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The Witness preview: Peering through the Myst


"Hey man, come in," a weary looking Jonathan Blow said. He was welcoming me into his temporary New York City abode, a swanky hotel in midtown where he'd been put up for a few days to show off a preview build of his next game, The Witness. His bare feet indicated to me that I'd either just woken him up, or that he was very comfortable with strangers. It turned out to be a combination of both, as Blow's PR-less presentation style (and sleepy demeanor) soon revealed.

"We started the game about two years ago, for real. I actually started it as a prototype earlier than that, before I finished Braid. I wasn't convinced I really wanted to do it, because I was still in the mindset of 'I'm the lone indie developer who types everything in himself and this is gonna be a much more ambitious project.' So I didn't wanna do it for a while, then I played with some other game ideas. Kinda liked those, but decided I really wanted to do this," Blow cursorily explained before I jumped in. While the dev process has seen contract workers, Blow's new studio (the ... uniquely named Thekla, Inc.) still only employs three full-time devs, himself included. "We're gonna be going into more of a production-type phase this next year," he added.

The work of just one 3D artist has made the game's mysterious, puzzle-filled island alive with bright, colorful, abstract flora. In fact, outside of a handful of expected bugs I encountered, The Witness is shaping up to be another standout work from a developer already well-respected in his field. Blow left me with one final note before I jumped in: "What you play here is basically the game, it's just gonna be a better version of this that we show."

Gallery: The Witness | 13 Photos

I find myself in a dark hallway with only one exit. How I ended up here is unknown. A brightly lit doorway up ahead highlights my singular option, and I push up on the left joystick to begin my escape, I enter a minimally adorned room in the middle of a gorgeous day. The room's windows allow me to sneak an early glimpse at the island I'll be exploring for the next few hours, and the only exit door is marked with a puzzle. On its blue panel sits a line, with one bulbous end, a right angle, and a more slender end point. Given that I had already spent a few moments spamming every button the Xbox 360 gamepad to get my bearings, it was clear that my only option was to walk up to said panel, press A, and see what I could do.

About those buttons: there's only one of any real import to the game's mechanics, and that's A. It brings up a white frame and a cursor, allowing you to solve the various line puzzles strewn throughout the island. After unlocking the initial puzzle, the door swung open and revealed a fenced-in area with yet more puzzle panels, though this time the panels were strung together with a black wire, and only the first in the series was lit up as solveable.

As I progressed, each puzzle taught me something different about the world and built on previous puzzle mechanics. The first, very simple one taught me that the bulbous end was the starting point. The next one taught me that specific paths must be taken to reach the end. This progression kept up throughout my entire time with The Witness, making every minute one of discovery. After putting together about eight fairly basic panel puzzles, a garden door opened and allowed me access to the rest of the island -- and that's where things got really impressive.

Like Myst, The Witness has a story to tell and no one around left to tell it. Through audio recordings, the island's architect ambiguously explains some of his motives, some of his secrets, and hints at why you're the only one around to hear about it. As Blow explained to me later, the audio logs are distinct to various parts of the island and its corresponding puzzles, and will not play in any particular order. That's to say, as the island is entirely open after the initial room/garden, the audio recordings can be found in any order, lending an even greater sense of mystery to the proceedings.

The recordings quickly devolved into semi-autobiographical musings about why said architect had spent so much time crafting an island of puzzles, and wondering whether it was all a waste of time. The placeholder voice actor sounded eerily like Jonathan Blow, lending an extra twist to the "partially fictitious" narrator's story.

As I explored, the concept of "just line puzzles" expanded enormously. While blue panels with line puzzles are as deep as the puzzles go, the ways in which you solve said puzzles changes dramatically from area to area. One set of puzzles had me listening for audio cues related by a nearby speaker, while another set employed the nearby environment to hint at its solutions, and yet another used color as its main pivot.

As a colorblind gamer, I wondered how The Witness handled those with disabilities -- beyond my own affliction, the sound-based puzzle would be impossible without the ability to hear. Blow, however, had already thought of this. As only one set of puzzles is sound-based, and only one is color-based, he reasoned that gamers without the ability to play those are perfectly fine skipping them. Of the island's puzzle sets, only a handful are necessary to reach The Witness' end game, he noted. And with 10 - 12 hours of estimated gameplay, missing a few of the puzzles likely wouldn't be a huge issue.

In the end, I came away from The Witness with a similar sense of wonder and evangelism that games like Portal and Braid left me with in the past. I have no doubt that, like Braid, The Witness won't be for everyone. It's doing something markedly different with games and storytelling -- something that is rarely seen nowadays -- and for that alone, I'm excited to see Blow and co.'s final product, which should arrive sometime in 2012.

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