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When we last saw the upcoming game from Jonathan Blow this summer, The Witness already looked like an intriguing experience. The way that Blow's game design interwove puzzles and environmental cues created a hypnotic level of immersion where you had to pay attention to a gameworld like never before.
As a result of updated designs from a partnership with architecture firms FOURM Design and David Fletcher Studio, the look of The Witness' world and the resultant immersion will get even deeper. In a new post on the game's Witness website, Blow talks about updating the aesthetics of The Witness from the blocky placeholder structures previously seen to newer models with real-world architectural details:
If you see the different civilizations that came to this island as embodying different philosophies; and you see the structures they built as representative of the way these philosophies led them to interact with the world; and you see further that when they replaced a site, it represents the rejection of some older worldview that they consider no longer useful, then perhaps you start to get some idea of the amount of backstory that can be encoded into the world, nonverbally.
Further down, Blow explains even more what's driving the re-envisioning of his project's look:
Having smart architecture, it seems, really helps this process work, brings it alive. If you build a game where people are supposed to pay attention to details, but the details are wrong or naive or just don't have much thought put into them, then at some level the game just won't work. Even if you don't know the first thing about architecture, you have been in enough buildings in your life that the deeper parts of your brain have distilled plenty of patterns about those buildings. Your brain knows the difference between a real building and a nonsense building that wouldn't occur in the real world. It can feel the difference in veracity between carefully-thought-out structural details - on the one hand - versus stuff that was just placed by a level designer to look cool.
When I got my hands on The Witness this summer, the incongruity of the game's landscapes struck me as being on purpose. Were these structures from different dimensions? Were they meant to symbolize different states of consciousness in Blow's mysterious new adventure game? Now that Blow's offered some insight as to how interconnected the whole design of The Witness is going to be, it sounds even like it'll be a singular experience when it comes out… whenever that is.
Architecture in The Witness [The Witness]
Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky's upcoming documentary Indie Game: The Movie will be making its debut at the well-regarded World Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The documentary follows three independant game developers— Fez's Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, aka "Team Meat" of Super Meat Boy renown, and Jonathan Blow, who created Braid and the upcoming puzzle game The Witness. Kotaku's own Stephen Totilo played and was impressed by The Witness recently.
You can watch the trailer for the movie here—given its subjects and style, it certainly looks like it will shine a light on the process and artistic potential of games. Its debut at Sundance in January should help bring awareness of indie developers and indie games to a large new audience. Congrats, guys.
In today's spiteful edition of Speak Up on Kotaku, commenter Dracosummoner wonders if you have to love the game's creators in order to love the game.
Have you ever been in a situation where you liked a game or series, but you couldn't stand the people behind it? (I can just hear the "Activision/EA" responses now.) For my part, I'd have to say that I mostly loved the game Braid, but from the interviews I've read of Jonathan Blow, he strikes me as someone who is utterly convinced that he is one of the few good things the gaming industry has going for it right now. Maybe I'm wrong in thinking this. To be honest, that sort of self-righteousness is making me lose interest in his future work.
He once had the audacity to wonder aloud why more people don't make video games for adults who like reading books.
That was some time after he had the temerity to criticize the game-making of the geniuses at Nintendo. That was also some time before he told me, just last week, that he'd be depressed if he did what anyone else was doing in game development. He has to do his own things, he said. "I have to be pioneering."
It would be so easy to misunderstand Jonathan Blow, to cast him off as a blow-hard, to miss his doubts and ignore his excellent ambitions. It would be unfortunate, because Jonathan Blow is the kind of righteous rebel video games need.
Physically, Blow doesn't stand out: white guy, trim build, glasses and a shaved head. His voice is pinched. His gestures, though, are a little different. When I sat with him last week, to discuss his newest game after he'd let me play it almost undisturbed for two hours, he'd lean forward and tilt his head to the side, parallel to the floor, as if to consider the world differently as he organized his thoughts and prepared paragraphs of answers.
He wants to do unusual thing. He'll tell you, as he told me, that he wants "to do a game that is a little more adult in the sense that it is a game for people with long attention spans." And the impression I get is that Blow himself is a game developer for people with long attention spans. Sure, he's good for a quote or a soundbite, good for a quick knock on "unethical" design of reward-centric games like World of Warcraft or a poke at the clumsily complex starts of Assassin's Creed or Prototype. But the truncated take on Blow is off.
In an attempt to explain this willfully critical creator, we could condemn Jonathan Blow as a game designer who doesn't play video games. Because he rarely does. I suggested to him that we could go to a GameStop and I could point to a wall of games and he'd find nothing he cared to play. Not quite, he said, giving me a perfect Jonathan Blow answer: "I could find a bunch of games to buy and take home and play for an hour." The insult is implied.
