Jonathan Blow reflects on The Witness

Indie developer discusses his ambitious puzzle-led adventure.

The Witness, designer Jonathan Blow’s second release after the wildly successful Braid, was first announced five years ago. Three years ago, this explorative puzzle game was a ten-hour experience. Now, he predicts, it will take most players around 30 hours to complete. The above quote, tweeted by Blow earlier this month, isn’t a boast, merely a demonstration of just how pleased he is with the (almost) finished result.

“We're mostly done making a really interesting game,” he says. “I'm thankful that we got to this point because a lot of ambitious projects just implode, or they finally come out but they only manage 20 percent of what they'd hoped to do. We're going to come out and we'll have managed 300 percent of what I'd hoped to do. The game is much bigger than I thought it would be.”

The same could be also be said of Braid, albeit with reference to its sales and influence rather than its size. Though his game undoubtedly helped propel independent games to wider public attention, he’s uncomfortable with his status as a figurehead, and doesn’t consider himself part of the ‘indie scene’. He’s equally uneasy with the feedback he received after Braid’s release.

“It's good to put a game out there and see how people respond to it,” he admits. “But as a designer - and this is speaking of during development and not just at release - you can't ever take feedback too literally. Somebody will play an in-development version of your game and the things that they say are the problem are almost never the real problem. So the main takeaway from that is that this person didn't like something about it and so you register that and sometimes you decide that this game is not for that person, or sometimes this is an indicator that something isn't working as well as I would like. But you of have to figure it out yourself, because small changes in certain parts of a game will drastically affect people's perception of ostensibly unrelated parts.”

The Witness might be much larger than was originally planned, but Blow believes editing is a discipline more game designers need to learn. “It’s something that most people haven't got the hang of yet.”

“When it comes to releasing a game like Braid,” he adds, “it goes out into the world and there are all these reactions to it and that is hard. Some indie developers have a hard time after releasing their game, and there's all kinds of reasons for that, but the main [one] is that this is something that has been the majority of your life for some years, so you're very deeply invested in it. And it goes out in the world and people play it for four hours and think they're an expert on it."

“Let's say you do at least 50 hours a week of working and thinking about this thing. Take two weeks of vacations, so it's 2500 hours a year, times three years - you've been thinking of something for 7000 or 8000 hours, and someone who's thought about it for maybe 8 hours, for 1/1000th as long as you have starts having opinions about it…it's very brusque, it's very coarse. Even if those are positive opinions, it's very abrasive, because they've thought about it 1/1000th as much as you.”

Ironically, some would say this sounds abrasive – indeed, on the page, it could easily be read as a rant. Yet Blow speaks calmly and thoughtfully throughout, as he considers the strange and complex relationship between designer and player. For all his unease at being considered a mouthpiece for independent developers, his words demonstrate an evident empathy for his peers, some of whom have struggled to cope with being suddenly thrust into the spotlight. “Maybe this time I'm just going to avoid it as much as possible,” he muses. “I'm just going to put [The Witness] out there and not even look at what people's reactions are. Which sounds weird because when you make something, obviously you're making it for the people. So it's a little bit of a paradox.”

Regardless of whether it earns similar critical acclaim and commercial success to Braid, Blow is personally satisfied with The Witness. He’s hopeful it will earn enough to pay back all the development costs, which he says have been “very high”, but beyond that he’s confident. “I know it’s the best thing that I’ve ever worked on.” He talks about having matured as a designer, suggesting that his experiences making Braid helped him craft a follow up that is subtler, more surprising and more substantial.

“I learned from Braid how to explore ideas. You have to build up the muscles.”

“The Witness has a lot more stuff in it,” he says, “and consequently it has a much more complicated structure to it. It almost has to, because if you had a very simple Braid-like structure but you tried to layer a game that's five times as big onto that, the structure wouldn't hold the content very well. When you're going to have a game that's 25 or 30 hours long, it has to be interesting and engaging for that entire time, so for this kind of game what that means is there have to be new ideas the whole time, there have to be little delightful moments or interesting things all the way through.”

“As a designer you have to hold that whole structure in your head,” Blow continues. “Because you're trying to build this very intricate thing. If I hadn't made Braid, I might have a much harder time doing this one. There are a lot of connections between ideas in The Witness that are allowed to go off and explore little corners that are less relevant to the main trunk of the game, and that works because I learned from Braid how to explore ideas. You have to build up the muscles.”

At a panel at 2006’s Game Developer’s Conference, Blow delivered a presentation, sarcastically titled “There's not enough innovation in games!”, during which he posited the notion that developers should consider revisit existing ideas – using Ultima IV’s virtues system as an example that today’s contemporary hardware would allow designers to build upon. While Braid might not be the homage to Super Mario Bros that some suggested (Blow admits he never played it), he’s happy to cite influential adventure Myst as a key influence on The Witness.

