept itself is based on an earlier title that Blow had envisioned but never completed. In this unfinished title, there was a side gameplay aspect that has a "magic moment", according to Blow, that would have made the title exciting. The Witness's gameplay is based on distilling out this "magic moment" from the previous concept game, and wrapping it within its own game and story. Blow has compared this moment to a spoiler for a movie, and thus has avoided disclosure of the mechanic. Part of the game's concept is a balance between puzzle-solving and perception, giving the player the freedom to explore The Witness's world and creating a non-linear approach to gameplay. This is supported through the game's story, which will be told by audio logs the player can find by characters that may have inhabited the island before but have long-departed; through these, Blow attempted to create a "feeling of loneliness in a beautiful space" for the player. Because these logs can be found in any order, Blow hopes that each player may have a different perception of the story depending on how they have approached the game. The game's name The Witness is derived from core gameplay aspect of making the player perceptive of the surrounding to deriving meaning and solution to the puzzles, a similar approach taken by Myst, according to Blow.
Due to the nebulous nature of the story in The Witness, Blow is designing the game to avoid simply "rewarding the player", enticing or forcing the player to proceed through fixed actions simply to gain some achievement, instead giving the player the option to explore and learn about the world he is creating. Blow has noted that while he had not yet decided on which consoles to develop for, he will take into consideration the nature of achievements required by the console, opting to use none or to make the achievements secret to avoid introduction of elements that reward the player. Blow also states his concerns on other pop-up messages that could occur on the consoles or computer versions, as he considers The Witness a "subtle kind of game" with quiet ambient audio that these pop-ups detract from.
As a compact game world compared to open-world games, the whole of the island of The Witness was treated as one zone, simplifying the gameplay and engine development. This presented a secondary challenge to the team as to concurrently work on the project, they needed to find a means to allow multiple developers to edit areas without resorting to using locking on their content management system as well as being able to work without being connected to a central server. Blow and his team developed an unconventional means of serializing the game world into text files that would have revision control while at the same time making it easy for humans to discover conflicting edits. They also converted the 10,000-some entities in the game world into their own individual files for tracking to further reduce conflict between edits. Other features of this system including using defined control points for terrain elements to automatically recalculate seamless connections between them within the game's rendering engine, and a built-in world editor within the game engine to easily access existing serialized elements and create new ones.
For The Witness, Jonathan Blow is working remotely with two additional full-time roles, one a 3D artist, and another as a technical programmer, since December 2009. As of late 2011, Blow stated that about ten or eleven developers were working on the game. The Witness incorporates other artists and programmer's contributions in smaller roles, such as David Hellman, who had previously worked with Blow on Braid's art design and is now working on conceptualizing the design of The Witness. Other contributors include Eric Urquhart, who has provided 3-D concept artwork for the game, and Ignacio Castaño, who has developed a rendering system for the game's illumination and visual effects. By diversifying work on the game, Blow has been able to focus more of his time on the core game design, allowing his team to implement his vision, in contrast to the development of Braid where he also had to program much of the game himself.
Blow had initially anticipated to release The Witness initially on Microsoft Windows and iOS devices, along with an unspecified set of consoles. Later, Blow restated his stance, and felt that there would be no console release on initial release, considering the amount of additional programming time and limitations of the console platforms. As of November 2011, Blow was able to hire two more programmers, and had rethought the release for consoles; while he cannot commit to a console release initially, the additional labor would help make it possible to have one console version ready at the time of the game's launch, with the version for other consoles to be made available at a later time. In a February 2012 update, Blow estimated the total number of puzzles in the game to be at 440; a playtest of two areas of the game took more than nine hours to complete, with the full game exceeding Blow's initial goal of a ten-to-fifteen hour game.
The game was quietly revealed to the public by Blow at the 2010 Penny Arcade Expo with the help of independent developers Chris Hecker and Andy Schatz, who were sharing booth space for demonstrations of their own games, SpyParty and Monaco; the two provided a table for demonstrating The Witness without any signs or other markings. Blow wanted to keep the demonstration subtle and a surprise and to see players' reactions without the pressure of other players waiting in line to also try the game. Blow himself was present at the Expo but kept his distance from the demonstration table. The fact that The Witness was playable at the Expo was only fully revealed after the Expo by both Blow and Stephen Totilo of Kotaku, who saw and played the game but did not mention its presence until later. Players who tried the game at PAX or saw footage of it from the Kotaku article afterwards became concerned that The Witness would simply be a series of mazes to solve. Blow reiterated that there is more to the game than mazes, and that he encountered similar problems when trying to promote Braid, in that seeing videos of portions of the game does not serve to demonstrate "what happens in the player's mind during the puzzle-solving process".
Early in the development process, Blow had suggested that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 may be possible release platforms, in addition to Windows and iOS. He later stated that they have foregone immediate development towards these platforms, Blow later clarifying this was "due to the relatively low system specs". As the release date for The Witness slipped, the chance for developing on the next-generation of consoles became a possibility, and Blow and his team started looking at this opportunity. They had discounted the Wii U, again citing low specs, and decided to choose between the PlayStation 4 and the next Xbox platform. At the time of this decision, Sony was able to provide hardware information and development kits, while Microsoft had not yet released firm specifications for their console, and Blow opted to go with the PlayStation platform; this decision was also aided by representatives from Sony that were interested in bringing the game to their system, and a larger trend of Sony to bring more downloadable games to the next console. Blow affirmed that there was no monetary deal involved with this decision. Blow also later acknowledged that he has had difficulties working with Microsoft in the past, and had previously explained several of the issues he had to go through with his earlier game, Braid. The Witness was subsequently announced as a launch-window title for the PlayStation 4; though announced as a time-limited exclusive PlayStation 4 title, the Windows and iOS titles are not subject to this, and may only be delayed due to the complexities of Blow and his team working on the title across multiple platforms.
On November 13, 2013, Jonathan Blow confirmed the budget for the game to be "something like [$]3-4 million".
On March 2014, during the Game Developers Conference, Luis Antonio, one of the artists in the team, presented a talk about the art direction of the game. He explained the collaboration with Architects and Landscape architects and the reasons for the visual style.
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