How Jonathan Blow’s greatest work was founded not upon maze puzzles, but moments of magic
The Witness is a game about maze puzzles, yes: more importantly, it is a game about how we communicate. The idea for the game was rattling around inside creator Jonathan Blow’s head long before he decided to make Braid, his breakthrough hit – and was also, in its own way, inspired by ‘80s Infocom text adventure Trinity. Written by Brian Moriarty, and taking the form of a prose poem about the atrocities of the atomic bomb, Trinity spoke to a young Blow, who attributes it to a shift in his mindset about what art, and videogames, could be. Just as Braid was never going to be just another platformer, The Witness was never just going to be about maze puzzles.
The Witness started as a side-project, a prototype in which you used mouse gestures to draw shapes on a screen and cast various spells. Blow visualised it as similar to Arx Fatalis, with new spells written on scrolls and hidden in dungeons for players to find. “But then, I had the idea that maybe the most powerful, or interesting, spells that you could cast were hidden in ways that you may or may not recognise,” he says. “I had this picture of walking along a path and way up onto a mountain…” Anyone who has played The Witness will recognise this turn of events: a “magic moment”, as Blow calls it, that made it into the final game, and would be the first, crucial distillation of The Witness’ spirit.
But the spell casting game was not to be. “If I knew what I know today, I might have gone back and made that game, because The Witness ended up being relatively large and a lot of work to make,” Blow says. “But back then, I was thinking, ‘I can’t make this because it’s going to be too big and complicated. I’ve got to do something easier than this; let me do a 2D game.’ So I went off and did Braid. But that picture stood with me – of standing up on that mountain and realising something significant.”
Developing Braid taught Blow a useful skill: to focus on the best part of a game’s idea, and build something simpler around it. He cut away the spells, dungeons and monsters from his original concept, and was left with the mountain – and line-drawing. “I thought, maybe you can solve a puzzle in a maze – I don’t know where that came from, but it was some application of being able to draw lines.” As he explored the possibilities of this basic idea, thinking outside the puzzle pane alone, the two sides of The Witness started to come together.
“Now the puzzles weren’t just an excuse for something. They were legitimate in their own way,” Blow says. “And there was this extra part that also by itself could be the point of the game. So it just got bigger.” Blow placed huge pressure on himself to fully flesh out The Witness’ core conceit. “If we make a game about one or two ways that information in the environment could help solve a puzzle, then the game is about one or two ways. If we make a game about a bunch of ways, then the game is generally about the phenomenon. If a player plays to the end, and says, ‘Wouldn’t it have been cool if there had been something that you had to hear, and understand what the sound meant?’ And I say, ‘I never thought of that’, then I failed as a designer.”
Building The Witness was uniquely difficult; its non-traditional design demanded nontraditional solutions. But Blow’s ultimate goal was to ensure everything in the game worked as an interconnected whole; that there was nothing that wasn’t meaningful in some concrete way.
The Witness’ Technicolor island was made openended, with discrete zones able to be visited in any order. “It was about having faith that the player can take initiative, and has their own opinion about where they want to go, and what things they want to do right now,” Blow says.
Each zone teaches the player a different set of symbols and rules for puzzles: not through any kind of verbal instruction, but as step-by-step series of puzzle panels, either placed adjacent to one another or connected to the next by a neon-lit wire. The beginning of each maze is marked by a circle, and the endpoint is visibly rounded off. You learn simply by trying, and failing, and eventually succeeding. Complete all required panels in a zone, and you’ll activate a laser, seven of which you’ll need to reach one of The Witness’ two ‘endings’.
Upon the game’s release, many players bounced right off the prospect of hundreds of puzzles presented in a uniform way – in a world that, colourful as it is, can feel strangely cold. “It’s intentionally a very static place,” Blow says. Practical reasons contributed: Blow’s development team was small, and needed to make a simple game without too many moving parts. But it was also an aesthetic choice. “I didn’t want this to be a game where you’re talking to people, because it’s supposed to be about being introspective.”
If Braid was Blow’s first study of the power of non-verbal communication, The Witness would be his graduate thesis in how players might interpret, almost like body language, the deliberate placement of objects and objectives. “There’s sort of a rapport that you can come to with the contents of the game. They talk to you.” But he knew that not everyone would be able to hear the message. “Some people say that the game is very repetitive. At one level, that is true. It’s intentional, because we’re trying not to obfuscate the situation by making you figure out the basic differences in interactivity from one location to another. But the exciting part of the game is what goes on in your mind when you look at something and understand it.”
The magic of The Witness is in that flash of insight on the mountain. “That really was the core of the game, and it’s a very beautiful thing – but it’s also a very delicate thing,” Blow says. And so, panel by panel and zone by zone, The Witness begins to ask for a little more than just a line from A to B, sometimes gently directing attention beyond the puzzle panels themselves or requiring a change in perspective. It becomes more organic, less mechanic. It even makes jokes.
