Where ‘The Witness’ Peers

Puzzle games in today’s climate seem to be basically anything that requires thought over instinct, and isn’t an RPG.  We’re seeing more and more “puzzle” elements sneak their way into other, more action oriented, releases too – the most notable and famed example probably being the Batman: Arkham series’ inconsistent Riddler trophy offerings.  True puzzle games, as I classify them, are much fewer and farther between than might first be considered.

The titles I’m talking about are the ones that put their emphasis entirely on solution-finding gameplay and leaps of imagination made by the player.  We had a boom of these when indie developers got their grandest platform in Steam.  Even more flooded the market in the wake of Portal 2, which at times varied between being a great trend (Antichamber and the criminally underrated Quantum Conundrum) and a very bad thing indeed (see whatever app store you use for more examples than I can name).

While we wait for Valve to make their final decision on the future of both their Half-Life and Portal franchises, we’re left with a strange quiet period filled only with third-rate rip-offs like Pneuma: Breath of Life (which you can watch me play and subsequently review here).  Despite this, there is a rumbling – too far under the radar for my liking – of an upcoming title that could be one of the most imaginative and forward thinking puzzle games released to date.

Jonathan Blow has done it before with his mind-blowing masterpiece, Braid, but will he be able to dazzle and excel as strongly as he did in 2008?  The Witness, due to arrive at an undetermined time in the hazy near-future, is his latest labour of love and something that gamers should be far more excited about.

First, for those who skipped out on Braid, it’s probably best to get a little background on Blow and his philosophies before moving on to The Witness and why it’s so exciting.  On paper, Braid seems like just another small-company expressing one of their geekier employee’s brain farts.  As a puzzle-platformer based on old tropes and established traditions, twisted on its head with the addition of a time-control mechanic, it’s something we’ve seen before and far too many times since.  What makes Braid explode beyond its clichéd confines is its implementation and ideas.

The magic lies in what happens within the player’s mind as opposed to what happens on screen, as Blow has stated is an intention throughout all his work.  That’s not to say that Braid didn’t have any magic going on on-screen either, with its beautifully rendered world realised by artist David Hellman.

Braid was able to transform a player’s most deeply ingrained expectations, and work on a level that seemed entirely above any competition at the time (with the possible exception of Portal).  It constantly slapped you in the face for daring to play on autopilot, forcing you expand your thoughts at every turn and driven by its desire to grow along with the player.  A game hadn’t been so daring, yet subtle, in its intentions for a long time, and it reaped consistent rewards for doing so.

Blow has since all but disappeared into cult obscurity, asides from the occasional insider interview or public appearance, but it’s been known for some time that The Witness is on the cards.  Indeed, it’s largely responsible for his relative quiet.  Considering his lofty goals, I’d rather he took his time perfecting it than rushing it anyway.

The game itself seems close to completion, but why exactly is it cause for excitement?  At the moment there are actually several videos showing official gameplay footage on YouTube, as well as many discussions with the creator himself on its development.  What’s contained in these videos doesn’t at first seem to have the life-changing aspects that its predecessor did, but Braid doesn’t have any of that impact itself if not directly played.

It comes back to what Blow says about creating moments within players’ minds, rather than on their screens.  I think that’s why, at first, The Witness seems easy to disregard when other tentative releases are of such obvious high quality (No Man’s Sky and Final Fantasy XV come instantly to mind).

What you’re presented with when watching these videos is a seemingly simple set of maze-based puzzles.  Early fears mostly revolve around the idea that this is the entire backbone for the game, but I have too much faith in Blow to believe this to be the case.

There’s no reason why he would want to show anything that could spoil the insular magic he’s attempting to curate, and there’s probably no easy way to get it across without direct involvement in the puzzles – if I’m understanding his concepts correctly, of course.

This is what’s so refreshing about his game design, in a time where originality is hard to find and designers are working on autopilot as much as the players.  Blow is interested in making statements with his games and leading players, not necessarily through immersive narrative, but into uncharted territory within their own cerebral cortex. This could be a blueprint for the future of, at least, a sub-genre of games that are less about entertainment and far more about art.

The debate about how artful video games are continues to rage on, despite releases like Braid, Papers Please, Limbo, Journey and many more over the years.  In my opinion, video games are unarguably an art-form, but in the same way that rock or dance music are.  However, Blow’s approach leaves him putting out titles that outgrow the medium’s pop sensibilities and spin a deeper, more detailed, web more analogous to classical music (to continue to the comparison).  After listening to him speak, it’s hard to believe that he would put out anything less than the genius standards that Braid brought to the table.  With that in mind, the eventual possibilities built into a game like The Witness, which won’t be appreciated until personally played by virtue of its design, could cause a similar storm to its predecessor.  This time he has a bigger budget, a bigger crew, bigger platforms and, from the sound of it, far bigger ideas.

Clearly in a transitional, but enthralling, time, video games are in desperate need of a true innovator.  It’s now that video games need to decide their direction.  It’s now we need to demand our hopes.  So many industry constants aren’t able to keep up with a forward marching medium, and so many opportunists are filling the gaps with shoddy products.  It’s time for reboots and sequels to end, and time that we really worked out where we want to take the wonderful world of interactive digital entertainment.

Jonathan Blow is years ahead of us on that one and, purely on the strength of his integrity, he’s the horizon’s torchlight I choose to walk towards.  Unfortunately, far too many will veer to the deeper flames of familiar functionality – and who can blame them?

Where The Witness peers is the most frightening, yet exciting, place of all – The Unknown.

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