At wit’s end

The WitnessWith development of its marquee puzzles finally at an end, the long-awaited follow-up to independent classic Braid is drawing closer. Matthew Pellett gets lost inside upcoming adventure The Witness, and discovers a PS4 legend in the makingWhen Sony unveiled PS4 for the very first time back in February 2013, it wanted to fully showcase its goals for global console domination. And the best way to do that involved a New York media conference starring a carefully selected group of developers and games; not there to simply promise greatness, but actually show it.
Guerrilla Games and Killzone Shadow Fall provided the visual haymaker, bombarding console gamers with graphics like they’d never seen before. Evolution Studios and Driveclub demoed social connectivity features that simply didn’t exist in the PS3 years. And with Jonathan Blow and The Witness, Sony played one of its biggest trump cards of all: a new partnership strategy that would resonate with the rapidly-expanding independent development scene.Almost all of those reveal event games have long since been and gone. The Witness, however, is still on the horizon without a confirmed release date. Yet while all that time waiting might seem like the standard recipe for disaster for most other projects – the kind that has people tiptapping the words ‘development hell’ on their keyboards – here, too, The Witness is an exception. All that development time is actually a sign of health.Maybe not for developer Thekla’s bank balance, which has now exhausted all of Braid’s profits and has forced creator Blow to borrow money to wrap up production; but for you, the player, who cares only about the quality of the final game.In January the team hit its ‘Puzzle Complete’ milestone. With 677 puzzles in total expected to take around 30-40 hours to solve according to Blow’s estimates (although some may still face the chop), work on The Witness is on the final stretch. And judging by the early code that Sony gamers got to play firsthand at the PlayStation Experience, this could easily outshine any of the dozens of indie greats already on PS4.The WitnessIt begins in a dark, cylindrical corridor. There’s nothing to do but walk forwards with the left stick, out of the gloom and towards a locked door with a bright yellow square on its front. This yellow square is the first of the game’s ‘panel puzzles’ – essentially digital mazes – and it forms the basic backbone of every puzzle you’ll encounter.Hitting ‘X’ brings the panel full screen. A single horizontal line with a big blob on the left side and a pulsing rounded nub on the right of the line are my only clues, and instinctively I know what to do: place my cursor on the round node, hit ‘X’ and then drag the cursor to the right. When it settles over the flashing nub there’s soft click. I press ‘X’ to back out of the puzzle and the door gently swings open.I move forward and turn left and promptly hit another panelled door. This time there’s a horizontal line running along the top of the panel joined to a vertical line down its right side. With a starting node in the bottom right and a flashing end point in the top left, this one’s a simple case of moving the cursor When the door unlocks I walk up a dark flight of steps and through an opening into a painterly sunny courtyard covered with a mixture of grass and heather and decking and stone ruins. It’s beautiful, and truly the start of something special.This isn’t just the start of the demo, but the beginning of the game itself. There are no cutscenes to set me on my way. No exposition to justify my quest. I begin in that dark corridor without reason or explanation, with just non-verbal tutorial panel puzzles to tinker with to help me understand my place in the world.The courtyard’s an open area with snaking cables crisscrossing along the floor and over broken stone walls. There’s just one exit, but it’s blocked by a giant white force field. It’s immediately obvious that I need to complete some more puzzles to send energy coursing through the cables to the force field’s controls in order to then power it down and make my escape.With three cables to follow I spend a few minutes tracing routes to electronic displays and completing increasingly complex mazes. Subtle differences begin creeping in: panels with multiple starting nodes, for instance, and one with two exit points and two cables – only one of them leading to the force field. I make a mental note of this particular panel and, when I finally unlock the exit, I return to the puzzle and send power buzzing through the other cable, which loops up over the courtyard’s outer wall and off into parts unknown.I step past the force field gates and, from this point onwards, The Witness is an open world waiting to be picked apart in whatever order I choose. I begin by following a dirt path by a line of boulders, and when there’s a gap in the rocks I take a moment to peer through the opening. I’m on the edge of a giant lake, and in the distance I can make out forests, a huge mountain and a giant tower, peeking out above the treeline.And I can’t help but feel like I’m playing a gorgeous, modern day reimagining of PS1’s Myst.The WitnessAnybody who’s followed the development of The Witness since its inception will know just how much chopping and changing has gone on during the island’s construction. A slideshow of island snapshots reveals how features were built, shifted around, completely cut, rebuilt, redesigned, moved again and so on – the island’s topography an ever-evolving beast during the last five years.Today, the near-finished gameworld comprises 11 