Blow may be an outsider to gaming's mainstream, a bright, sharp-elbowed indie guy who appropriately lists among the few categories of posts on his blog "engine tech" and "ill-advised rants." His gaming origins, however, were common. He grew up the way many gamers born in the '70s did. He had an Atari. He played Air-Sea Battle. He played what everyone else was playing. "When I was a kid I just loved games and saw the potential," he told me. "At some point my interest in games did not go away, as it has for many people."
He cared about video games a lot. He still does. "I can't explain to you why," he said. "I wonder if sometimes I'm fooling myself and don't care about them as much as I think I do and need something to believe in and this is it. But one thing that has always appealed to me is that I've always wanted to do something in life that is productive or meaningful that, if I wasn't doing it, probably wouldn't get done."
There is an outside world that sneers at video games. There is a large batch of people who play video games who don't but think of them as nothing more as a good vehicle for tossing angry birds or fighting in virtual wars. Games are a past-time to many, a means of expression to fewer. I seldom hear the creators of games tell me they're in it to be meaningful. But that is Blow.
In 2008 he made what he considers his first game. He hints that that there was a game before all that, a game that doesn't count because he wasn't serious about it. Braid was first, a 2008 Game of the Year contender that was a sort of reinterpretation of Super Mario Bros. that gave the player unusual methods to manipulate the flow of time.
"What I thought of myself as a designer back then was that I'm going to be someone who does new gameplay mechanics that are interesting and explores that," he said. He'd found some great mechanics for Braid. He let players rewind time. He let them set up bubbles in the playing field inside which time flowed at a different rate. His first game, which was a downloadable hit on the Xbox 360 in the summer of '08, brimmed with new gameplay mechanics. For his next project he originally sought to find more. "But I wouldn't be satisfied with that being the point anymore," he realized. "For me, there is a deeper thing happening. There is, through the art of game design, some kind of observation about that universe that is not accessible in the same way from other media. If I can get that, then I don't even care about the game mechanic. If I can do that in a first-person shooter that looks exactly like Doom 3 then I would do it."
Blow's current project is a team effort called The Witness. I've written about what it is, based on what I could glean from a two-hour session with the unfinished work last week. The short version is that it's an evolution of the 1993 PC hit Myst a successor to a genre of graphic adventures and a specific call-back to that original phenomenon of solving non-verbal puzzles on a curiously uninhabited island.
"I liked Myst and other games of that era but what I really liked were games that never existed," he said. "It's like there's some really fucking awesome game like Myst that nobody ever made because it was filled with all of these illogical puzzles and stuff, right?" I didn't follow. He was inspired by an imaginary game? "I can picture in my head what that game would be," he said. "I'm letting that inspire me. I'm not saying [The Witness] is that game either but this is sort of like if those games… if, instead of people making a thousand shitty Myst clones, they actually successfully improved the genre over time. This would be inspired by those. But as it stands, actually, a lot of those games are an anti-inspiration." He explained that the successors of Myst were full of obscure puzzles and confusing graphics that made it hard to determine what was a puzzle and what wasn't. They played by strange rules.
In the Witness you're solving line-drawing puzzles that are clearly presented on blue terminals that are set up throughout a lush, lonely island. The game is entirely about looking at things closely, discovering patterns and systems, learning a language of solutions while grasping still-mysterious larger ideas that Blow wants to convey.
Blow has "a twinge of nervousness" that The Witness might be bad. I don't, but he did get amusingly mixed reactions when he showed people the game last spring at the Game Developer's Conference. "The biggest correlation that I saw was, as the conference went on, people's opinion of the game went down, because they were tired. They were grumpy. They were overstimulated from too many other things in the conference. People at the end were getting antsy about it. People at the beginning were like, 'Fuck, this is awesome!'" That's why Blow let me play his game alone for two hours last week while he sat in an adjacent room. That experience went much better than when I tried to play a rougher version of it last year at a noisy expo. "This is kind of a game where you want a clear mind," he explained, "so the parts of your subconscious that tell you how to do things bubble up to the surface."
Jonathan Blow may be known in some circles for knocking other people's work, but I discovered, as we chatted last week, that he almost committed one of the very game design sins he opposed. It recalibrated my take on what he criticizes about games. He's not criticizing people or even games but trends, currents even he can be swept into. It happend about a year ago. He's vociferously against rewards-driven game design, what he sees as a Skinner-box approach to game design that compels a player to keep playing by perpetually offering a trickle of rewards for minor actions. That's what he was knocking when he criticized the fealty designers had to littering gold coins into their game worlds, Super Mario Bros.-style, to keep players going. That's what he was referring to when he knocked the eternal treadmill of achievement that is almost every massively multiplayer online game. When you engineer a game to foster those constant reward compulsions, he told me, "there is a lack of faith in what is the core game." The game designer doesn't trust that players will find the playing of a game to be rewarding enough, so he or she adds all these baubles and unlocks to keep the player playing.
