Architecture in The Witness

This summer, we began working in earnest with architects, to bring further sophistication to the design of locations in The Witness.  Before this time, we had a game that was fully playable, but buildings and the areas around them tended to be placeholders, developed only enough to make the basic gameplay possible.  We began working with two architecture firms, FOURM design (for buildings and such), and David Fletcher Studio (for landscape architecture).  Both firms are located in the Bay Area, so it's easy for us to meet regularly.

When we sat down to start working with the architects, one of the first things we did was put together a history of the island where The Witness takes place: how long has the island been there?  What groups of people lived there, and what kind of structures did they build?  How did later civilizations use the structures built by earlier groups?

Quickly we developed a running theme of sites that are old and have over time been used in two or three different ways.  When entering a new location, you probably first notice the most basic elements of its structure: where you can walk to easily, versus where you can't; what puzzles or goals are calling for your attention, and what walls or doors might be preventing you from getting to them.  If this is all you care about, you can then play through the area in a very utilitarian fashion.  But if you have an eye for detail, you may notice the elements of modern construction shoring up the design of an older structure with a different purpose.  The design of the new structure tells you something about what the newer guys were doing there, and how it differs from what the older guys were doing there.  And if you look really closely, you can see traces of the original footprint of the site (perhaps these are very subtle, some bricks just rising above the dirt in a few places), and infer the purpose of this very old site too.

If you see the different civilizations that came to this island as embodying different philosophies; and you see the structures they built as representative of the way these philosophies led them to interact with the world; and you see further that when they replaced a site, it represents the rejection of some older worldview that they consider no longer useful, then perhaps you start to get some idea of the amount of backstory that can be encoded into the world, nonverbally.

All of this backstory is also directly relevant to the main story -- who you are, why you are on this island, how you may get back home.  So, to put it another way, the game is constructed so that the more you pay attention to tiny details during your travels, the more insight you will have to the central story, even though it may not be obvious at any given time what a particular detail has to do with that story.

Having smart architecture, it seems, really helps this process work, brings it alive.  If you build a game where people are supposed to pay attention to details, but the details are wrong or naive or just don't have much thought put into them, then at some level the game just won't work.  Even if you don't know the first thing about architecture, you have been in enough buildings in your life that the deeper parts of your brain have distilled plenty of patterns about those buildings.  Your brain knows the difference between a real building and a nonsense building that wouldn't occur in the real world.  It can feel the difference in veracity between carefully-thought-out structural details -- on the one hand -- versus stuff that was just placed by a level designer to look cool.  When I showed a recent build to a friend, who had already played an earlier build of the game, he said the new structures made the game feel deeper, more serious.

I was a little surprised by this statement but should not have been, since really, that is what we are aiming for.  Thoughtful design of these structures and landscapes gives the game further gravitas.

The most-recent issue of Game Informer printed an article that showed some of the first screenshots of the newly-architected areas appearing in the game engine.  It is an interesting article; pick up the issue if you haven't!  They also put up a companion article online (but which not as extensive) here:

(Summary article at Game Informer)

The area featured in this article is the one that we have taken furthest so far in terms of modeling and texturing.  Here are some other shots of it:

The Keep, before and after

The Keep, close-up 1

The Keep, close-up 2

The Keep, close-up 3

We've done basic planning for some of the other areas, so I thought it would be nice to show some screenshots of work in progress.  For each of these, there's a 'before' version (when we had a fully-playable game, but basic placeholder structures) and after (once we have incorporated the architects' designs, revised the site plans and in some cases even the puzzles, etc):


The Compound, before and after

Glass Factory, before and after

Peninsula, before and after

Vault, before and after

Don't regard these "after" images as representative of what the game will look like!  They are still works in progress, and the final game will look substantially better: scenes like these will feel richer due to the placement of detail objects, further care put into the texture mapping and lighting, refinement of the still-rough-drafty terrain features around these structures, and many other bits of subtle game development magic.  But I wanted to show these now since they provide a good taste of the game's flavor, and they show how much structural intelligence is brought to the table by working with the architects.  Yes, we could have started with the placeholder structures and made them more elaborate and better-looking, in a general video-game-level-design way, but that's different from having well-thought-out ideas subtly embodied in the structures of the areas, which is what we are going for.


  1. The keep close-up 1 and 2, and the Compound don’t link to full scale pictures, and the game informer link doens’t work.