distinctly themed areas, each housing its own group of puzzles. There are deserts, swamps, multi-coloured forests, orchards, a snow-capped mountain bearing remarkable similarities to Wyoming’s famous Devils Tower, ruined towns, lakes, castles, courtyards, treehouses, windmills, secret cliffside paths and more.But to fully understand the island’s journey to this point, I need to dive back into the records and revisit an interview I had with Jonathan Blow almost five years ago, in the wake of Braid’s original release and during the earliest months of The Witness’ development. Even then, half a decade ago, entire areas of the island were being built and then sliced away, and when Blow confessed to deleting an area that took roughly a month to build because the resulting puzzles didn’t live up to the ideas on paper, I asked whether he was upset at losing all that investment.“No,” he replied instantly, “because it’s forward progress. Doing that stuff – understanding it better and deleting it – is making the game better, even though the player never sees it.”This is the core driving force behind The Witness, and it explains why we’re still waiting for the game to be released. It’s a rare example of a developer putting quality before everything else, including profits.“I would definitely like to make our money back on this game and I’d like to make a profit on it, but it’s not actually the number one priority,” confessed Blow, this time two years ago, after The Witness’ PS4 reveal.“The number one priority is to make the best possible game that we can make that brings the most beneficial experience to the players.” And so we must wait.The WitnessThe Witness’ 11 areas aren’t just themed differently – they’re also home to self-contained puzzle sets. The areas can be approached in any order whatsoever, and in the eventuality that some of the puzzles are too tricky for you to solve, you needn’t complete all 677 to see the end of the game. In fact, you only need to best seven of the areas to unlock the endgame activities – although judging by Braid’s example there will be something there for people who tackle each and every conundrum the island has to offer.For the time being I decide to stick to the opening zone, and when I continue down the dirt path I spy a metallic door to an underground bunker to my left. Fancying my chances with the puzzle, I give it a go and am promptly confronted by a 7×7 grid with four potential starting nodes, three potential end-points, black and white blobs inside various squares and small black dots scattered along the line pathways and no sign of help. Turns out I’m not that smart.A little farther down the path still I encounter two rows of panels. The first, thanks to nine puzzles I’m able to scroll between using R1 and L1, tutors me on the black and white squares. Through increasingly complex arrangements of grids I discover that I must separate black and white areas with the line I trace through the mazes.The second group of puzzles, this one a row of five panels hiding inside a wooden shed, is all about the spots in the line pathways. When I try to finish the maze without touching the spots they flash red, telling me I need to play dot-to-dot on the way to the end of the panel.Armed with these two tricks I’m now able to return to that vault door and unlock it without too much difficulty. Inside there’s a toolbox hiding interesting sketches that’ll no doubt come in handy during the inevitable endgame head-scratchers.The Witness“I was able to really focus on that,” explains Blow of this natural learning process that goes through the mind of everybody who plays The Witness.“Before Braid I didn’t really have that idea, and then in Braid I saw, ‘Oh yeah, there’s this thing that happens when people encounter puzzles.’ For The Witness, the whole game is designed around that experience – that arc of understanding. You see something new, you have no understanding of it, and then gradually your understanding increases in the experience.”The vault door’s a prime example of this constant tutoring, but when I leave the bunker and pick my way through the undergrowth round to the back of the starting courtyard’s outer walls – a hidden, secret path if ever I saw one – I discover another. There’s a gate, and it’s open thanks to the energy pulsing through the cable that trails over the wall and plugs into the gate’s mechanism.Had I not bothered to revisit that one courtyard panel near the game’s start (remember that?) and diverted the energy up and over the stonework, that trailing, yellow cable would be black, and it’d teach me two things: firstly, that I’d need to head back to the courtyard to unlock the gate; and secondly, that within their respective zones, panels can have surprising causes and effects.After thoroughly rinsing this new area of secrets I decide it’s time to move on, and so set my sights on a pink orchard in the distance. The island seems to have been designed so that there’s always some distant feature on which to fixate, and when I reach the trees I’m met with a brand new puzzle type.Here, the panels have just one starting node, but fork upwards and outwards to multiple exit nubs. Which one is correct? I have no way of knowing just by looking at the panel, but when I step back it all becomes clear.The digital mazes in this instance bear striking resemblances to the branch patterns of nearby trees. The only way to solve the puzzle, therefore, is to study the environment. Certain trees have an apple growing from a particular branch, and the fruit pinpoints the end point of the nearest panel.The thought of puzzles being related to the