Post-GDC update

We brought The Witness to the Game Developers Conference and had the game playable privately in a hotel room to select members of the press.

We had to do a lot of work to get the game back into playable condition; a lot of things had been broken since the press tour last August / September. (When you are making sweeping changes to a big and complicated game world, it is pretty easy for things to get bent out of shape). So the GDC served as a good internal deadline to have the game banged back into shape.

I didn't expect a lot of press coverage to come out of this, because at the GDC there's just a lot of stuff going on, a lot of things for people to pay attention to and write about. So I had been doing this mostly as an opportunity to keep the press up-to-date with the game, see how it is evolving graphically, etc. But, to my surprise, we got a lot of coverage. Here are links to what people are saying about the game lately:

First, a video interview on Gamespot (excerpted; we probably talked for 45 minutes or an hour).

Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku finds a musical treatment for The Witness' game design philosophy.

Ben Kuchera at the Penny Arcade Report, with a piece about online distribution channels, and another biz-focused one.

Ben Gilbert at Joystiq, with a design-oriented posting and also a more biz-like one.

Alex Rubens from G4 with an overall preview of the game.

Daniel Starkey of Destructoid, with a preview as well.

As you can see from the write-ups, people seemed to really dig the game. So that is all good.

Keep in mind that, because I am known for my previous game and and the reporters are there talking directly to me, the tone that tends to get adopted in these write-ups makes it sound as though I were making the game myself. That's not the case; there's a good-sized team of very talented people building the game! (This reminds me that we need to update the About page to list everyone who is currently working on the project.)


  1. Very exciting. If you don’t mind I have a game design question. It sounds like from the reviews that you have done a good job connecting somewhat abstract puzzles to a deeper meaning. Concepts like communication and systems appear to be non-verbally discussed through game play (from what I am inferring).

    Have you found it challenging to connect more abstract puzzles to a central theme or did that sort of form naturally. I know these blogs are more for technical discussion but any information on how you view this would be useful. I also know you talked about this in you and Marc’s designing to reveal the nature of the universe talk but I’m still curious about your process.


    • It’s not challenging because it happens naturally. I think that if I were to give myself an artificial task: How do I connect thing X to thing Y? It can take a great deal of effort and, in the end, still feel forced / contrived.

      The way it worked here is that the puzzles came from certain deeper ideas. The deeper ideas existed first, not the abstract puzzles. So the abstract puzzles are an expression of that and can’t help but point back at it.

      (We do somewhat often, when dealing with story / architecture / art style stuff, try to intentionally make more connections between things in a deliberate manner. But these things are not at the core of the game; they are just extra dressing.)

      • Thank you. The reason I asked was because you have talked about core gameplay which would require a large volume of somewhat formalized puzzles to be designed. I think I was assuming you initially wanted to make an adventure game with core gameplay and needed to find material for the puzzles. It now sounds more like you had core ideas that were best implemented with puzzle gameplay and that those ideas drove the project.

        • But how do you get from the core idea to a set of gameplay? That seems almost as great a challenge a sthe other way around albeit a very different one.

          I myself like to design from first principles and really like the fact that that is how you have operated in your last few games, but at the point where you are trying to get from an idea which then leads to all these other emergent ideas – how do you convert that into a core piece of gameplay that will lead to other emergent gameplay that is analagous to those sub-ideas that sprout off that core idea you want to explore? If the core gameplay doesn’t perfectly represent/explore the core idea, then any emergent gameplay will surely start to diverge a long way from the originally intended idea? Hope that makes sense.

          • Well, it seems to me that you are posing the question in a way that makes it hard, when it doesn’t need to be. Suppose the core idea *is* a set of gameplay, or at least a vague space in which you see a lot of gameplay could occur. Then, getting from there to the gameplay itself is either a very small step or no step at all.

            It may help to clarify that when I say core idea, I am not meaning something like, “This is a game about loneliness, how do I find gameplay about loneliness?” That is a very stereotypical thing and at some point I am not sure how valuable or interesting that is. The kind of thing I have in mind when I say core idea is probably more subtle than that, but also bigger; and such a core idea quickly provides basic questions that you could then easily see how to set up a simple gameplay system to answer.

  2. The joy of discovery… certainly my favorite single aspect about video games (see also Spacechem). Thanks for the updates and congrats to the team on the GDC build!

  3. “We brought The Witness to the Game Developers Conference and had the game playable privately in a hotel room to select members of the press.”

    I think you should reveal The Witness directly to the community. Ignore the press altogether. Release an open beta. A taste. A sample. I don’t care what journalists have to say about the game. The game itself interests me, not their reports on it.

