In 2008, developer Jonathan Blow released Braid, a 2D platformer with puzzling gameplay and a gorgeous, hand-drawn visual style. It blew up on Xbox Live Arcade and became one of the main titles people pointed at as part of the "indie game" revolution.
One year later, in 2009, he announced his follow-up, an adventure puzzle game called The Witness.
"I thought it was going to be a much smaller game at the time, so when I announced it, I said ‘coming Christmas 2011,'" Blow recalls, laughing. "Of course, the reaction on the internet was, ‘Oh my god, that's so far in the future. Why are they even bothering announcing it two years ahead of time?' Now it's six and a half years later."
There's no doubt that it's been an unexpectedly long journey for Blow's next project, but The Witness is finally nearing completion. We've played 20-plus hours of it, and what we've discovered is an engrossing, challenging puzzle game that refuses to hold players' hands and isn't afraid of its audience getting stuck.
This is, confirms Blow, all according to plan.
Technically, the roots of The Witness extend all the way back to the mid-'90s, when Blow was a college student and the popular Mac adventure game Myst had finally made the transition to Windows. Blow had always been drawn to Myst's intriguing world, but he didn't have a Mac back then. When the game became available on Windows PCs, he jumped at the opportunity to finally check it out.
"I really enjoyed it," Blow says. "That was before I became a professional game designer. These days, looking at the design of Myst, there are things that I would do very differently. That's a big part of why The Witness is the game that it is."
Blow says that The Witness is "very deliberately an homage to Myst," and for anyone who's played both, this is clear from The Witness' earliest moments. You exit a strange cave and enter an island devoid of all other life. The only thing to do is wander around the island solving puzzles.
However, with The Witness Blow seeks to fix "one of the things that's most broken about Myst and that whole genre of games." Namely: pixel hunting.
"Point-and-click games generally have some version of pixel hunting," he says. "You look at everything you come across and wonder, is this thing interactive or what? In Myst, you come up to some elaborate, beautiful machine, and you start clicking on different parts of it, and eventually you find the knob that you're allowed to turn, and then you don't know what it does. Back at the time when that game came out, that was a totally acceptable thing to do. It was decades ago in game design. But these days, I don't think that's a very good idea."
"I set it as my goal to explore every possibility and take the most interesting ones."
The Witness attempts to solve this problem with a sort of unifying theme to all of its puzzles. Virtually every puzzle in the game takes place on one of hundreds of "panels" that are littered throughout the island. These panels often feature a grid of lines, and your goal is to draw a line on them from a specific starting point to a specific ending point.
To put it another way: All of the puzzles in The Witness are, in their most simplest form, mazes of some sort.
"One of the basic goals driving the design of The Witness was to take this very simple thing — 'hey, I'm drawing a line in a little maze' — and see how much I could actually do with that," says Blow. "I set it as my goal to explore every possibility and take the most interesting ones and give them to people."
This singular focus for The Witness' puzzles provides the game a consistency; it serves as a glue holding the experience together. Whereas in Myst or other puzzle games, players might reach a point of not knowing what to do or where to go, in The Witness the goal is always clear — solve more panels — even if the solutions themselves are incredibly challenging.
Blow compares that consistency in game design to filmmaking.
"A cinematographer gets a really specific idea about why they're doing everything a certain way," he says. "I'm not that well-educated in film, so when I go to see a film, I don't notice that stuff. But the film probably feels better for it even if you don't notice it."
Part of Blow's thinking here was to modify the adventure game genre to help it catch up in ways that he believes it's fallen behind compared to other genres.
"If you look at other genres of games, there's an idea of what the flow is," he explains. "A racing game has a flow to it. There's this thing that you expect the player to be doing. A first-person shooter has something like that that's more complex. Puzzle adventure games never figured out what that thing is. That's part of what I've been trying to do is figure that flow out, to get to a point where there's less fumbling and less figuring out how to interact with the game and more of the actual game."
