Island Update

Here's how the island is looking right now:

But today we are going to have the first in a series of meetings wherein we think pretty hard about the topography of the island and what the flow of natural curious investigation will tend to be from various spots. Expect the island to look pretty different in the next update! (Or maybe it will turn out that things are mostly fine...)

Lately, I have been working on some of the more sophisticated puzzles in the game. These are things that were at least sort-of done already, but I wanted to revise the designs to improve them -- to ensure that the puzzles are as interesting as possible and built as closely as possible around the core themes of the areas that contain them. I am happy with the way these are coming along so far, but there is definitely still some work to do here.

The art team has been working further to nail down the style of the game, now focusing on cliffs and plants and other natural things, as well as control panels and other bits of machinery. We're also taking a few buildings that the architects have finished designing, and starting to build out the geometry as one really would for a video game. (The architects give us buildings modeled in SketchUp, and they tend to come into the game a bit messy, but also, not modeled the way an experienced video game modeler would do it).

On the programming side, we've got lots done lately. Andy has added a software occlusion culling system, which should help with frame rates in the game. He's also been playing with culling for water reflections. Salvador got animations working in the exporter and in the game, so now we can play animations on entities, which is very useful. (We worked on the game for years and built something fully playable without this ability!) I have been going back and doing the gameplay work for animated entities, as some things have to change in the gameplay logic. In all it is a very nice improvement. Salvador is now working on asset streaming, which will help the game start up faster and run better (and help it run at all on lower-end platforms like the iPad). Ignacio's been doing a whole lot of fixes to various systems and hammering away at the todo list. One of these things has been better control for the tone mapping process. We now get a graph of tone mapping curve:

And we also get the ability to export screenshots into Photoshop that have a color key on them; then the colors can be tweaked in Photoshop and re-imported into the game to alter tone mapper settings. This is in many cases more convenient than playing with those sliders.


  1. Those autumn-colored trees really pop, and I really like the vignette effect!

  2. Love the style of the Island, it’s realistic but with a style. Almost like a model someone made out of materials found around their house. I don’t know… hard to pin down but maybe that’s the point.

  3. I think it’s very interesting to see the game and the team progress through various stages of development. Also tone mapping in Photoshop looks like a serious aid!

    Do you have anything to share about music & sound, Jonathan? Braid soundtrack is one of my all time favourites, so I’m looking forward to reading about what you’re planning for The Witness.

    • We have some interesting work in progress for the sound but not too much to say about it on the blog yet. It is hard to talk about sound!

      • I’ve heard that writing about music is like dancing about architecture… so can we have at least a little achitecture dance?

        Nevermind, staying tuned either way. Please hit us with it when you feel it’s post-worthy.

  4. Any ETA? loved braid and been waiting for this so long :) good work.

  5. The white building looks like it from the future, like the mirros edge future!

    The visual effects of dark at the edges while in first person also looks cool. Will the character blink while in first person or are you able to see floaters or the squiggly lines from the eyes?

    In Enter The Void, a movie that is mostly from a first person eye point of view, this happens and it looks cool. Interesting that no video game has done it considering there are so many in first person BUT NO NATURAL PHENOMENA OF THE EYES OR SIGHT OCCURS. Like after looking at the sun and being outside and going in doors you look green! really green!

    • Why would you simulate floaters and blinks etc when the player already has eyes that behave that way?

      Or maybe this confirms what I have long suspected, justin; you are not human!

      • The game is about natural phenomena, rite? I just think it’s a cool excersice and something new no one has ever tryed. Not only floaters but maybe the new FarCry has something like that, having to do with allucinations because of drugs you take in the game in the form of vegetation that you pick up. In Enter The Void alot of parts are from first person and you can see the guy’s chest and shoulders and his blinking and this turns cery cool when he gets high and starts seeing fractals and stuff.

        Humans, which most living things that play games are human, unlike me have eyes and these eyes blink and all already but what if being under the sun so much in the island makes your blood pressure go up? What happens to sight when you have high blood pressure or when it really low or when you are blacking out. Those trippy sighthings are very hard to reenact but this example is silly. LET ME GIVE A GOOD EXAMPLE OF MY DREAM PUZZLE.

        So you have ipad like touch pannels all over the world, the game is about tracing the right path to “win” the puzzle and understand somehting key about the world that will help you in the real world after the game is turned off. To know the right path to trace you must see or notice “Look what happens when” (as opposed to Braid’s “Look what happens if”)things in the world, and some how practicing seeing will give you the knowledge to solve the problem. *Long tangent, forgot the puzzle* it was something like: Its afirst person game. you see with your eyes. your eyes do weird shit. need to know path on a panel, but pannel is not blue but cristal like glass and see-trough. How do you know what to do. there is weird art near by. Look at it with the character’s eye long enough go back to the pannel. your eyes now have and after-image of the path and some how this communicates many things at once since the after imgae was the original and the one you saw the inverted.

