Playing ‘The Witness’: Hands-On with the Next Game from the Creator of ‘Braid’

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Three years ago, Braid came out and changed people’s perceptions of what video games–especially independently developed ones–could be. The time-manipulating platformer gave players an experience that channeled the ephemeral nature of selective memory and the sting of lost love. Braid became a bona fide hit on the Xbox 360, thanks to a substantive maturity that ESRB labels don’t necessarily speak to. Its success validated both indie games and digital distribution on consoles in one fell swoop.

Jonathan Blow–the man behind the indie hit–has been keeping a relatively low profile for the last few years. He’s popped up at events like PAX and IndieCade to offer clandestine glimpses of his work-in-progress called The Witness. Visiting New York City this past week, the San Francisco developer pulled back the veil to let a select few play The Witness in its very early state. I had the chance to play the game and talk to Blow for a few hours last week. What I experienced had very little in common with Braid, but The Witness is very much a game that everyone should be looking out for.

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Blow’s games require some deep thinking, and not just in terms of their play mechanics. Interacting with Braid did more than simply challenge players to figure out when to pause time on a particular level; it also made them think about decisions made throughout their own personal backstories and what they’d do differently if the chance were given.

In a similar way, The Witnesss is going to do for space what Braid did for time. The game focuses on an aspect of life–in this case, the very environments we move through–that we take for granted and forces you to look at it from a different angle. As I sat down in front of the laptop where Blow had the game’s build running, the first thing I noticed was the art style. Braid unfolded in impressionistic watercolors, but there’s more of a realistic approach to The Witness. Blow says, “it might feel a little bit hyper-real, but we’re not trying to be photorealistic.” I used an Xbox 360 controller to control movement in a first-person perspective, with a minimal control scheme. You never get a sense of what the protagonist looks like; rather, the focus is on what the player’s seeing.

The game starts off in a dark room, with windows looking out on a tranquil suburban scene. The Witness is an open-world puzzle game at its core and it’s when you try to leave the room that you’ll encounter the first challenge. A glowing blue panel shows a line drawing with a large point and a smaller one at either end. Tapping A pulls the camera in tight and activates a pointer that lets you trace over the line. Mimicking the L-shaped pattern opens the door, and out you go into the unknown.

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