physical world around them gets my mind racing, and I just can’t resist reanalysing the two panels at the very start of the game.Can it only be a coincidence that the first panel was a straight line when, to reach it, I had to move down a straight corridor? Or that I solved the second panel by tracing a line ‘up’ then ‘left’ – the exact movements I needed to take to reach the second door from the first one?The WitnessTruthfully, I don’t know. I might well be reading too much into those first two panels. But that exact thinking helps me solve an otherwise obscure puzzle later on when I reach a fresh area filled with hedge mazes.The panel in question sits at the end of one such maze, and while there’s no obvious solution to the conundrum I quickly realise that the framework of the grid is similar to the maze through which I’ve just walked – the one difference being obstacles in the physical world not showing up on the panel version. By tracing a line of my own route through the hedgerows, I chalk up another puzzle completion.But any celebration is soon cut short when the same method fails to unlock the subsequent maze/panel combo, reinforcing the fact that no two solutions are the same, and no two puzzles repeat the exact same trick. Every new panel brings with it an extra layer of complexity; to the point where my eyes almost water when even considering what’s in store later on in the game.I’ve said it enough times already over these past few pages, so let’s finally address the P-word: panels. That the electronic mazes form the core of all the game’s conundrums has been the source of a few grumbles – some from my own lips. But to complain about The Witness’ puzzles all being digital mazes would be akin to strolling into an art gallery and kicking off because all of the paintings are displayed in the same frames.There’s much more going on than just tracing a line through a maze, so it really doesn’t matter that your means of interacting with The Witness’ island looks so familiar throughout the experience. Given that your actions have tangible effects on the world – opening doors, activating long-dead machinery, rotating platforms to access new areas and so on – it’s time to lay any criticisms of The Witness’ puzzle format to rest.The WitnessI want to be deliberately vague about the other panel types I find during my walkabout on the island because there’s a real thrill to discovering and unpicking new types for the first time. One set involves mirror-image lines… Another has multiple coloured blobs all on the same grids…Some puzzles trigger lasers, or rotate mirrors, or fold and unfold platforms to help bridge otherwise impassable gaps. And still I’ve touched on fewer than 50 of the game’s near-700 puzzle count. The size of it is really quite staggering, but more than the quantity it’s the quality that really impresses.There’s great comfort in the knowledge that the team at Thekla has, throughout the years, created and tossed out a full game’s worth of content. It means that, in theory, only the greatest stuff remains. And as I explore the island I see nothing to counter that way of thinking.“There’s been limited press showings since 2011 when the game looked terrible,” explains Blow. “And it’s been playable all the time since then, and we keep just making it better. We wanted to get away from that thing that some games do where you can’t play it at all until four months before ship, and then it’s like, “Oh, I wish this…’ or, ‘I wish that.’“All that, ‘I just wish…’ whatever is going to be in this game,” he says with a smile.And what of the day when The Witness is finally complete, and Thekla can begin work on its next project? Plans are already afoot, and people aching for more Braid/The Witness-style puzzles may want to sit down.“The next game is not a puzzle game,” comes the bombshell. “The next game is probably… very much recognisable as a traditional videogame.”Of course, a ‘traditional videogame’ made with the ‘wait until perfect’ ideology at the core of Thekla’s development mantra is something to be excited about, but part of the appeal of The Witness – and Braid before it – is in knowing that these are gaming experiences nobody else is offering. The repeated callbacks to Myst that have been made ever since The Witness’ first reveal aren’t a coincidence – even with the relatively sizeable point-and-click resurgence this generation it’s inevitable that people rewind the clocks by 20 years when reaching for comparisons as there really aren’t that many similar games out there. It’s an experience wholly apart from the rest on PlayStation 4, and the thought that Thekla may not continue to trailblaze into genres unknown is a saddening one.But I’m getting well ahead of myself now. For the time being, The Witness and its conundrums are still off in the distance – peering out from behind the titles due in the next few months just like the game’s towers peek out from behind the scenery.By the time it arrives on PS4, this will have been in development for over five years, but making an early call on how it’s likely to fare come release day feels no more difficult than that first panel puzzle at the game’s beginning. Even with No Man’s Sky looming large on the horizon, The Witness is the most important independent game in production for PS4: a development cycle in which only the greatest content survives that will likely result in an indie experience without equal.

7Review earns Amazon affiliate commissions from qualifying purchases. You can support the site directly via Paypal donations ☕. Thank you!
We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.