And just how much "actual game" can Blow wring out of a concept as seemingly simple as drawing lines in a maze? Quite a bit apparently. The near-final build of the game we were shown has close to 650 total panels to solve. You don't need to solve all of them to finish the game, but Blow estimates that those who try to go for 100 percent completion will spend over 80 hours in The Witness. The math seems to check out; in our 20 hours we only managed to solve about 150 puzzles.
The sheer size and density of The Witness provide the first clues as to why it has taken the game so long to surface. Seven years between games is a terribly long time even for a major triple-A developer; for a smaller independent team, it's virtually unheard of. And yet Blow has a few very simple explanations for what's kept the game in development.
"One thing is that it just ended up being a much bigger game than I thought," he says. "One of our choices was to scope it down. We could have gotten rid of a lot of stuff we wanted to do, made the world smaller, made it less about unique details and unique places and start reusing things so we didn't have to build as much stuff. We could have decided not to make our own engine and just use Unity or something."
Unsurprisingly, Blow wasn't thrilled by these options. And unlike many smaller development houses, he had the resources to take his time, thanks to Braid's incredible success.
"Since I wasn't forced to ship it, I just kept going," Blow says. "As long as it looked like we were going to have the money and time to make this thing, we decided to make it the best thing we can."
"Since I wasn't forced to ship it, I just kept going."
The "we" there refers to a team of eight that Blow has pulled together piece by piece during the years of The Witness' development. In addition to funding himself for years, money from Braid allowed him to staff up and pull in a small group of other developers to help out.
For as much as his name is often brought up as a solo developer, Blow recognizes the importance of collaboration. He admits that a lot of Braid's success is due to the artwork by David Hellman. Likewise, The Witness' early screenshots looked sparse and simplistic, but the game has received an astonishing visual overhaul, much of which Blow credits to a single member of his team: Orsolya Spanyol, who he hired four years ago.
"Orsolya was straight out of school, no industry experience when she applied," Blow says. "I actually hired her as a concept artist four years ago. I liked her use of color, and she was applying for a job. We needed to figure out the look of the game, so we brought her on. I thought maybe, just maybe, she could model a few things, but I wasn't expecting much because she was just out of school. Now, within one year, she was doing some of the most beautiful scenes in the game. A lot of the most visually arresting areas are all hers."
Again, Blow owes a lot of his ability to expand on The Witness, and create the game he believes in, to Braid's success. In fact, he believes there's not really any other scenario under which The Witness could have been created, even with the backing of a huge publisher.
"For non-triple-A games, it's not very often that you get something that is really ambitious and really pushing the limits of what can be done," Blow says. "Even in triple-A, you get that, but only in limited categories. You get ambition in graphics or fidelity of the world or production values. But you almost never get it in design, because triple-A design has to be a little bit conservative, because you have to make back hundreds of millions of dollars.
"You're not going to make hundreds of millions of dollars making a game where you draw a line through a maze for 80 hours."
While our recent time with The Witness is by far the most extensive hands-on time Blow has offered for the game, it's not the first time the game has been shown. In fact, The Witness' first public demo was not intended for press at all.
In 2010, before Blow had staffed up and before he fully understood the full scope of The Witness, he secretly put the game at a booth at the Penny Arcade Expo.
"We took the corner of a booth that had some other games in it, and there was no sign," he says. "It was a little inconvenient, because there was a crowd at the rest of the booth. But people would come and play this game that they had no idea what it was or who made it. I was sort of secretly watching."
Blow says he wanted to provide people with a surprise and gauge their reaction to his strange, subtle game. He was not treating it as focus testing, however.
"I work very differently from a lot of designers," says Blow. "A lot of people when they sit down to design a puzzle game, they try to think up some smart things that are hard to figure out, stuff where people will be like ‘Gotcha!' and figure it out and feel smart themselves. That's step one. Then step two, they think of how to teach those mechanics to players."
