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.