    • I disagree for no other reason but personal preference. If there is going to be a finished game, I want my first impression to be it. Not that of a work in progress, which will not only be different from the finished thing, but also wear off till the finished game gets released, having a dampening effect on my anticipation.

      My opinion on this might be completely different on another game, where I might not expect an interesting arc unfolding throughout the progression of the game.

  4. Simple ideas can have profound implications. In mathematics, for example, revelatory proofs are often the basis for a flurry of papers, which quite quickly branch out from the scope of the original work. I would imagine that Jon and his team, having established the central idea of their game, look closely for such emergent concepts, and then develop puzzles/challenges that require the player to develop an understanding of them. Hence, players will gradually discover the central theme, as they work through the corollaries. That’s my take, anyways.

  5. Braid cut itself off from non-gamers because of its roots in conventional platforming. The Witness doesn’t seem to have any action roots at all–the challenge stems purely from logic so that non-gamers aren’t at a disadvantage.

    So… will The Witness turn everyone’s grandma into an art game fan? I would find that amazing.

    • To the contrary, I believe that Braid is the perfect introductory video game. It starts with hold right to move right, progresses to push A to jump, and by the end of the level you’re platforming; by the end of the game you have an experiential understanding of quantum mechanics ;) I put my mother, who hasn’t played a game since Space Invaders, on the box with Braid, and she played all the way up to the boss in World 3.

  6. It says ‘Number None’ but I thought the group was called Thekla?

  7. “Hi, I’m sure you’re very confused about where you are and why you’re here. That’s okay though, you’ll find out in time. I want you to know that I care about you more than you know and want you to succeed. You aren’t in any rush, so slow down and enjoy your time here.”

    This is the best set of instructions ever. While it conveys how the island’s creator wants the protagonist to proceed, it also tells an unfamiliar player how the game is played. A strong suspicion of mine is that the creator and the protagonist are one in the same, with the final room giving the option to erase your memory (again?) and reset the entire island, which would then push you through a secret doorway into the starting dark hallway. In that way, the joy of discovery can be experienced over and over for the creator/protagonist. But I am likely way off base, having not played the game yet.

  8. Jonathan, what do you think of Anna Anthropy and her new game dys4ia? How about her new book?

  9. I saw your interview on Gamespot, and I must say that I totally agree with your view on gaming, and have even thought about it that way as well.
    Personally I find simple games like Team Fortress 2 nice for relaxing, and things like The Legend of Zelda that help you every step of the way I like more for their storyline and characters than anything else. But I also think that true fun, and really enjoying the mechanics and journey of a game, is being assigned with a task and accomplishing it, discovering as much as you can by yourself along the way. And, of course, interesting mechanics.
    When I played Braid, that was truly an enjoyable experience, and it’s currently the best game I’ve played. It’s not particularly my favourite game (childhood gaming nostalgia is overpowering), but I have never really had as much real fun in a game as in Braid. As you described in the interview, that “click” was the highlight of every level. It’s a shame that the game itself was so short, and although there are a few mods out there a whole universe-creating community would be great, so I’m trying to create/recreate that.

    I really hope the Witness will be the same, and so far it looks like it will. By the way, now that I mentioned it, I’m wondering: will the Witness have any modding tools or support?

  10. As anxious as I am to play The Witness (as both a player and student of game design) a part of me is happy that I have to wait. I don’t mind waiting until your team is confident the game is finished… and that’s how you intended the game to be experienced.

    Would consider releasing a beta of a game, starting a Kickstarter, or any other “new fangled” method of distribution?

  11. I look at the comments and all I see is hate for Jonathan. They make fun of his name calling him “Jonathan Head” and call him “pretentious”, “tool” and “hipster” I know this behaviour is common to all of humanity but why are people so insecure? Why someone confident makes other people feel bad about themselves?

    If the Witness as autobiographical as I think it is, Jon will talk about this nad adress the people and talk more about all this irrational hate instead of caring for our fellow human beings. I don’t think people know the meaning of the word “pretentious”

    Why does Jonathan rises hate when his name is mentioned? What did him or his game do to anyone? Why do they care so much for names and facial features? And for whath pvrpose.

    I hope there is a bit in the gae where Jonathan talks about public speaking and sharing ideas and the hate people arouse in other people because of succes or intelligence or confidence.