Blow cites Valve as one of the best developers at this style of design, although he notes with a sigh that they "haven't designed a game in a long time." But Blow himself doesn't believe in designing this way, because he thinks it can lead to overly conservative, hand-holding gameplay.
"The Witness is the anti-Nintendo," Blow says with a smile. "Nintendo has to have a little fairy follow you around and tell you everything all the time. Those kind of games drive me nuts. This is going the other way. It's more like the original Legend of Zelda, which didn't tell you anything. But at some point — a lot of companies do this, they start making a game, and they put it through focus testing, and any time someone gets stuck you consider it bad and change the game. That leads to extremely conservative, mechanical games."
Blow is certain that players will get stuck in The Witness. He's just not afraid of it; this is why he's designed it as an open-world game.
"If a game's really linear, and you have something really hard in the middle and someone gets stuck, you sort of just screwed them," he says. "And different people get stuck on different things, so it's not like if I'm a good designer I'll design something that no one gets stuck on. If you're going to design something that no one gets stuck on, it has to not really be a puzzle."
Instead, Blow has embraced non-linear design. When a player gets stuck in any particular area, they have the freedom to run to a different area, a different set of puzzles, and try to solve those instead.
"I like open-world games," Blow says. "It's the coolest thing in the world to see something in the game that's really far away and just go there. That used to not be technologically possible except by cheating, but now it's possible."
And sure enough, you can go pretty much anywhere you can see in The Witness from the very start of the game. Want to run off to the windmill near the center of the island? Feel free. See a shipwreck off the coast that you'd like to explore? It's all yours. Blow has built in a generously speedy run button that will allow players to cross from one end of the island to the other in just a few minutes. It's far from the biggest landmass ever seen in an open-world game, but to Blow size isn't the point; density is.
"I don't like developers competing over how big their world is," he says. "A bigger world leads to a lot of downtime or boring time as a player, because you've got to go somewhere. Or you get something like Skyrim that has fast travel, but then it's not really a world anymore."
Instead, Blow has built a more reasonably-sized world in The Witness, but one that has puzzles to solve at every turn and many recognizable landmarks, such as a giant castle or a set of desert ruins. Different areas are set apart from each other both by distinct looks and colors — a green swamp, a vibrant red forest, etc. — and by puzzles that follow a certain thread of logic from beginning to end.
For his part, Blow says he designs puzzles to be "first and foremost a representation of an idea, non-verbally." Rather than just being a tricky thing for a player to solve, he wants each puzzle to say something to the player. He does this by actually writing out a sentence for each puzzle.
"When I sit down to start designing a puzzle, the first thing I ask is what the sentence describing it would say," Blow explains. "It might be like ‘OK, you can separate black spots from white spots. And they can be in groups. And it can matter what direction you wind around.' Each of those is a specific statement. Those statements get more subtle and sophisticated as the game goes on, so that by the end, if you were to try to say what you were doing when with one of the more complicated puzzles in the game, it would probably be like two paragraphs long."
While Blow's puzzles obviously go through an iteration process, he says that he's never changed how hard The Witness is or changed what a puzzle says based off of watching players struggle with it. In fact, he's entirely certain that there are puzzles in the game that the vast majority of players won't be able to solve.
"There's this one puzzle," Blow says, grinning. "We might make it a little bit easier, but we could ship it is as is. Without walkthroughs, I'm sure that less than one percent of people will figure it out."
Much has shifted in the landscape of gaming during the six-plus years that The Witness has been in development. Braid blew up in part thanks to the less-crowded indie landscape of 2008, and in part thanks to a major push on Xbox Live Arcade from Microsoft. But Blow's relationship with Microsoft has worsened, and his intended platforms for The Witness have changed.
"Originally I was thinking we'd do Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ports, which, if you think back to the early graphics that we showed, it's feasible," Blow says. "As the game got more ambitious, we were looking at those consoles and saying, 'Oh my god, this thing's not going to work.'"