Blow publicly railed against that rewards stuff when he was making Braid. And then, in the early stages of The Witness, as he thought of how he'd deposit small radios in his world that could be discovered and, optionally, reveal parts of the game's storyline, he planned to give people a reward for collecting them. Then he caught himself. "It felt like pandering and a betrayal of the subject matter." And yet he came so close, thinking that that's what gamers wanted, to being the game designer he doesn't want to be. He concluded: "the only way I can make a game is not trying to maximize my audience." (It is through the game's specific combination of gameplay to the ideas of its story that Blow mentioned, casually to me, that he is "attempting to be profound".)
There is much to share about a conversation with Jonathan Blow, but let's end with one of those long head-tilting Blow paragraphs, the one he spoke to me as he explained why he doesn't play many games anymore, the one that takes a left turn into Thomas Pynchon, veers through Metacritic and ends, well… you'll see.
It starts with him saying he doesn't play many games these day. "The reason I don't is they don't ask much of me as a player. They're very pandering. 'Press A to win' or whatever. So, in some sense, I'm making a game for people who might like games I might like…"
A game that asks something of you, I asked?
"Yes, but in a way that is more that is bigger than games in the past did. The coin-op games of the '80s generally asked a lot of you. You generally had to perform or get kicked out. But we sort of charted that space. And there can still be really nice games in that domain, I really like Space Giraffe, for example. I know many people do not. But it's really sort of a game where it's skill-based: do this stuff or you lose. Coin-op games were difficulty-based where it's usually difficult actions that are being tested.
"Over time, games got a lot less difficulty-based. As they got focus-tested, they got like, 'Oh, we sold this game to somebody for like 60 bucks. We can't kick them out all the time. We want to let them get to the end so they feel satisfied.' But, because all that we knew how to make were games where the point was to surpass the difficulty challenge, then in subtracting the difficulty track out, we kind of took away the reasons to play the games. So these fake reasons have to come in and take their place, like, 'Oh, there's a story now with all these milestones of the story to drag you along or there are various other reward schedules.' Those have to be there. I think they would be there regardless because they are powerful mechanisms, but they especially have to be there once you've drained the rest of a point of a game out of a game.
"What I'm interested in... one of the things I think is interesting is finding other things besides difficulty-based challenges to be the meat of the game, to be interesting... going back to Gravity's Rainbow, there is some kind of meat to that that is about it's a difficult book and it's challenging to read. But that's not the majority of it. We have figured out in literature how to put stuff in there that is worth reading for its own sake. I'm interested in that. And so with this game I feel like I have at least been able to see... my process was about going out and investigating. I didn't really know what the gameplay was going to be, but I investigated all these situations and I found these little puzzle phenomena. It's almost like math, where you have these things that behave in a certain way and they combine in a certain way and that's interesting and maybe beautiful, if you think of it that way, and that existed before I found it. I just picked which ones to find and which ones to put together in this game...
"And even if people don't like the game, if it gets like a 5 Metacritic—which I don't think it would—but let's say 6.5 if everybody hates it, I know that this stuff is in there and other people will notice too and that gives me the confidence to not worry about it, because it's there. The better a designer I am, the more accessible I can make these things without diluting them. Because that's the important part. The games industry makes things accessible usually by dumbing things down and diluting them. The extent that I can do that without sapping the essence of golden stuff that's here, then maybe the better that is. But even if I fail at that stuff and I turn out to be a sucky puzzle designer— for the record, I think the puzzles are actually quite good—even if I design kind of bad puzzles I know that the foundation is a quite strong."
That's Jonathan Blow, gamers, for those of you with long attention spans.
Indie Game: The Movie is an upcoming documentary focusing on the trials, tribulations and processes behind some of the luminaries of the independent gaming scene, including Phil Fish (Fez) and Jonathan Blow (Braid).
Also helping out on music duties is Jim Guthrie, best known around these parts for the incredible Swords & Sworcery soundtrack.
It's being put together by BlinkWorks' James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, and if you like the looks of the trailer, you can contribute to its Kickstarter campaign here.
It was impressive when Robert Bowling, creative strategist for Call of Duty studio Infinity Ward, paid $500 for a batch of indie games that only cost $85. Then Notch, maker of Minecraft stepped up, with $2000.
These guys and a few others are paying lots of money for the Humble Indie Bundle 2, which went on sale yesterday. The bundle is the second offering of indie games being offered to gamers for any price they want to pay. People can name their price and direct their payment in different proportions to the games' developers and various charities.
