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The Witness and the joy of intuition


"[When making] adventure games, your puzzles should have a point," Braid creator Jonathan Blow said during a gameplay demonstration for his upcoming PlayStation 4 first-person puzzler The Witness at E3 today.

Blow opened the demo by stating that his latest project was inspired by puzzle-driven PC adventure games. I admitted to Blow that I lacked experience with the point-and-click genre, and that I found their obtuse design decisions daunting when trying to approach them in the modern era. He assured that The Witness abandoned the trial-and-error gameplay of its inspiration, instead focusing on meaningful puzzles that educate the player and bring context to the game's world.

[Image: Thekla]

Gallery: The Witness (5/14/14) | 9 Photos

In The Witness, players wander a deserted island and explore its beautiful vistas from a first-person perspective, scouring its abandoned architecture for clues to help solve the 625 puzzles that dot the area. A large amount of puzzle-solving in The Witness revolves around scanning electrical panels and tracing lines across their surface, matching patterns intuited by studying the surrounding environment.

The game lacks a tutorial, and instantly drops players into its island setting with no preamble. The Witness's puzzles are so intrinsically linked to its gameplay, however, that players need no instruction. Players learn lessons and patterns by completing early line-tracing puzzles, and these mechanics then apply to later challenges that expand on previously introduced concepts.

Discussing traditional adventure game design, Blow described particularly obtuse point-and-click sequences as requiring the player to know puzzle solutions long before they're able to solve them. He also described rote inventory-based puzzles as "tedious," and notes that they eventually devolve into the player randomly clicking hotspots and combining items nonsensically as they hunt for a solution.

In contrast, The Witness's puzzles rely on player knowledge and observation. "The key to these puzzles is in the player's head," Blow said.

Responding to my concerns regarding the potential to become stumped by a tricky puzzle with no hope for progression, Blow jumped to a later area of the game in which players can choose between completing one of two puzzle paths located within a derelict castle. One path winds through a hedge maze, and requires players to complete linked line-drawing puzzles in a specific order. The other half of the area features puzzles driven by pressure plates and player positioning. Blow noted that players only need to complete one of the two paths in order to progress and can freely travel between them, giving ample opportunity to pick the progression path that best suits their acquired skillset.

I asked Blow about games he had played recently, and he noted that he found Heroes of Sokobon particularly inspiring. Describing its gameplay as focusing on educating the player rather than issuing flat-out challenge, Blow felt that the resulting quest was more satisfying as a result. Blow notes that The Witness follows a similar design philosophy, in that it gradually introduces core puzzle concepts before later veering off into challenges that require honed observation skills and lateral thinking.

The Witness is aiming for a release by the end of this year for the PlayStation 4 and PC platforms. An iOS version is also in the works, and while a rudimentary version is up and running on the iPad, a mobile port will not meet the game's console and PC launch.

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