  2. The Glass Factory before and after is pretty peculiar; so this is one of those examples where you were required to substantially change the architecture/landscapes to fit the aesthetic, or am I off-track?

    • I’m not sure what you are asking. The version from “before” is basically a box with a window and some puzzles inside, that hadn’t had much work put into it. The version from “after” started with a design of the architects, then I came back to them with a different-but-related idea that I thought reenforced part of the theme of the location in a very interesting way. Then we worked on that one until we got where we are now. The structure of the building and its new location inspired a couple of puzzles that I hadn’t thought of before we did this.

      • From what I understand, Devin’s asking: Did the aesthetics proposed by the architects require you to substantially change the surrounding environment or was it some other reason?

        From what I understand from your post, it seems that both your own ideas and the ideas of the architects were factors in this substantial change.

        Is what I said accurate? I’m very interested in having a clear understanding of the answer to Devin’s question.

        • What you’re asking doesn’t really make sense. This is a super-complicated game that is constantly under active development, and has for much of its life been in a very rough state. It’s not like something was done and then the architects came along and wanted to change it. So either saying “yes” or “no” would be wrong. The question just doesn’t make sense. We are figuring out the game as we go along, as happens with all games.

  3. No doubt bringing architects in was a pure genious idea. And I really liked your thought about nonverbal storytelling.

  4. Absolutely love the amount of detail and thought put into these structures. It’s the little things that matter.

  5. Personally I’m a big fan of the art style in the “after” shots, and while I’m still interested to see where you take it from here would still get completely absorbed as-is.

  6. Thanks for the update, great stuff.
    Also eagerly awaiting Q.U.B.E, thought it would be on steam by not, but no so.

    Read the Game Informer article, was very excited to see it there and gain some more knowledge from it.
    I’d love to ask you some in depth questions one day, as im currently preparing for my own indie game and studying you, I have a journal with notes of all your lectures that I could find.

  7. “If you build a game where people are supposed to pay attention to details, but the details are wrong or naive or just don’t have much thought put into them, then at some level the game just won’t work.”

    It seems so obvious, and yet… :-)

    I guess the hard part is acknowledging which details are actually *present.* The recognition that people have deep familiarity with buildings – not as students of architecture, but as users, and that’s sufficient – isn’t obvious to many people, I think.

  8. The idea of bringing architects to the game is great and really logical. When the first small previews of the game came out I thought you were on to something, purely visually (of course, not knowing what the game mechanics feels like yet). But the advances made with the help of your architect buddies has definitely struck something real. For me the picture of the vault was a very clear reference to my hometown, Copenhagen. We have loads of these unused bunkers all around in both parks and more populated areas.×600-u/4698795-mangler-du-plads-lej-en-bunker–.jpg
    (the picture is from Århus, but it’s much the same in Copenhagen)

    It’s not that something like this hasn’t been done before or is particularly special in itself, but it’s the “cleanliness” of it that makes this interesting, and in a subtle way more appealing than many other games.

    I hope your work will inspire people to pursue game experiences that are wholly more memorable.

    • I have been to Copenhagen a few times, and a good friend of mine lives there. It’s a nice place to visit.

    • Hmm, this is interesting. The picture that I was most intrigued by and thought had achieved the most progress was exactly that bunker. I did not think more of it, I just thought it looked fitting.
      I now realize that it might be that subconscious effect of recognizing architecture, as I am from Copenhagen too. (Blow talks about it in the post: “Even if you don’t know the first thing about architecture, you have been in enough buildings in your life that the deeper parts of your brain have distilled plenty of patterns about those buildings.”)
      I guess that’s one small success right there!

  9. This is fantastic! Not only architectural details can give you information about its builders and users, but also make you think and ask questions about them. Rome comes to mind, with its ruins built over older ruins, old buildings redecorated for a different use (Pantheon), structures demolished just to reuse the marble, multiple architectural styles layering on top of each other.

  10. 1. Holy hell! You have animals and vegetation under water! The detail!
    2. Question: Can you have a mirror in the island, like and actual, real mirror in game engine?
    3. I like the original concept of the Tutorial House:

    4.If you are not careful you might put a detail in that is meaningless and have people examining it for years while its of no use. Like the cloud in Braid. Be careful, all must have a meaning to be or it will break the feel of the place being real like Oblivion and Gothic. be careful.

    Is it possible to have a mirror somewhere? (cuz water at shore looks like mirror. import for puzzles)

  11. As someone who enjoys videogames and is victim of architecture school I have often thought about the two design rationales coming together, I can’t wait to see the finished product!