“I did play [Myst] and I did really enjoy it, but when I look back on it as a designer now I find it kind of unplayable. We have certain aesthetic ideas now as designers about what a modern game should be like, and of course there are a lot of different ideas about what a modern game should be like, but in general, those ideas all have a few things in common about what is fun and interesting and what you can expect a player to do. And older-style adventure games don't meet any of those criteria - when you go back and look at any of the adventure games from that era they don't hold up today. Myst, however - especially for the time - had a very strong mood and character, and the setting was unique, so I’ve tried to be inspired by the setting and the mood and the style of the game, while taking it in our own direction. So we don't really look like anything like Myst and we certainly don't play anything like Myst, because I've got a very different idea about what the gameplay should be. But it's still definitely a direct inspiration.”

While Myst’s puzzles stumped many of its players, Blow is keen to avoid similar roadblocks in The Witness. The island setting is segmented into a number of themed areas, and the puzzles within each will follow a similar pattern. If you get stuck, you’ll be free to explore a different area of the island and return later, and you won’t need to complete every puzzle to reach the endgame.

Blow strongly recommends two forthcoming games – Stephen’s Sausage Roll, from the prolific Stephen Lavelle, and puzzle-platformer Miegakure from Marc ten Bosch.

“It’s sort of a hierarchical structure,” says Blow. “At the top level it's non-linear but there are more structured paths inside that, and those structures give you the feeling of progress. So if you structure it properly it's a lot more player-friendly than one giant linear structure. But it's also a lot more designer-friendly because it means you can do certain things. [For example], I can put a puzzle in the game that's very hard, and I can expect 90% of people who hit this for the first time won't be able to solve it and they'll have to go to somewhere else. That's something you can't really do in the middle of a linear single-player game because if 90% of people get [stuck] that means that they have a very negative experience. They either have to look it up on the internet, or give up and throw your game away. And non-linearity helps you get around that.”

With the puzzle design and structure firmly in place, the one element of The Witness that Blow says needs work is its fiction. He’s keen for the world itself to do much of the narrative work, suggesting that there will be plenty of room for ambiguity and interpretation, but is currently debating the role audio logs will play in fleshing out the story. One thing is certain: they will be more than just a prize for solving a difficult puzzle, even if Blow is keen to reward players’ natural inquisitiveness.

“That's all true but there's another dimension to it, actually,” Blow explains. “Listening to a story told to you in a verbal way is one kind of participation that your mind can have. It's a different mode to, for example, thinking hard about how to solve a puzzle, which is a different mode to exploring and finding new things, and it's a richer tapestry when you have multiple modes like that for people to engage in.”

Early prototypes of the game, Blow says, had been too much of a grind. “We didn't really have an environment, we just had a bunch of puzzles on a boring landscape, and it was just puzzle-puzzle-puzzle-puzzle-puzzle all the time. Once we did a good job of adding the environment and making it feel like a real place then we had two different modes for the mind to engage in. One serves as a break from the other, so you do some puzzles and then you explore a little bit to find more, and during that exploration you get a rest from the puzzle solving, but you get a delightful experience in terms of seeing interesting things. And so the question is how much of the third ingredient that we actually need, and how much is beneficial to the game. As you say, we could tell the entire story visually in the environment and that's often a very good thing to do, but I do feel we would be missing out on a little bit of this other ingredient.”

“Game design takes a back seat for a lot of people. For me it's very important. For me it really determines what the game is.”

That The Witness’ story is incomplete at this late stage of development is unusual, particularly at a time where narrative seems to be an increasing focus of contemporary games. It’s an approach that Blow finds both odd and intriguing. “Some people are so much about story and visuals that if those things are good they'll forgive a horrible game design and enjoy the game a lot,” says Blow. “And so game design for a lot of people takes a back seat. For me it's very important, though, for me it really determines what the game is. I don't exactly know why that is, I don't know if that's something that changes as people get more experienced with games, or whether it's just that some personalities don't care if the gameplay is tedious as long as they get their story fix.”

Having spent so much time developing The Witness, Blow says he’s become much more selective in the games he plays, rationing his time so he only plays “things I know I'm really going to enjoy”. As a designer, then, does he spend more time analysing games as he plays, or is he able to close that critical eye and simply relax with them?

“I don't really ever switch it off, but [for me] the fun is about appreciation of a game that is made well,” he says. “Say you're really educated in music - you can go to a symphony performance and you can really appreciate the nuances of the music being played, and you don't want to turn your brain off for that, because that's the good part. In fact, maybe you've worked hard in life to build up this very sophisticated understanding and it's very enjoyable to be able to engage that. So that's how I feel about most games.”

“I like engaging with games that are sophisticated and that ask a lot from me,” he adds. “Or games that are well constructed. Where the people making it put a lot of thought into it and put a lot of care into how it would be played.” In other words, The Witness is exactly the kind of game Jonathan Blow would ordinarily make a beeline for – if only he wasn’t already making it.