Blow casually announced that he no longer intended to do 360 or PS3 versions of The Witness on Twitter about a year prior to Sony and Microsoft announcing a new generation of consoles. Blow calls this announcement "an internet shitstorm," but he says even then he recognized that it would be too hard to make an open-world game with high-density graphics work on old hardware with limited memory.
Not long after that announcement, Blow got a call from Sony.
"Sony called us up and said, ‘Hey, we're going to announce our new console,'" Blow recalls. "'Do you guys want to be on stage and do the trailer? By the way, that's two weeks from now.' So we had two weeks to make our game look good and make a trailer, which we'd never done before. That was an entertaining two weeks."
At the time, Blow had been in talks with Sony for years, and their relationship was great. Simultaneously, his ties to Microsoft were deteriorating.
"I'm a partner in Indie Fund, and after indie games on XBLA started to become a big thing, we were funding a lot of people," says Blow. "From 2009 to 2012 or so, XBLA was the big place to get your game. Microsoft was very draconian about what they would force people to sign. As a partner in this fund, I would do my share in fighting back against them to get reasonable terms. That was a very big turn-off for me. Now that they've got this successful platform that developers want to be on, they're showing their true colors, in terms of what they think about those developers and how they want to treat them."
Still, Blow says he was friendly with some of the people running Microsoft's independent developer outreach program, and he wanted to give them a shot. After hearing from Sony about the upcoming PlayStation 4 announcement in 2013, Blow reached out to Microsoft as well.
"I emailed them and said, 'Hey we're getting all this information from a major competitor about an upcoming machine,'" he says. "I asked if they could get us in on the ground floor of whatever they were doing so we could be prepared. The response was that there was no avenue for that. I had a PlayStation 4 devkit already, and at that time Microsoft didn't even have that."
Sony, on the other hand, has continued to impress Blow with its approach to indie developers, including giving smaller devs room on their show floor at E3 and even providing Blow with a private theater to show off The Witness for a full day of the show one year.
"I can't speak to whether Sony actually values indie developers or not, but it sure seems like it," he says.
In addition to PlayStation 4, The Witness will be released at the same time on Windows PCs and later on iOS. Blow says he's looking carefully at the recently-revealed Apple TV as well but isn't yet sure if it will be powerful enough to run The Witness.
Summing up a game as deep and complex as The Witness isn't easy, but Blow has spent six years thinking about the game, refining it and working to understand what it is. He's up to the challenge.
"The Witness is a game about that transition that happens in your head from being confused to understanding the situation," says Blow. "It happens instantaneously. Designers in the past have talked about wanting people to have that ah-ha moment where they solve a puzzle. That's sort of what I mean, but what I'm aiming at is a little bit different or maybe more specific. It's maybe a certain kind of ah-ha moment."
Here's where Blow reveals The Witness' greatest trick: It's not only that he's not scared of players getting stuck, but that getting stuck is actually a key part of the process. It's a requirement to the feeling he wants the game to create.
"It's as much of a brick wall as possible."
"I try to make puzzles in The Witness as simple as they can be," Blow says. "You just don't get it. It's not only that you don't get it, but you don't feel like there's anything to tell you how to get it. It's as much of a brick wall as possible, with no red herrings or anything. So eventually, when you manage to stick your head through that brick wall and see what's past it, it's the most magical. I'm designing to optimize the experience of having those miniature epiphanies over and over again."
While it's been a long and winding road, The Witness is nearing its end. Blow has a little over four months until the just-announced release date of January 26, 2016. And while he doesn't know if it will be a success on the same level as Braid, he's finally allowing himself to think about the future and what comes next.
Blow says he has "at least three games" that he's considering creating next. One of them already has a working prototype with 40 hours of gameplay, but he's not sure if that will actually be the next game he works on.
Whichever project he pursues next, there is one thing Blow is sure of.
"I would like to make the next game in much less time," he says. "But I also don't want to sacrifice quality to do that, so there's going to have to be some figuring out how that happens."