  12. This is, honestly, one of the best-looking games I have seen. The new content really shows how worthwhile was the work you put into rendering.

  13. Thank you for this article! As always, your ideas are a huge inspiration. It saddens me how little attention these sorts of nonverbal cues get in games, given that a player spends pretty much all their time soaking them in. It also sucks how often architecture is simply dumped on top of a level rather than being more thoughtfully considered. The abundance of tarted-up hallways, waist-high walls, and locked doors have lead me to mostly ignore my surroundings when I play games today. All I can see is the designer’s intended path from A to B. If game developers did a better job of integrating abstract gameplay elements (such as level design) with the worlds that their games inhabit, I think games would be much more meaningful than they are now.

    I was playing through the original Prince of Persia recently, and the environments intrigued me in a way that I couldn’t quite put into words. I think one of the reasons is that the game didn’t take this slap-dash approach to level design. There were secret corridors that wrapped to the beginning of the level, deep dungeons full of traps that only lead to skeletons, drops that spanned several screens, and many other areas that fluidly wove around the main route through the game. As a result, the palace somehow felt alive and real, despite all the obvious technical limitations.

  14. Hi, Jon. It’s great to see innovative design decisions. It there something philosophical behind the meaning of architecture or it’s personal to everyone ?

  15. Despite the impressive dedication to realism in the structures, it looks like the Keep area features some waist-high hedges that we will be entirely unable to climb over. Classic videogame shortcuts, always present.

    • Here is what I have to say about that, in short:

      Why does the phrase ‘the player will be able to go anywhere and do anything’ sound like nails on a chalkboard to me? It’s based on a very naïve and unsophisticated understanding of how simulation, how representation works. You have a thing, a part of the world, and you have a simulation of that. There’s a gap in between, the gap is made up by all the differences, the way that this is not this.. the immersive fallacy is this idea that computer simulation allows us to close this gap and makes these things identical. But this gap is an essential part of how this representation works, this gap is where the magic happens.
      -Frank Lantz

      Full text of Frank’s short speech here:

      • I don’t even know what that means… In layman terms please!
        I can deal with not running and always walking. Not jumping, not garbing objects and not swimming. I think I can deal with not vaulting… But it makes me think is not real of course is not a real place, is a fucking video game but do you know what I’m saying?

        You better have a good “gap where the magic is” or some good “magic” in that “gap”
        -Frank Lantz (guy who has never and will never make a real game)

        …but shit nigga I haven’t make a game either so I’ll just start preaching:

        Skyrim, GTA, RDR, new Fallouts and stuff like that are “go everywhere do everything” games and they are complete inane, assine and infantile useless shit. I trust Jonathan, nuff’ said.

        Braid is my favorite game ever and you couldn’t fly or get into cars or ride the dinosaur or feed the rabbits and it is my favorite game of all time!

        • Justin, the quote is in plain English. You simply need to overcome your limited attention span and use your brain a little to think about what it means.

      • It seems like the point isn’t if the player can climb over a hedge but that they understand right away that they can’t and that that isn’t the solution. Are you going exclude the player’s the ability to jump? I hate when games allow you to do things that are unproductive because you waste a lot of time trying combinations of things that were put in there to give you a more “immersive” experience put are useless in terms of gameplay.

      • I don’t often have problems where I’m imagining solutions to puzzles like “well, if I could pick up that plank over there and lay it across that gap, I could just climb over” when none of that is part of a game’s vocabulary. I’m aware of the abstraction inherent in any sort of simulation, and in fact really enjoy learning and then accepting the rules of the game world.

        But when I’m thinking hard about a puzzle, trying to figure out “how do I get there,” and I notice that the place I am trying to reach is only separated from me by a unremarkable obstacle shorter than I am… it suddenly feels silly. Despite my usual willingness to accept game-world rules for what they are, waist-high obstacles tend to shake me out of my immersion when I sorely want to get past them.

        I can accept a short fence marking the “edge of the play area”, because I unconsciously know that there’s nothing worthwhile over there anyway. But when it’s key to preventing me from continuing in the game, it starts to stick out like a sore thumb. Maybe that’s just me.

        • No, its not just you. I feel the exactsame way, is just I couldn’t articulate it as well as you did, but you put my feelings into words. Thanks, I feel relieved now!

        • I think, generally speaking, that “why can’t I just do [X]?” feeling comes up when [X] is both reasonable in context and *almost* possible within the current game’s mechanics.

