The Witness (2016 video game)
Game poster created by a member of the team
The Witness is an upcoming 3D puzzle video game by Jonathan Blow and his development team, Thekla, Inc. The Witness is set for release on January 26, 2016 for PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, and iOS.
Inspired by Myst, The Witness has the player explore an open world island filled with a number of natural and man-made structures. The player progresses by solving puzzles which are based on interactions with mazes presented on panels around the island, though the rules and outcomes of solving the individual mazes are part of the puzzles that the player will have to come to learn themselves through both visual clues around the island and through audio logs that the player can find. Blow aimed to include as little instruction as possible, wanting to have players come to understand the rules of these puzzles for themselves and coming to moments of realization while exploring the island. The final game will have about 650 total puzzles to be solved, though the player is not required to solve them all to finish the game.
Though originally announced in 2009, The Witness has had a lengthy development period. Blow started work on the title in 2008 after a short break from releasing Braid. The financial success of Braid allowed him to hire a larger team to develop the title and maintain his vision of what the final game would be without making any sacrifices. This led to a protracted development period, extending the game's release from 2011 to 2016, spanning a console generation. Original plans for release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were abandoned because the game's engine became too demanding, and Blow opted to develop the console version for the PlayStation 4 as Sony was more open towards independent developers.
The Witness is a puzzle adventure game, experienced in the first-person view. The player, as an unnamed character, finds themself 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 only a portion of the puzzles in the game to complete this objective and reach the final goal. The final game will have more than 650 puzzles, which Jonathan Blow estimates will take the average player about 100 hours to solve. The puzzles include one that Blow believes that less than 1% of the players will be able to solve.
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.
Puzzles in a given section of the island are presented in a non-linear fashion, and with the open world nature of the game, the player may encounter puzzle panels that they have yet to learn the rules for; as such, players are not required to finish a puzzle once they start, and can leave and wander to any other area to solve the puzzles there.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. Initially, these audio logs were to be more narrative, but Blow opted later to change these out for more obfuscated and obtuse information, similar to the text elements used in Braid, as to avoid directly relating out the story of the game for the player and let them think about what it instead means.
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. Blow stated that much of the design and concept of the game is attributable to Myst, which on its release was what led him into video game development. However, one aspect of Myst that Blow desired to correct was the nature of "pixel hunting" that many puzzles in Myst had; in some puzzles in Myst the player would have to click on various parts of the virtual machinery without knowing what the end result was until sometime later in the puzzle. Within The Witness, Blow wanted to have a unifying mechanic for all the puzzles to avoid this confusion, using the maze panels as this approach. While the interaction mechanics are the same for all these puzzles, the rules and behavior that limit or result from the interactions form the core of the puzzles in the game. The maze panel idea itself bore out from an earlier idea that Blow has around 2002 for game involving wizards which the player would cast spells through mouse gestures, a popular element of video games at the time, with the ability to modify the effect of the spells by slight alterations of specific gestures; elements of The Witness 's story borrow from this game concept.
The design and layout of the island in The Witness has been nearly consistent since the start of the game's development, with the team working on populating the world with specific puzzles, and detailing the landscape and other art assets. Sam Machkovech, a writer for Ars Technica that had played a demo of the game in 2012 and again in 2015, noted that the island had remained familiar between these two sessions.
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. He considers his approach the "anti-Nintendo", providing minimum to no additional instructions to the player in contrast with typical Nintendo games. To accommodate this, he developed the title as an open world, so that players can leave puzzles they are stuck at and work at other ones, as to avoid punishing the player for not being able to solve a key puzzle.
Programming and artwork
The Witness was announced in 2009 following the release of Jonathan Blow's previous game, Braid, and has been in development for seven years. Blow attributes this long period to the expansion of the game's scope as he and his team continued to work on it; though he had considered condensing the scope, using more off-the-shelf products for the game engine, or other changes, he opted against these. Due to the success of Braid which brought him around $4 million as of April 2014, Blow was able to bring on a larger team and sustain them over the development period, and with no pressure for any release date, continued to aim for the scope he had set. However, in February 2015, Blow announced that he had to obtain additional capital to finish off the game, believing that regardless of the costs of extra development time, the debt would be justified in the long run. Final development costs were estimated at over $5 million.
The Witness uses its own engine developed by Blow and his team, which took a significant portion of the development time. Blow was insistent on using his own game engine instead of existing solution such as Unity, as he would be able to fully control every element of a game engine that he created himself. 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.
Since December 2009, Blow was working remotely with two additional full-time roles, one a 3D artist, and another as a technical programmer. By 2015, Blow stated there were about eight full-time members on his team, though had had ten to eleven persons involved around 2011. 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 worked 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. Blow gives much credit to Orsolya Spanyol, a freshly-graduated graphic artist he hired around 2011, for transforming the original sparse imagery of the island to the more vivid scenery that will be in the final game. 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.
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 designers, and the reasons for the visual style.
Marketing and release
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".
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 could not 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.
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 Xbox One platform. At the time of this decision, Sony was able to provide hardware information and development kits as well as having invited Blow and numerous other independent and larger developers to learn about the upcoming PlayStation 4, while Microsoft had not yet released firm specifications for their console. 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 and independently-developed games to their next console in contrast to Microsoft's tighter controls. 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 had been planned as launch-window title for the PlayStation 4 in 2013; 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.
In September 2015, Blow announced that the game's release is set for January 26, 2016, simultaneously for the PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows, with the iOS version to follow shortly thereafter.
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