For most of my time at E3, I roamed the showroom floor. Sometimes, I ducked into a closed-door demo; other times, I tested out indie creations with developers explaining their concepts. The whole experience was loud. Overwhelming. Chaotic.
So when I sat down in a nearly empty room for an hour to play The Witness, the highly anticipated sophomore game from Jonathan Blow, the first thing that struck me was the quiet. This is a game of patience and focus.
To begin, there’s no guide or text to explain your goals when you drop into this world. No wisecracking companion, and not even a thought bubble from my character. For about 20 seconds, I wondered if this game was going to be too opaque, too abstract for my mental state at the time. Then, I was nonverbally presented with the controls in the shortest, simplest tutorial I’ve ever seen, and released into the game.
The version available at E3 was the most recent build of The Witness, so not all of the final elements were in place. For instance, none of the story elements were in this version, so once I came to terms with the world I had joined, my time was spent simply exploring my island surroundings and matching wits with the puzzles. A quick look around the first area reveals the visual language that you’ll need to move through the game. Go up to the panels with a linear maze, connect one dot to another.
Sounds like child’s play, but these puzzles ranged from simple to devilishly complicated.Sounds like child’s play, but these puzzles ranged from simple to devilishly complicated.
The puzzle mechanics I was able to solve were delightful, with many of them building one slight iteration upon another to create some satisfying eureka moments that would complete a section of the world. Sometimes finishing a series would trigger an event in the world; other times, not. I found some puzzles that I was unable to solve in the short time I had, but in those cases, I just walked over to another area to see what else I could find.
The world of The Witness is totally open. You can walk just about anywhere at any time. In fact, when I looked over the shoulder of the player who had the appointment after mine, he had immediately ventured into an area I never saw in my playthrough. For some areas of the map, you’d need to solve a sequence of puzzles in order to progress deeper into a section, but I never felt pressured to accomplish every task immediately. This game shows no snobbishness about letting the player take time to think through solutions, or to walk away and return with a clear mind.
The game has a striking visual style, unsurprising for the designer who gave us Braid. But where that game is soft and painterly, The Witness is vibrant with color. The various components of the world looked like abstractions, impressionism rather than realism. Knowing Blow’s history for seeking the highest quality in his work, I felt that each detail had a purpose. Everything from the shapes of the trees to the layout of the buildings to the choices in environments seemed intentional. Anything could be a hint as to where I was and why.
That sense of tight control gave the game an otherworldliness, a feeling that you are someplace where you probably don’t belong. Fortunately, the tone never veered into the tense loneliness of a horror game. The world here is mysterious, yes, but not malicious.
Playing through this take of The Witness, unfinished as it is, was still highly enjoyable. The game’s hands-off approach, letting the player have near-total agency in the world, never left me frustrated. Quite the contrary;
the experience was relaxing, even meditative.the experience was relaxing, even meditative. I’m very curious to know how any accompanying narrative will be woven into the final result, but my guess is that it will adhere to the thoughtful tone that’s been set in this version.
The Witness was one of my most anticipated games going in to E3, and for as many great titles as I saw at the show this week, it’s still the one I’m most excited to play in full. Blow and his team are aiming for a 2014 release, but as with any perfectionist, the game will be ready when it’s ready.