    • I agree that most people do not understand what pretentious means. Pretense is about expecting someone to find something deeply meaningful that is meaningful to you, but not otherwise inherently so. In the sense that, though I personally find sitting beneath an oak tree in the fall to be deeply meaningful, if I were to make a game where that is all you do, and say that it is or should be deep and meaningful to everyone, that would be pretentious. Some people would still find it meaningful, but that would be primarily based on their experience and personality, and not upon the inherent value of the content created.

      A game like Braid or the Witness is discovered, not created. The meaning comes out of the truth that is discovered to be inherent in a system. There is no pretense involved, except perhaps that the designer (Jon, in this case) finds interacting with that system interesting enough to pursue and therefore believes that there may be others who also do.

  12. Hi Jon, Ignacio, and Shannon,

    I’ve been listening to some of your lectures, Jon, and I am very interested in core ideas, reflected in your quote above:

    “The kind of thing I have in mind when I say core idea is probably more subtle than [a game about loneliness], but also bigger”

    You’ve mentioned this before in your lectures. What things have allowed you to become more cognizant of these core ideas?

    For instance, something very personal to me is the idea that life is comprised of choices or sacrifices; if I choose to stay in on Friday to study versus going out with friends, that is a sacrifice. These small sacrifices build up and they lead to predictable consequences; if I study for three months straight I will have hopefully learned a great deal, but I will affect my relationship with my friends in a possibly negative way. Can this idea of life being comprised of sacrifices be expressed through a game, or is this idea not deep? Is it one of the stereotypical things you describe?

    In short, how do you understand when you’ve arrived at something subtle and broad that can be a core idea for a game, and what helps you reach that understanding?

    I’m about to read Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games for some more insight on things to be conscious of when designing games (you mentioned him in the last lecture I listened to so I thought I’d try him out).

    Thank you for any help, and good luck to everyone working on The Witness!

    • Only you can say if the idea is deep or not. Honestly it doesn’t sound very deep just written in a few sentences like that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much, because a lot of meaningful things behave similarly.

      My question would be: is this the most meaningful thing that you are aware of? If so, make the game. If not, think of some more-meaningful thing, and ask the question again. Once you are no longer able to conceive of anything more meaningful, make a game about that.

      • Thanks for the help Jonathan.

        The example above was just to convey the rudimentary concept; I feel that there is more to it, but I don’t really know how to explain it. It is something that resonates very closely with me at the moment, though I will need to examine whether it is the most meaningful thing I am aware of.

        Thanks again,
        Ethan Hall

  13. April 1st came and went (again) and you didn’t make a joke about the game.
    I hoped this year you had a joke of the industrie’s current state and talk about
    DLC for multiple endings to The Witness, AI parthners to help you skip puzzles,
    Starting a Kickstarter, a parthnership with EA or multiplayer for the game…

    but no! You guys didn’t do anything! Sure it would have been work and you
    have a lot of work to do still but when you announced Bloopi Braid got a ton
    coverage at news hubs for people falling for the joke.

    Did you even considered doing something for April fool’s Jonathan? : (

    • I had a question about the realism of the game. Will this game be realistic with the architecture and nature? Like are you guys going to be mesuring stuff to make it like real world natural stuff with the whole spiral thing?

      If not, then what do you want the world to be? Possible but not realistic?

    • Would there be something wrong with a The Witness KickStarter? Or even KickStarter? I’m not sure I see what the joke is/would be.

  14. Jonathan, I read this month’s (May 2012) The Atlantic and they interviewed you. I’m very surprised that nobody has mentioned it, because it is a great biographical article. Your comments about the gaming industry are rather bold, but I agree with just about everything you said.

    As an aside, I’m looking forward to The Witness as it sounds like a beautiful and exciting game.

  15. Interesting that you say that about Braid. I came to this blog because I was looking for a place to say that I’m a non-gamer who’s enthralled with Braid (I found out about it because of the article in The Atlantic and asked my gamer friends if they had copies — of course they all do). I don’t have very good jumping skills, and a gamer friend had to explain a couple of things that any gamer would take for granted about how to coordinate the controls for jumps, but Braid is so fascinating conceptually that I’m willing to do all this jumping on and off platforms so I can experience the worlds. I can feel my thinking changing as I begin to get an intuitive grasp of how time works in the different worlds (I’ve just gotten into World 4). It’s even invading my dreams — last night I dreamed about what life would be like if we were always going back and correcting our mistakes while the rest of reality moved forward around us, and how that could be both good and bad. Anyway, you may well be right that non-gamers like me could take to The Witness more readily than we do to Braid, but Braid has enough of a fascinating, thought-provoking, emotional experience to it that it does pull in some of us non-gamers and make us start learning platform jumping skills. I’m still not going to go out and play other platform games, though.

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