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Why Sam Barlow says "witnessing" can be a powerful game mechanic

Immortality game director Sam Barlow discusses his inspirations for making games around "witnessing" key events.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

June 6, 2023

7 Min Read
A screenshot from Immortality. Two men look at a woman who is looking at the camera.

By now it's no surprise that Half Mermaid studio head Sam Barlow can spin a great yarn. After the back-to-back successes of Her Story, Telling Lies, and now Immortality, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was struck by lightning at some point and his brain was optimally rewired for making full-motion video games that hypnotize players.

But nope! That is exactly what did not happen. In a recent chat on Game Developer Talks, (a webinar series coordinated by Game Developer and our colleagues at sibling organization GDC) Barlow went out of his way to break down the origins of his creative process—and how they fed into one of his most key ideas about game design: that "witnessing" can be as powerful a verb for game design as "jumping," "shooting," "running," or "ordering."

What does that mean? Well if you're going to make any sense of "witnessing" events in games, you don't need to play The Witness, you should instead look up a little Infocom game called A Mind Forever Voyaging, for it is here you will find the first clues to Barlow's design ethos.

Barlow is inspired by games where players "witness" events

In A Mind Forever Voyaging, players take on the role of an artificial intelligence tasked with simulating the long-term effects of a proposed piece of legislation called "the Plan for Renewed National Purpose." The player doesn't pour over analytics of course—they navigate a simulated South Dakota town called Rockville, speak with its residents, and watch how the Plan affects Americans over fifty years.

The game, authored by prolific Infocom designer Steve Meretzky, is Sam Barlow's favorite video game. He was delighted to share anecdotes about being asked about his favorite game at various award ceremonies, only to watch interviewers' faces fall flat as he began describing a text adventure from the 1980s instead of BioShock or another modern narrative hit.

But why is it Barlow's favorite game? Well for one, it's a game with a sharp point of view. Meretzky wrote it in reaction to the election of Ronald Reagan. The Plan for Renewed National Purpose is meant to satirize the Ronnie's political agenda, the impacts of which we are still living in today.

Barlow, himself a designer making games in the chaotic age of Brexit and the Trump administration, wants to make games that come from an equally strong point of view. But more importantly, he fell in love with how players learn about the impact of the Plan.

"It's the idea that the core gameplay is essentially witnessing things," he explained. "It's one of the few sort of hard verbs you have—the ability to record what's happening."

A screenshot from Immortality. The player views different film clips they can interact with.

"At some point, [the player character] decides to start recording things you haven't been told to record. Since then, how many games have been about looking at things, or witnessing things? That aren't just about...shooting, smashing, climbing, or jumping. The idea that you're walking around this world and what you pay attention to was the gameplay...it's obviously stuck with me."

Barlow said he began playing with this idea while working on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and it's now become a central fixation in his work. In all of his award-winning FMV games, players explore the narrative by watching video and looking for the most important clues to a larger mystery.

The team behind Immortality absolutely deserves the numerous awards it picked up in the last part of 2022, as all of the developers behind it showcased enormous amount of talent in telling an ambitious meta-narrative that you don't normally find in the video game world. But it's not just game designers in the full-motion video world who can take advantage of what Barlow is discussing. When you take a broader look, the idea of "witnessing" is everywhere in the game design space.

Mechanics about "witnessing" come in all shapes and sizes

What's exciting about Barlow's design lesson is that it encourages game developers to think more closely about how players interact with the camera in any video game. Whether it's first-person, third-person, isometric, or static on a two-dimensional plane, there's power in treating that perspective as a space to be observed, not just played in.

In commercial games, the idea of player perspective is often boiled down to very basic concepts. "Does the player know where to go? How does the player identify what is important in this space? Can the player see threats before they attack?" Camera designers and programmers everywhere have torn their hair out over these systems. Because even very experienced video game players will point the camera at the exact space they're supposed to be looking at and still miss what's right in front of their nose.

A screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Link points up at a photo of himself pointing up at some ruins.

(It's me, I'm one of those players. In my recent time with Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, I regularly blocked my own progression by not recognizing the tiny gaps in the wall that Cal Kestis was supposed to squeeze through).

You really don't have to be making a high-minded game about art or politics to play with this mechanic. Barlow and I discussed how even The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom makes use of this idea. Players are regularly given quests that invite them to closely observe the landscape around them. Sometimes they capture that landscape using the in-game camera, other times they solve a puzzle by following geographic clues given by characters without any corresponding quest markers.

One of my favorite instances of this is a quest where players are told about a strange white bird that appears in the Hebra region if you look at the mountains at a certain time of day from a very specific perch. Committing to this quest means the player needs to navigate to said perch, wait for the time of day to arrive, and then scan the horizon for that mysterious white bird.

Said bird only appears when the player's eyes relax and they see how the light and geography combine to create a very distinct shape. Then if they're like me, their head explodes at the thought that Nintendo's level and quest designers needed to work together to create such a feature in the game's open-world geography and relentlessly test it to make sure players could even see the dang bird at the same time every day (weather permitting).

A stray object placed for another quest could ruin the visibility of that bird. Changes in the landscape that support other game objectives could ruin the quest. Even tweaking how the sun and moon move could ruin the visibility of that bird. And yet! In the middle of a game propped up by a thousand interconnecting systems, the bird appears.

Nintendo doesn't attach any key narrative or thematic context to fulfilling this quest (there's a shrine waiting for you at the end which grants you a needed resource), but it guides players to this moment by inviting them to witness the landscape.

That's a lot of words to write about looking for the illusion of a bird in the mountains, but Barlow said there's a reason it feels so magical. "Swinging the camera around, looking at stuff, stopping and taking in some environmental detail—that's actually quite expressive on the player's part," he explained. "There's so much interesting gameplay there and so much expression for the player to communicate with what [they're] looking at."

If you'd like to witness our full chat with Barlow for yourself, and learn about the other creative inspirations that went into directing Immortality, you can see the full conversation over on the GDC Vault.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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