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The Witness: Modeling epiphany

Leigh Alexander catches up with Jon Blow about The Witness, and asks the enigmatic designer some questions she has always been afraid to ask him.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

June 6, 2014

12 Min Read

Jonathan Blow's Braid is widely thought of as one of the games, if not the game, that launched a perceived golden age of independent game development, rocking the previous console generation. Profiled in Indie Game: The Movie as one of three of the movement's most visible creators, Blow became a kind of royalty. Reserved and enigmatic, he doesn't wear that high profile or its associated judgments and expectations comfortably. His next game is The Witness, and it's about being alone on an island, solving puzzles in apparent solitude. I imagine he must be under enormous pressure as such a well-known creative, especially as he's funded the development of the game himself -- I call him on Skype across a seven-hour time distance to ask him about this, and make a 'sophomore album' reference that I instantly regret. "I don't really think about it that way," he tells me. "I have a long history in game development. I've done a lot of things that I think were interesting, although there is a certain way in which Braid was my first game doing things a certain way. I don't worry about making something good, because it's already good, and we just have to finish it." "It's already better than Braid was, in my opinion," he adds. "It's so much more vast, and rich, and full of things, whereas Braid was a much smaller game, and I would say there's more design maturity in The Witness." Speaking of maturity, six years ago, I was a newer writer. I remember that Jon Blow frightened me, in a sense, being one of the first game-makers I'd encountered in my young career who refused to 'sell' his product to me. He eludes the quests we are trained to perform for tidy quotes, pat explanations. You would ask him what Braid means and he would reply, "well, what do you think it means," an unheard-of approach to a press corp accustomed to acting as a mouthpiece for the developer's message. He made me nervous. He still does, just a little. These days I know myself well enough to understand that I often play video games because I want solution, satisfaction. Jon Blow builds awe instead. In an article about a card game, I recently wrote that I think "maturity" means the desire to chase things that frighten you. I ask him what maturity means. "It feels like Braid was an early exploration of some ideas, and The Witness is a later exploration of some ideas that builds on the earlier exploration, with greater sophistication," he says. "You put something out there, and people respond to it the way they're going to respond. And regardless of what you want, that's what happens. If you're going to make things, you're hopefully at peace with that process, and if you're not, you're in for trouble." "Definitely, to me, the game is about very specific things, and I hope people understand many of those things," he says. "But I'm content to let the game speak for itself; as soon as the game comes out I don't want to go on some lecture circuit saying 'here is what the game's about'. I'd much rather be making things."

"I don't worry about making something good, because it's already good, and we just have to finish it."

What is The Witness about, I ask. I mean, I probably manage to get the question out somehow. "It depends on who's asking," Blow replies. "I try not to have a stock answer; I try to understand where somebody's coming from. If it's somebody from a press outlet that is not that familiar with games, then I'll say it's about exploration and paying attention to your environment, and doing things that most games usually don't do in terms of trying to use the basics of the medium to their maximum potential. Whereas someone more familiar, I might get into something more specific, here are the puzzles, here are the examples." The way he talks about games, then, hasn't changed on a surface level since we spoke about Braid those years ago. The increase in his perceived celebrity since then hasn't changed much about his life, he says, but it's made it more challenging for him to be in conference spaces, where people recognize him and want to schmooze. "I'm not really the personality type that wants to do that," he says evenly. "I'll just stay with a couple of friends, behind the scenes." "That's the most concrete way in which my life has changed. If anything, I work harder on games than I did in 2007; that's not really different. I'm spending all my money on this -- in fact, I have spent all my money on this last game, so I'm not, like, travelling in yachts or taking trips to space." Blow built Braid with artist David Hellman about 30 hours per week, mostly collaborating remotely. The Witness' team, on the other hand, had 14 or 15 members at its peak, casting Blow as team manager. He says most of his collaborators have traditional backgrounds, primarily to suit The Witness' 3D art-heavy, open first-person world -- he works with technically-ambitious people who perhaps have longed for a creative outlet.

The Witness

Painterly Braid had its elements of technical sophistication -- the fluidity of its rewind mechanic and how that integrated with the game's puzzles hasn't been seen to be successfully repeated since. "But even though it had that, it was something that could be handled by one person," Blow says. "When I set out to make Braid, I was trying to avoid technical sophistication; I wanted a project that was tractable in scope, that I could finish. It was obvious that The Witness was going to be a bigger game, and as soon as you say that, it's probably more than one person can do." "I don't want a giant game company," he clarifies. "When companies grow big fast, you get a lot of mediocrity and badness. My model is to keep the team very small, and just do a lot." I ask Blow about game design as practice -- a consistent application of oneself to something on a daily basis. He says his 2011 IndieCade talk with Marc Ten Bosch helps highlight many of the things he finds interesting about design practice, "but the real thing is subtler than that: there aren't rules, as I always say."

"It's weird; in game design I really value clarity, and in fiction, I don't. I think clarity is often boring."

