With 100 Hours of Puzzles, 'The Witness' Is the Kind of Gamble Gaming Needs

It's a kind of puzzle epic I don't think we've seen before.

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Oct 28 2015, 2:00pm

Image: The Witness

The Witness, Jonathan Blow's first game since his critically acclaimed Braid, starts in a long dark tunnel. I walk toward the light at the end, where there's a door with a screen showing a simple maze. I draw a line from beginning to end, and the door opens onto an island that looks like something between Myst and the '60s science-fiction TV show The Prisoner.

At every corner of this island are more screens with increasingly complex mazes. Nobody tells me how I'm supposed solve them, or that I even should, but I do. Most games are pretty explicit about what a player should be doing. There are on-screen prompts, tutorials, or a gruffy drill sergeant yelling at you to take out the enemy. Nobody talked to me during the hour or so I got to spend with a near-final build of The Witness last week, but that doesn't mean I didn't have a conversation. It's just a kind of conversation that's harder to explain, a non-verbal language of puzzles unique to video games.

Blow told me that it will take about 100 hours to see all of The Witness, and all of them are dedicated to exploring this unspoken language of puzzles, which is so essential to games as a medium, but that we're still struggling to understand. It's a bold experiment Blow has spent six years of his life and a significant portion of his savings making, which is a crazy gamble considering how risk-averse the games market is right now. But I'm glad someone's crazy enough to try this. It's a kind of puzzle epic I don't think we've seen before.

I was completely enthralled for the hour or so I played of The Witness.

"If you talk to a game designer any time in the past couple of decades and ask what makes them different from movies and plays or whatever, they'll say interactivity, obviously," Blow told me. "And that's true, it's obvious, but I think that in general we haven't mastered what that means when you get down to the detail. You can shoot stuff in games, and things happen in response, okay cool. That's a relatively coarse understanding, but how do we find details of what we can do with that?"

Different mazes around The Witness's island seem to operate according to different logical themes. A series of mazes on a cliff by the beach, for example, had me draw two lines through each maze simultaneously, one blue and one orange. At first, they operate like a simple maze with a mirror image, but with each following maze the idea is evolved or subverted expectations. Some mazes had me draw the lines in opposite directions, so each turn had to solve two different puzzles at once. Another had the orange line fade out until it was invisible, so I had to plot its course through the maze, guessing it's position according to the still visible blue line. I felt like a goddamn genius when I solved those, though I'm not, really.

Image: The Witness

That's the magic of a good puzzle, and I can't help but feel like I fail to do that magic justice when describing it in words. It's easier to talk about first-person shooters. They borrow heavily from action movies, so much of the vocabulary to discuss them is already in place, and since it's such a popular genre, we've cobbled together terms like "gunplay" and "verticality" to discuss the quality of the guns or level design.

Puzzles have always been a part of video games, but they've always been more difficult to talk about. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as the saying goes, than writing about puzzles is like dancing about a Tetris.

"With film, once they figured out how to move the camera around, they had a better answer for how films are different from plays," Blow said. "There were specific things they can do with the camera to create different effects. In games, I don't feel like we have that for interactivity. Interactivity is still this general idea that's very vague. People go into a little bit of specifics, like meaningful choice and things like that. But I've honed in here on at least one thing that I think is very interesting, which is that flow of that communication that happens, and can happen over a long time."

"When I make a puzzle, it can't just be, 'here's a hard puzzle to solve, can you figure it out?'"

Braid, a 2D platformer where players solve puzzles by manipulating the flow of time, did something similar, but on a much smaller scope. It takes about five hours to finish Braid, whereas it takes about 100 hours to see all of The Witness, Blow said. Braid is also easier to explain (It's like Super Mario Bros. only you control time), whereas there are little to no reference points to compare The Witness to.

The closest game that comes to mind is Myst, which similarly let a player explore an island filled with puzzles. Blow even mentioned it as an influence.

"I really liked the game at a time, I spent two days in front of it," he said. "In high school I used to play text adventures from Infocom, those were my favorite games. Now that I go back and look at it, I don't like a lot of what the game does and how it does it."

Image: The Witness

Looking back, Myst seemed enamored with crappy, pre-rendered 3D graphics, and wasn't that good about that whole non-verbal communication thing. It was filled with puzzles, but their logic was arbitrary when compared to The Witness' carefully constructed island, where everything you see is there for a reason.

"Designing this kind of game is very challenging because every layer of it has to be meaningful," Blow said. "When I make a puzzle, it can't just be, 'here's a hard puzzle to solve, can you figure it out?' It has to have an idea behind it that's different than any other idea of every other puzzle."

It's also harder to design a game like The Witness because so few games are fully committed to puzzles this way. Valve's Portal comes to mind, but even that game relied on a heavily narrated science-fiction story, some first-person shooter tropes, and references to Valve's celebrated first-person shooter Half-Life. It's also only six hours long, as are a couple of first-person puzzle in its vein like Quantum Conundrum and C.U.B.E.

"I have a couple of game designer friends I talk to about this stuff, I think most game designers are thinking about games in a different way, which is totally fine," Blow said. "But it's not like I go to game conferences and look for useful information about how to design games anymore."

I was completely enthralled for the hour or so I played of The Witness. It's hard to imagine 99 more hours on that island and how those puzzles will continue evolve, but I'm excited to find out.

The Witness will release on January 26, 2016, for PC and PlayStation 4. It doesn't have a price yet, which brings up another interesting question: How much are people willing to pay for a game like this? Blow doesn't know, but said that the standard $60 for retail games "sounds greedy," not that he doesn't think The Witness is worth it.

"Given how different the game is, I'm surprised at how much people like it," Blow said. "Usually with something like this, some people like it, and some people it's not their thing, but so far nobody totally hates it."