          So, waist-high obstacles do annoy me in something like, say, a Half Life game, where I am madly fighting for my survival in an apocalyptic scenario and my character can jump but arbitrarily not quite high enough.

          The Witness on the other hand is not AFAIK apocalyptic (so social norms that would normally prevent me from vaulting such a meticulously sculpted hedge could still apply) and more importantly doesn’t seem to feature jumping at all, so the player wouldn’t have any “maybe I can jump it?” ambiguity on encountering the hedge.

          • Yeah, and we actually work pretty hard to eliminate the “almost” thing. Like if some ledge comes a little bit too close to something else that you might want really hard to get onto, we trim that stuff back. It’s important to keep a wide margin around these things.

  16. Just beautiful and literally attractive. Looking forward to playing the game. Please keep up the patience and take your time. We’ll be waiting with as much patience as possible! ;-)
    And: Merry Christmas, of course! ;-)

  17. A bit off topic for this post, but I was wondering if your team is putting any consideration into other modes/ways to play the game, such as a speedrun option? I thought Braid showed incredible depth when attempting to find faster/alternate routes through the levels (whether the depth was intentional or not) and I’m hoping this game will feature similar depth game-play wise. Regardless, it looks like The Witness will have a lot of depth in the story/lore/world, so keep up the great work!

  18. “‘the player will be able to go anywhere and do anything’ sound like nails on a chalkboard to me? ”

    Doesn’t this agree with rule 8 in making a puzzle game “generosity” “why should we limit a mechanic?” Lack of generosity discourages exploration.

    either way, I eagerly await it!

    • Generosity only applies to mechanics which made the cut and keep the game focused and fun.
      I am pretty sure the player movement will be similar to Myst/ Google street view approach. Click somewhere on the screen, if clicked area is valid, camera will move there in cinematic fashion.I will be shocked if player will be actually able to navigate using left/right/up/down inputs for movement. I might be wrong, but i think as the game presented right now, it is important to keep “integrity” of the game world intact. If player is allowed to navigate freely then tonnes of stuff will have to be blocked out. For example if player is able to walk up to the edge of the cliff but there is no swimming or dying in the water, then Jonathan will be stuck with putting up invisible walls all around island which will absolutely suck for the player.

  19. Following the gameinformer links there is discussion about whether it will appear on consoles or not, but that it is coming to PC and probably iOS.
    I can’t really grasp how streaming and shaders etc. are “so slow” on xbox or ps3 in contrast to iOS. Only PC makes sense, but what’s better with iOS than with consoles except the high quality certification process?

    • I wish people would talk about important or interesting stuff, rather than this kind of thing.

      We’ll launch the game on some platforms, and bring it to others later. Ultimately we want the game to be on as many platforms as we can reasonably put it on.

      We have good reasons for platform decisions, and they are made after a great deal of consideration. I have explained a lot of the reasons in public before (probably in comments on this very blog). But then, as always, reasons (and therefore decisions of what seems like the right platform to launch on) change over time as our development situation changes.

  20. I don’t know exactly why, but I find the old white tower nicer on the eyes than the new cracked gray-ish looking one.

    Other than that, great job, looking good.

    I really like the visual style of the labyrinth bush-things. How did you do that?

    • Part of it is color choice, but also, Ignacio implemented a fur-shader-esque thing for it, which is why it doesn’t look starkly polygonal and flat.

  21. Thanks for the reply. It looks beautiful!
    I really like how your engine is able to handle terrain discontinuities so well (as in the Vault entrance).

    I understand that The Witness scenario is tightly coupled to the game design and puzzles. Wouldn’t refraction/light transport phenomena fit in somehow? I’d love to see some caustics and stuff.

    Also, are you planning on doing something about the edge aliasing issues? What do you have in mind?
    How is the temporal coherence of these things?

  22. I looked up those two firms and they seem solidly grounded in traditional real-world architecture. Did they have any specific video game experience in the past? Was gaming experience a consideration in choosing the firms or is this largely unnecessary?

  23. Well… Its 2012, the year of The Witness! …Right? tell me It won’t be released in 2013, right?

  24. Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
    A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
    A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
    A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
    -Diamond Sutra, from “Buddha meditations”

    This makes me think Jonathan… So there are things in the world that you can notice right? I don’t know how to artivulate this thought but: Some this are going to be there permanently, static, there for ever, right? But my question is: Will The Witness have some stuff that just happens “like in the air”? Things that are not just there but things that you have to catch. Events instead of shapes, shadows and reflections… Where yopu have to be in thre right place at the right time?