"I like games that ask something of the player, that have faith the player is a smart person that is interested in what games are doing, that don't manipulate the player," he says. "Those don't sound like techniques of game design, they sound like general philosophy... that turns into technique really fast, because you start saying, 'what should I do in this particular case'." Another element he calls primary is the ability to see one's game through the eyes of the person playing it, and not only as someone who knows the game inside and out. "It's a super important skill, and it helps determine every kind of decision that you make." The Witness began with one magical moment, a gameplay idea that came to him that he began building toward, implementing the space wherein that moment could occur. To share that moment would be a massive spoiler, but learnings from Braid and his own general aesthetics very quickly came together to shape the developing idea. "I had most of the idea for the game immediately, in terms of what it is and how it works," he says. "I have goals for what it feels like, and I can say what those are, but whether or not any particular player feels these, I don't know... so first of all it's quiet and contemplative. And there's a feeling of ... deliberateness to the environment." "There's not anything random," he continues. "When you see something in a certain place, it feels intentional, and it gives a feeling of focus to the entire place. when something catches your eye, you feel like it was meant to catch your eye in that way. And that... when you're in an environment for a while and that's consistently true, I think there's a feeling that this place is nice, in a certain way."

The Witness

The Witness' environment aims to diminish "mental noise" -- "we don't have to shine spotlights on things, because they don't stand out unless we mean for them to stand out," Blow says. "Even doing that effectively requires being able to look at the game from the eyes of someone who is coming to it for the first time. You have to sit in that place of looking at the screen, and noticing what's calling to your attention. Sometimes as a designer you say, 'wow, this one thing we built actually isn't as meaningful to the gameplay or story or whatever as it appears to represent itself as visually.'" I ask about The Witness' story, whether it's abstract narrative or strongly plotted. "There's something in between, and I'm still deciding where the dial is going to land," he replies. "There's a specific story of what's happening, and how much of that we're going to explicitly say. It's weird; in game design I really value clarity, and in fiction, I don't. I think clarity is often boring." Like many adults who've spent a significant share of their lives in the games space, Blow says his interest in new games is increasingly rare ("I really liked these games, that are free, called Heroes of Sokoban," he notes). And despite being crowned mostly against his will as a sort of poster child for the "indie scene," Blow feels like he doesn't belong. "I'm not really in the 'independent gaming scene,'" he says, when I ask him what he thinks of the state of the market. "I think a lot of indie developers don't like me anyway, because I'm very critical... people probably perceive it in a negative way, but I honestly say what I think about games, and I honestly say if i think something is good or not, and why."

"I'm not really in the 'independent gaming scene'... I think a lot of indie developers don't like me anyway, because I'm very critical."

Blow says he turns the same critical eye on his own work, a principle he feels is important to success. "You want to turn off that instinct to see your baby as beautiful, just because it's your baby," he says. "But the thing about the indie 'scene' -- it wasn't ever a 'scene' when I was starting out, and now it is, with all the things that that entails." He says the desire to feel good about one's life, participate in a community and pursue social validation don't necessarily go hand in hand with challenging oneself to produce one's finest work. I ask him why he makes games, what he gets out of it; he tells me it's hard to say. "When I was a kid I just really loved to play them," he reflects. "That develops into something, at some point. I don't think that's very different from most fields." I have one more question, I tell Jonathan Blow. He's said the answer to the question "what's The Witness about" depends on who's asking. So. If I, I say, were to ask you what The Witness is about, what would you tell me. He answers almost meditatively; I feel like I'm entering an instance of a world that was made only for me. I will psychoanalyze it later.

The Witness

"The Witness is about modelling the feeling of epiphany with great care," Blow says. "We set up a simplified version of the real world, as all game worlds are, and we tried to make this one very simple and clear in order to create very strong instances of this realization. You're trying to figure something out, you don't know how to get somewhere... so like many puzzle games, you'll be thinking about something, and you'll be stuck and you don't know what to do. You have no idea." "Maybe you take a break or you go to sleep and wake up, or take a shower, go to the store and while you're reaching for the cat food at the store, suddenly something happens in your mind where you understand exactly what that was about, what was going on," he explains. "The clearer and simpler the puzzle is, the more beautiful and strong that feeling of epiphany can be." "And the more that a puzzle is about something real and something specific, and the less it's about some arbitrary challenge, the more meaningful that epiphany is. Because it's about something: Not just an arbitrary set of moves, but 'oh -- I see light and shadows behave in a way I didn't think about before. I didn't see it, because it was so simple.'" I will psychoanalyze it later, I insist. Probably when it's 3:00 AM and I'm writing this article while I can't sleep and am worried about the future and would like to go someplace free of mental noise, someplace that feels nice. "The subjects of the puzzles in The Witness are the same kinds of things that happen in the real world, but simpler," he adds. "So the kinds of epiphany situations that you have, have some analogy in the real world, even if it's faint. It's about that connection." Yeah, I'm thinking, as the insomniac night turns to inky dawn and I realize I've missed my chance to sleep through the night again. That sounds pretty good.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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