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


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.”

For­mat An­droid, iOS, PC, PS4, Xbox One De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Thekla, Inc Ori­gin US Re­lease 2016

In the keep, smaller maze puzzles are built into larger ones, ex­em­pli­fy­ing the game’s phi­los­o­phy of in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness





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