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Jonathan Blow and “The Witness”, Part 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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.