Jonathan Blow and “The Witness”, Part 1

08062011_The _Witness_screen_1

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Jonathan Blow’s last game was “Braid,” the 2008 masterpiece about time and memory as told through the template of a side-scrolling platformer. Players could manipulate the flow of time, pausing it or slowing it down, to solve various puzzles in the waterercolor dreamworld where “Braid” takes place. Tim, the game’s suit-and-tie wearing hero, journeys through a few different levels hunting for a princess in need of rescue. But, in “Braid,” the bond between hero and damsel is more postmodernly nuanced and fraught: Some action of Tim’s drove her away and into peril.

“Braid” generated warm, fuzzy feelings in those who played it. The indie hit held a lot to appeal to gamers’ heartstrings. Its jump-and-run gameplay–even with the chrono-manipulation–resembled to the classic “Super Mario Bros.” The digitization of an impressionist art style and chamber music accompaniment helped it stand out from other games of the time and, surely, the forlorn and fractured memories of Tim’s past relationship helped in making players wistful, too.

But, “The Witness” goes in the opposite direction. Getting the chance to play it this week, I found Blow’s new game to be cold, clinical and analytical. Foreboding, even.

You play in a first-person perspective, nameless and faceless, and must explore a vast, open-world island to find out exactly who you are and what’s going on. The proceedings remind a little bit of “Lost” but moreso–to me anyway–of the 1960s classic cult show “The Prisoner.” Actor Patrick McGoohan starred in the spy series which subverted many of the tropes of the espionage genre. Instead being a globetrotting rake, lead character No. 6 was trapped in the mysterious Village and fought for his individualism against the bizarre collective that ruled it. The occasional psychedelics and pointed thematic development of “The Prisoner” lent it the air that something more was going on that what was on screen.

“The Witness” shares that quality. I didn’t get that much story with my time with “The Witness” as Blow’s holding any such details very close to his vest right now. What I did get to experience were puzzles, which seemingly make up the sole play mechanic in the game. The tropical environment is studded with glowing blue screens that display diagrams where you need to create line drawings that get from one point to another. That’s harder than it sounds, of course.

Take the one sequence that gave me the most trouble during my time with the game. In an outdoor area, a set of puzzle screens stand in front of a group of apple trees. Each screen has the same pattern: a single line fans out into multiple forks. It all startat the same place but you have no idea where your endpoint is supposed to be. “The Witness” eschews help text, audio hints or any of the hand-holding chaperone trappings that today’s games spoonfeed the player. What you need to solve the game is in the world itself. This austerity is a hallmark of Blow’s games. So, I walk around, eventually noticing a single apple on a branch of the nearby trees. The branching growth of the trees roughly matches the repeating diagram on the puzzle screens. Trying out a few tracings eventually leads me to the winning one and makes the symbiosis between puzzle and environment–the axis around which the game revolves–click in my head

“The Witness” is about seeing. It’s a smirk-faced challenge to your mental prowess. Oh, it’ll train you to read its environments and solve its conundrums but you’ll need to maintain a level of cognitive focus and flexibility that modern video games don’t dare ask for. My short time with it let me glimpse a game that looks to challenge many assumptions of what a modern video game needs to be. Jonathan Blow’s just the man for the job and, in the next part of IFC’s “The Witness” coverage, I’ll be running an interview with where he talks about the ideas he’s trying to execute in his new game.

Do you think “The Witness” sounds interesting? Why? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.