Most of these moments involve subverting expectations using the game’s visual language
“SOME PEOPLE SAY THAT THE GAME IS VERY REPETITIVE. AT ONE LEVEL, THAT IS TRUE. BUT IT’S INTENTIONAL”
of lines and grids, or require a more physical change in perspective as the player moves the camera into the right position. “But the intent is to not make that be the only thing. It’s also about what you had to notice. Was it colour? Was it shape? Was it the negative space? So we tried to do those, and make them unique every time. It was the hardest design thing, because if I messed that up, then the game wasn’t magical.”
The Witness is constructed around epiphany: the thrill of, having learned something new, seeing the world with fresh eyes. But while Blow is the magician, using misdirection so that we often don’t see what’s under our noses, it’s the player that is given the responsibility of each trick’s prestige. “If I’m walking you into the theatre and sitting you in one exact spot, putting glasses of a certain shape on you, and tilting your head in a certain direction, and then say, ‘Look at the curtain!’ and then I pull open the curtain and say ‘Ta-dah!’, that’s just not going to be magical, right?” Blow says. “Maybe something clever happened, but it was so forced that it’s not real. Coming to a real understanding has to involve the person’s participation.”
Audio logs and videos scattered about the island encourage further player involvement, featuring quotes that touch on ideas of science, religion and art. They’re not collectibles, as such: technically, everything you find stays exactly where it is. “I prefer when rewards are internal to the game,” Blow says. “In a totally different genre of game, you might have rewards that are different: a really good sword in an RPG, for example. The Witness doesn’t really have anything like that. The explicit design decision was that there would be no inventory because it’s all about carrying ideas around in your mind. So that made certain things difficult; you can’t really fall back on tried-and-true game design.” The constant visibility of activated lasers in the sky, stretching towards the mountain; the opening of doors around the island and hidden shortcuts as you progress; the quiet but satisfying audiovisual feedback of completing a panel: “Those things I regard as a softer, subtler equivalent of explicit rewards,” Blow tells us. “I think some people critical of the game think it’s some kind of sadistic exercise in denying acknowledgement for your achievements, but it’s not that.”
Quite the opposite. The concept of making a generous game was at the forefront of his mind,
thanks to a fairly recent GDC talk he attended by the author of Trinity and now-professor Brian Moriarty. “The part that I really found guiding,” Blow says, “even before The Witness, back to Braid and earlier experiments, was the part where he talks about generosity. How the best things in the world are generous, and they give you what they have for free. And all it requires is your own investigation.” Development began on The Witness back in 2008, at a time where manipulative Facebook games, achievements and microtransactions were taking off. “Many designers think, ‘How do I make the player do something? How do I make the player put more money in the game?’ And [Moriarty] was saying exactly the opposite thing – that the goal is, ‘How do I make the most generous thing?’ For both Braid and The Witness, that was a guiding principle.” It is no coincidence, then, that Moriarty’s lecture is one of The Witness’ greatest rewards.
It’s an inclusion symbolic of Blow’s desire to give players an equally meaningful experience; a taste of inspiration. “I have a little bit of a reputation as a curmudgeon, where once in a while I’ll say things… I’ve tried to become more aware of that over time, and do it less, but I’m very critical of things that are wrong in games. The thing that I think people never understood is that that’s actually also my internal voice, and it applies much more to my own designs, because I see them much more closely. So the problems that I see are both deeper and much more numerous! And my job as a designer is to solve these, or make sure that what I give you to play is as free of those problems as I can humanly make them. That, combined with doing this in-depth exploration, and having to visit all these points in the space, is why the game got so big.
“I’ve played games for a long time now. I can feel when they’re scoped down, and I don’t like it,” Blow says. “Luckily with The Witness, we had enough money to actually build out the full game, and so we didn’t have to scope it down. I will always choose to do that if I have the option. I would rather make the better thing that has more value to give to people over the thing that I can get done expediently.” Blow’s fear, essentially, was that The Witness wouldn’t be everything it was meant to be. “It was doubt that I was going to do the core idea justice, or that there would be enough beauty in the experience. I was always worried that I was being too ugly and clumsy.”
To say he needn’t have worried is, perhaps, inaccurate: The Witness is sublime, but only because Blow cared so deeply about it as a tribute to his inspirations, to the nature of inspiration itself, and as a means of sharing that with others. In November 2017, professor Moriarty would go on to give a follow-up lecture at AdventureX about The Witness, having played it and understood the true extent of his impact on a teenage Blow. “You cannot know how or if the games you make will touch the lives of players,” Moriarty says, his voice filled with emotion. “If we are remembered at all, it will only be because young people are so easily impressed.”
In the keep, smaller maze puzzles are built into larger ones, exemplifying the game’s philosophy of interconnectedness