See, the blue squares are only half the puzzle. The other half – what could potentially make The Witness as brilliant and original as Braid – is its cryptic island environment and how that environment can be perceived from varying perspectives, both physical and psychological. In many cases, the blue squares are merely the place you “write” down your answers once you’ve interpreted your surroundings in the right way.
Blow takes back the controller to show me further examples of this design. A hedge maze in which the twists and turns you take tie directly to the blue square’s solution. An elevator that won’t move until you’ve drawn a shape that indicates you want the elevator to move. A science museum in which the squares make absolutely no sense until you’ve viewed them through the correct combination of color filters. Leaves, shadows, sunlight… any of these could hold the key to a puzzle in The Witness.
The Witness wouldn’t be a true Jonathan Blow creation, however, if The Witness was just about puzzles. As the developer admits, he “might be incapable of making games that are not about games,” and this one is laced with enough meta philosophy to make Braid seem literal by comparison. Scattered all across the island are voice recorders with mysterious messages like the following:
I could have done anything with my life, but somehow I ended up designing puzzles, including these here on this island. You could be doing anything with your life, but somehow you ended up here, solving these puzzles.
Suppose this project cost several million dollars. Do the math on how large an impact that money could have had. This very structure you’re walking around in, these puzzles you’ve been working your way through, are the result of my willful blindness to the suffering of others. Yes, I come from a culture of decadent, selfish people - I am immersed in all that - but that is no excuse.
Breaking the fourth wall? That’s happened in plenty of games previously, but breaking the fourth wall so that the game’s designer can speak directly to the game’s player about the meaning and impact of their shared experience? That’s unusual. That’s, at the very least, an interesting experiment... one which the folks who criticized Braid as “pretentious” will no doubt find annoyingly navel-gazing, but one which is unarguably interesting nonetheless. Plus, the more voice messages you discover, the closer to some great and games-affirming revelation you become:
On this island, where you and I meet through the medium of these puzzles, we are doing a wonderful thing. This is an experience that nobody anytime earlier in the history of humanity was privileged to have. There is magic here - something fundamentally worthwhile.
We’ll know if The Witness can live up to such grand ideals when it releases in 2012.
Aug 8, 2011