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How The Witness devs design to both imitate and iterate on life

Luis Antonio, senior 3D artist at independent developer Thekla, has an interesting approaching to artistic design. In a talk at GDC this morning, Antonio explained how the studio's tiny art team studied artworks of realism and real-world geography to make the visuals of Jonathan Blow's The Witness an extension of the exploration puzzle title's gameplay.

Antonio explained Blow wanted to minimize the amount of noise players are exposed to; there is no ambient audio in any of the game's several environments. Additionally, the art must support and extend the gameplay principles — building on the puzzles created for each area — and the island environment must be based on real-world islands. On the subject of the latter, Antonio said the development team strove to create realistic physics systems, visuals and other movements in order to create a more immersive, believable space.

The design team researched how other artists portray real subjects in order to build the islands of The Witness. They studied how textures are represented, and whether they can be removed from geometry completely for a "cleaner" look without breaking playing immersion. By creating "clean" environments and reducing texture but keeping tiny details, the team strove to make architecture more attractive and appealing.

One thing the team has had to keep asking themselves is if the gameplay of The Witness benefis from the semi-realistic environmental art style. How do you ground a game in reality while still stylizing it in some way? What is the relationship between real-world islands and The Witness's islands? The team studied how landscapes influence the architecture of some civilizations, imitating within the game how these structures adapt and meld into the natural world.

Reducing "noise" of foliage in The Witness was also a challenge, Antonio said. Scrapping too much texture made trees and bushes look flat and boring, but making them too visually noisy would be too jarring and detract from puzzles. The team strove to give foliage volume and shape without putting in a ton of details, focusing on the properties of fauna rather than its individual pieces and their textures. In the game, leaves on trees look more like clusters rather than tiny individually-placed pieces, for example.

Through the above design philosophies, Antonio said he hopes players will feel as though the world is built to visually guide them through it, encouraging them forward towards their goals.

The Witness will launch as a timed console exclusive on PlayStation 4 later this year, with Windows PC and iOS versions coming later.

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