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The Witness hands-on preview: Braid creator's new game is Myst, Mensa and a whole lot of Meta

“You’re the first person to play this.”

Those are intimidating words to hear from the man who almost single-handedly designed Braid, a game famous for its time-twisting and mind-manipulating puzzles, but also notorious for its enigmatic and elusive narrative. I am sitting in Jonathan Blow’s apartment, on Jonathan Blow’s couch, about to begin Jonathan Blow’s first game in three years, The Witness. What if I can’t solve the obstacles about to be thrown in my path? Worse, what if I don’t understand them, or the entire point of this most likely metaphorical experience?

Honestly, at first I don’t… but keep reading.

The Witness opens simply and mysteriously with the player standing at the far end of a dark hallway. Ahead is a door with a blue square-shaped panel attached to its front, easily unlocked by drawing a straight line from one point on the square to another. Puzzle complete. The next door requires two straight lines. Second puzzle complete. Outside the hallway, in what’s revealed to be the front yard of a small house on a very large island, things grow more complicated and more interesting – but only slightly.

Five additional blue squares are linked by tubes, to each other and to a closed gate. Although tracing the solution line of each square now involves navigating a maze, and some of the squares are cleverly hidden behind foliage, I’ve finished the entire set and exited the yard within minutes. Gazing in every direction of the now free-to-explore island, however, all I see are the same blue squares. Blue squares on the beach. Blue squares in the orchard. Blue squares next to the windmill. Blue squares at the peak of the far-off mountain. How, I start to wonder and worry, can The Witness be as brilliant or as original as Braid if every puzzle is exactly the same? I don’t get it.

And then, suddenly, I do. Something clicks and, just like that, The Witness is filled with fascinating potential.

The epiphany occurs as I’m working on the squares in the orchard, trying to figure out what path my lines should follow – unlike the previous puzzles, this solution is not obvious from studying the surface of the square itself, and with a new branching pattern to navigate, any attempt at trial and error would take forever. Frustrated, I’m leaving to try my luck in a different area when I notice the orchard’s trees. That they seem arranged with purpose. That there is one tree for every one square. That a single red apple hangs from the branches of each tree. And that – eureka! – those branches split in the exact same pattern as the two-dimensional branches drawn on the squares. Trace the line to where the apple should be… and done.

A short stroll away is the beach, with more squares and even more ambiguity. But why are these particular puzzles translucent? What are those strange pillars emerging from the water? Now realizing that nothing in The Witness is a coincidence, I peer through the puzzle, trace the outlines of the distant pillars on the surface of the square… and done.

16 comments

  • TheDigitalG - August 14, 2011 9:04 p.m.

    I thought he was trying to renovate the adventure genre? This looks exactly like a '95 point-n-click... Or is it going to be another hipster, 'deep', self-referential game exactly as Braid was? As an Adventure game veteran, this only excites me in a nostalgia way, worth a buy when it's on offer.
  • mentalityljs - August 9, 2011 11:30 p.m.

    I honestly think the art style is appropriate for this style of game. It's not ultra-realistic, yet not too cartoony either. Has a nice warm dream-like look to it. I loved Braid, and room escape and point and click adventures can very well occupy a lot of my time when im in the mood, and this looks to be no exception.
  • GamesRadarCharlieBarratt - August 9, 2011 6 p.m.

    @ParanoidAndroid The graphics are still very much a work in progress. Blow showed me concept art of what they're hoping to achieve by release, and it had a lot of potential. Of course, it's still only concept art, so we'll see...
  • Fusionmix - August 9, 2011 3:50 p.m.

    Looks fun, but Blow's artsy pretentiousness really turns me off. If there's a way to mute those stupid audiorecordings, I'll definitely get it nonetheless.
  • ParanoidAndroid - August 9, 2011 12:49 p.m.

    Hmmm... I kinda hate the art style. Seems kinda bland, like a virtual tour of a museum or something...
  • Thequestion 121 - August 9, 2011 1:06 a.m.

    Wow, now this game is interesting
  • Randomwordcombination - August 8, 2011 11:52 p.m.

    Interesting!
  • Gene - August 8, 2011 9:25 p.m.

    Braid is the third best game of all time in my eyes, after Zelda: Majora's Mask and Ico. I cannot wait for this. I trust Jonathan Blow.
  • santaclouse37 - August 8, 2011 7:46 p.m.

    I'm so excited for this. Loves me some lateral thinking.
  • Letter11 - August 8, 2011 6:49 p.m.

    I'm not sure "get" it. But hey, I didn't grasp all the symbolism, and artistic temperament of Braid either but I loved that game. I'm pretty interested. @Yaro Ha! Nice one.
  • Dlinedj09 - August 8, 2011 6:15 p.m.

    This sounds like a game my wife would love
  • Yaro - August 8, 2011 6:05 p.m.

    You could say that Charlie was the first to *puts on shades* witness this game. YEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!
  • Zepaw - August 8, 2011 5:55 p.m.

    Sounds fantastic. I second your feelings NearNRiver. Seems a lot like Braid where a lot of the experience is from getting stumped and pushing through until it finally makes sense. I killed part of the experience by giving up and using a guide for some of the last levels.
  • Lemming - August 8, 2011 5:54 p.m.

    For the longest time, my sister has been looking for an alternative to Myst (she's not into other adventure games like Monkey Island (she's not into chatty games) or Big Fish's Hidden Object adventures) and this might just be it.
  • NearNRiver - August 8, 2011 5:51 p.m.

    I, for one, cannot wait for this. I'm having to balance my aversion to spoilers and my want to read everything about it.
  • Security77 - August 8, 2011 5:49 p.m.

    I'm Jonathan Blown away.

Showing 1-16 of 16 comments

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