The games in the second bundle are: Braid, Machinarium, Osmos, Cortex Command and Revenge of the Titans (pictured up top).
Bowling and Notch paid a whole lot more than the ordinary gamer, who are spending a little over $7 on average for the bundle, as of the writing of this post.
Humble Indie Bundle sales stats [Thanks to everyone who sent this in.]
Some gamers who loved Jonathan Blow's Braid were perplexed when early footage of his team's next game, The Witness, debuted on Kotaku last month. To those alarmed or confused, Blow offers some encouraging words.
"The only two guys who have played The Witness to completion have said it will be better than Braid when it is done," he writes after addressing the puzzled reaction to the puzzles glimpsed in his game. "I am certainly not going to jump up and down and say "hey this game is better than Braid", or even claim that Braid is good. But I just want to put that out there as reassurance to those of you who are worried about that gameplay video."
The Kotaku gameplay video showed a player moving through a beautifully-lit and apparently uninhabited island that is full of puzzles, many of them blue squares through which the player has to trace patterns. It seemed simple. It seemed Myst-y. It seemed like something that wasn't as obviously wonderful and innovative as many of our memories of Blow and team's previous game, the time-warping Braid.
In a post about The Witness at the game's development blog, Blow hints at the gameplay significance of some of the early blue puzzles in the clip that ran here. I encourage you to read his full post. It won't take long and should put the early gameplay we've seen in better context.
The Witness has no scheduled release date or platforms.
About the Blue Mazes [The Witness blog]
Unattended, unlabeled, unmarked... the new game from the small team led by Braid creator Jonathon Blow was stealthily present at the Penny Arcade Expo this weekend. The adventurous — and those who recognized Blow standing off in the shadows — got a delightful surprise.
All I knew of The Witness before spotting it in the same booth that housed Spy Party and Monaco was that it was being made by Blow and a handful of other game creators, that it involves an island — it's "an exploration-puzzle game on an uninhabited island" — and has gorgeous lighting.
In other words, I knew just about nothing about The Witness. I didn't need to in order to want to play it. Blow and David Hellman's subtle, time-bending Braid was the kind of scrupulously-designed video game that earns its creators a player's long-term trust.
The version of The Witness at PAX is far from finished. The game will be complete a year from now, at earliest, Blow told me once I got done playing and found him so we could discuss. He cautioned me that I was seeing a lot of "programmer art." This was the game's first showing in public, its puzzles still far from complete and refined. It was being presented in a manner intentionally detached from any references that might hype the Braid connection and bias its players. Blow wanted to see, from afar, what people made of their first touch of this game.
What I could make of The Witness is about as much as you can, watching it here in this two-part video I shot at PAX. The Witness seems to be a quiet game set on a lovely landscape landmarked with puzzles. I played it with an Xbox 360 controller, witnessing the island in first-person. Many of the puzzles I found involved using the controller to draw routes on blue squares that were set vertically on posts at the level of museum paintings, trying to inscribe the proper pattern that would solve the challenge and possibly lead to a new one. The puzzles were not just in the posted squares but in the more natural environment. One of the earliest challenges, seen partially in the video here, involves figuring out how three wires or tubes, all connected to a locked gate, can be electrified in order to progress. Trying to solve this, you wind up looking behind trees and bushes and over a roof. You find clues that lead to new mysteries that lead to solutions of their own. Early, it is clear that this is a game for the patient, the un-flustered and the observant.
From my brief conversation with Blow about the game, I heard a confirmation of my own sensation that this is a game about discovery. The pace of the game seems to be that of a gradual dawning. You stroll in first-person view. You look at beautiful or intriguing things — a windmill in the distance, a figure that is either a man or a statue — and you approach. There appears, in so many places, puzzling things. You ponder them. You try to solve them. You're given no instruction and no order, not in the PAX version, what to do next. You try to make sense of it. You play.
Blow didn't bristle when I told him that the game made me think of Myst. But I suspect that if The Witness is as much Myst as Braid was Super Mario Bros., then it can still be something very special
UPDATE: This wasn't planned, but it looks like Blow posted about his game's quiet PAX appearance at the same time that this post went live.
Some of the more crass video games, those for the unwashed masses, are turned into cartoons, or motion pictures. Something with ambitions as lofty as Braid, though, was never going to settle for such a low-brow adaptation.
It's not much surprise, then, to see the indie platformer reborn here as...interpretive dance, brought to the stage by the Chaparral High School Alumni Theatre. I admire the team's enthusiasm, but really, there aren't enough dinosaurs for my low-brow tastes. And where are the glasses of red wine?