    Like in a preview I read that Shadows make shapes and there are statues and reflections can make images or maybe an object look at trough a filter or a mirror (water) is different or something is different looking at it trhough bounces or something. A preview said that at a shore line the sand, the clif and some rocks with its reflection on the water made a figure. Things like these are seen in man made islands and stuff like that. (remember back when the island was very weird looking still and I said it looked man made? Maybe this is a desired effect) but anyways there was no mention of events or knowledge to catch “in the air” by WITNESSING spontaneous things were you have to be in the right place at the right time doing something…
    Just like witnessing a “fleeting world” with the help of A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream

    It would be cool if it had more subtle stuff like these!

  25. these before and afters are something else. any chance you’d considering including early, work-in-progress builds of the island as kind of interactive behind-the-scenes extras? i realize this would be time consuming and maybe impossible now, but it’s a unique opportunity that too many devs overlook, which is why i cherish some of the old demos i own

    i always come back to the shadow of the colossus demo build, for example, because it was given to the public as the same quickly gutted, unfinished and partially broken preview of the game it started as. this made testing its limits a fun game in itself, which only added to the mystique of its world. and since shadow’s wasteland is one of the great video game worlds, it meant a lot to me. i’d give my pinky to play all the wip builds of the game that exist somewhere

    so yeah, it’d be neat, but i can imagine reasons for avoiding it, so it’s really not an issue either way. but i guess i am disappointed to hear a confirmation of no jumping. i figured as much, and i agree with the frank lantz point you brought up, but i also feel even when it’s not central to the game design at hand, human acrobatics are central to establishing a connection with the world. it’s why, say, half-life 2 is more enjoyable to play on a basic level than f.e.a.r. is, even though f.e.a.r. has the better encounter design. and, sure, you can jump and crouch and all that in f.e.a.r., but it has no conservation of momentum where half-life 2 does and that makes all the difference. dreamfall, terrible “game” that it is but game that i love, would be instantly more engaging and tolerable with robust play control. it’d even make a few puzzles more memorable and make up for some of the disappointment in the rest. so movement is important, even in a subdued puzzle game such as the witness.

  26. The Glass Factory looks stunning in that shot.

    I am an Architecture student finishing off my degree at RMIT, I keep saying that game design is the most interesting form of architecture at the moment.

  27. The new glass factory screen shot reminds me of the lyrics

    “in morning see the sunrise, look in the water see the blue skies, as if heaven has been laid there at our feet”

    Its a beautiful aesthetic.
    the song is “sausalito” by conor oberst and the mystic valley band. (not that the rest of the song truly fits)

  28. I am loving the look of the Vault. Can’t wait for the game (well, I can, but you know).

  29. I hope that’s not the finish level of the “Tutorial house” part because that is the most important part. The begging.

    I like this better:

    The original concept just looks awesome! Now the house and its ground (“the compound”) look ugly IDK why but it doesn’t say much…

  30. Hey Jonathan, this is really inspiring stuff. As someone who is transitioning from the architectural field into the video games and film industry, I have to say this gives me hope that my talents will be useful in the future. I believe that bringing architectural design into video games (and even film) would fundamentally enhance the scope. Atmosphere, spatial recognition, and the details are something that can be refined in video games. It really is the difference in level design versus architectural design, as they are intertwined, but fundamentally different. I want to break that barrier, and I see that you are attempting at that.

    As as side question I wanted to ask, is this a prevailing attitude in the industry? I know the director of Tron Legacy was a former Columbia architecture graduate, and the there have been many students of architecture within the industry. But “architecture” itself is never the highlight of any video game. It is also distilled into “art assets” and “level design”.

    Anyways, keep up the great work! And looking forward to see all the new iterations from your architectural design.

  31. I used your blog post for a project in my architectural history class. Isn’t it interesting how, after learning a thing or two about architecture, it just makes you THINK?

    There’s so much more to our surroundings than we realize, and when that’s forgotten, it’s quite tragic. I’m glad you sought out real architects to help you, it really elevates this from a mere design problem to solution story, and into something truly genius.

  32. Johnny boi, don’t be so sensitive to others and their minds!!
    This seems the type of game where your team has put a great deal of effort into the meticulous placement of everything, hopefully there’s some replay-ability. The puzzles will stay the same your second time through the game, correct?
    Good luck with your game!

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