Jonathan Blow designed puzzles in The Witness to give players all the information they need without saying a word. Some of these puzzles are self-contained, with each next step evolving from rules set down with the first step. Some puzzles, however, require players to search back all the way to what they learned closer to the beginning of the game, compiling experiences to solve them.
Each puzzle introduces an idea that will be needed to solve other puzzles throughout the world. Puzzles involve tracing a path through designs embedded on panels scattered throughout the game. Some puzzles may require looking through a web of broken branches to determine the correct tracing path, or knowing that black and white colored tiles must be separated. Later panel puzzles will be used to do more complicated things, like operate machinery and open doors. Players must determine this on their own; there is no verbal communication during the game. During our hands-on time with the game at E3, Blow told Polygon he wanted to create a game that was easy to understand but still as challenging as older, traditional adventure games.
"What I'm doing with all these design elements is subtracting out all the ambiguity and flailing that happens classically in adventure games," he said. "I'll be playing Myst or something and pull a lever, and I'll have no idea what it does. It could do anything on any object anywhere in the world. So we subtract that out....unless we want it. We can bring that ambiguity back for specific puzzles, but only if we want it to."
While Blow isn't fond of the term "open world," The Witness is open world in the sense that players can solve any puzzle at any time — provided they know how. Blow reiterated that earlier puzzles will teach solving skills and rules that will form the foundation of later, more complicated puzzles. Players could run ahead through the in-game island's myriad environments and start these puzzles whenever they want, in theory; but once they get stuck, backtracking to learn the rule sets of early-game puzzles would be the best idea.
"I'm subtracting out all the ambiguity and flailing that happens classically in adventure games."
"It's another problem that adventure games have," Blow explained. "I'm stuck on this puzzle, I'm literally stuck and I don't know what to do. So I'm looking in the game for clues about what to do. If it's a big game full of stuff you just might be going everywhere, looking here and there for clues."
To prevent players from running in circles looking for a solution, Blow has made each island environment visually unique. Ruby-red marshes and orange-capped forests don't bleed into each other, but are clearly delineated by empty dirt pathways that gradually lead into brush and leafy canopies. This, Blow said, was to ensure that players don't wander the world looking for hints, but keep themselves in the area of the puzzle they are trying to solve. Players won't be tromping across the whole island (it takes one minute to run across the whole thing) searching for needles in haystacks.
"You could be stumped for a long time," Blow said, "but there are a couple allowances in the game for that. Within each area you have relatively linear progress,so if you were to open up one area and it's not the right one yet and you don't get it, you can leave and progress to any other area. But you also don't have to be a completionist to finish the game."
Blow said that to "win" the game, or unlock the final area, players will need to complete seven of The Witness's 11 environments. But you get "a better thing" at the end for completing all 11.
For Blow, building puzzles can begin two ways: with the end or with the concept. Sometimes Blow builds an area around a puzzle or makes a puzzle for a specific area, with some environments shrinking or expanding depending on how complex the puzzle becomes. Oftentimes Blow builds puzzles based on the area's layout, such as creating a small square puzzle that mimics which side of the room the door is on.
"There's a tension between wanting to provide this story thing and the nice, non-verbal interaction."
"Sometimes I start with the ending idea, like, I want to have this kind of an area. I start with the ending idea and I want puzzles like this or that where this happens," he explained. "Then I build an area around it."
Currently, the total puzzle count for The Witness is sitting at just above 625. But besides more puzzles, the game is also getting something else: a story.
"There will be a story in the final version," Blow said. "The one main thing we have to do before release is get the story nailed down and recorded. It's going to be audiolog-style where you find recordings in the environment."
The challenge with the audiologs, however, is that is players can collect them in any order by virtue of completing the game's different environments in any order. This means that creating a coherent storyline requires some fancy footwork. Blow is hoping to build a narrative that, when separated into parts, will allow players to interpret things for themselves depending on which set of recordings they find first.
"The thing that I'm playing with right now is, how much do I want to do that?" he said. "Because there's a tension between wanting to provide this story thing and the nice, non-verbal interaction that happens here. If we're talking at you all the time... Well, there's a balance to find."
Blow said he's hoping to launch The Witness for PlayStation 4 and PC this year, though if it does slip into next year it won't be by much.