        IS LIKE: WHY ARE SCRUBS GREEN? BECAUSE DOCTORS LOOK AT BLOOD! silly humans are wising up!

  6. Wow, that’s looking beautiful. The tree look more volumetric. I saw a cool trick where you can transfer the normals from a smooth mesh to all the flat planes that make up the leaves to give the appearance of volume. Are you doing something like that or is this just some other special shader?

  7. Love all the critical thought going into this game. It looks wonderful so far.

    Regarding, “the first in a series of meetings wherein we think pretty hard about the topography of the island and what the flow of natural curious investigation will tend to be” — have you read “The Image of the City” by Kevin Lynch? It might be something you’d be interested in. It’s a seminal text on urban planing and spatial design from 1960. Interestingly, I knew about this book way back since my dad was a city planner, however it wasn’t until I met Brian Upton that I realized its implications on level design. Upton gave a great GDC talk back in 2007 on how Lynch’s deconstruction of spatial elements ports over wonderfully for games. You can find a high level breakdown of the book here:

    Looking forward to future updates!

    (apologies if this is a dupe; my first attempt at commenting seemed to disappear)

  8. Got to say, the art is starting to look really nice. Looking at that image the orange trees immediately grabbed my attention and the cliffs look sexy :). Also liking the use of color: there are a lot of areas that have a nice soft ambient/bounced light around the trees and on the cliffs. I can now see why getting the light maps working early for you guys was so important. That combined with the new vignetting effect makes everything look soft and inviting. A lot of the time it seems like games opt for hard transitions between light and shadow and overall making everything have hard edges. It’s nice and refreshing to see something that is soft and blends together. Looking forward to seeing the art progress more and seeing the art direction of the buildings in particular.

  9. Is this game by any chance somehow related to some ancient book like( tao teng chi )or (the book of change )? I found braid very provocative in a phylosophy and religious way.I happen to be a Chinese college student,who is very interested in ancient Aisan wisdom as well as mind-blowing games like braid.

  10. Wow, it looks beautiful! I know it’s something of a dumb question, but will there be Braid references? I think there should be. The game simply wouldn’t be complete without them.
    Also, should I play Myst before this game? It’s probably a great way to pass the time, that, and F5-ing this blog.

  11. It really is impressive to see how things are progressing. I wish you the best of luck with the development!
    Now, you were talking in an interview that, for you, the magical moment is when the player suddenly understands how things are working. Do you find it difficult anticipating the complexity of the puzzle, the players reaction and thought process, and estimating a puzzle completion time? Since you already know the solution, how do you figure out how much it’s going to take the player to solve it?

    I can hardly wait to play it :)

    • I tend to have some idea of how a player will approach a puzzle, how hard it will be, etc, but these ideas will invariably be wrong, so the key is to construct the game so that it is robust in the face of the player having a very different experience than you expect.

      In this game that means a great deal of openness and player choice about what they are going to do next, as well as some leniency in how many puzzles must be solved to finish the game.

      • Hi Jon, are you not worried that people might be disillusioned if they complete X number of puzzles only to later discover they did not need to solve them all to complete the game?

        I would personally want to feel like everything I did in the game contributed to my success. If you mean that certain sets of puzzles will enhance your understanding of the world but it is technically possible to finish the game without doing them, I would also feel slightly disappointed that I had missed out sections and still completed it.

        I suppose it’s like walking through a maze, coming to a fork and choosing the left-hand path, always thinking in the back of your mind that you will come back and explore the right-hand path eventually, only to discover the left-hand path leads to the end of the game. You’ll always be left wondering, “what was down the other path?”

        • No, I am not worried about that. The point of the puzzles is that they are intrinsically interesting. If someone wants to try and approach this game as if the activities in it were not intrinsically interesting, but rather filler activities to do just to get to the end, then they are not in the frame of mind that this game is made for.

          I think the attitude you are describing to me is one that is maybe a little bit too conditioned by linear video games.

  12. Jonathan,

    I notice on the second screen shot you have some neural net image processing going on. I can’t figure out what you might be using this for. Would you mind sharing some insight into it’s use or is that a trade secret? :-)

  13. Brilliant to hear how development is coming along, as ever :D!

    What’s the current puzzle count, if you don’t mind me asking, Jon?



  14. I don’t know if it’s polite to ask too many questions, but since you are an awesome producer and reply to fan questions, I’m going to force my luck here :D

    Whenever I look at screenshots and see that brightly lit scenery, it brings back memories of a warm, summer day. Is it summer in the game?

    Also, for me personally, one of the best moments in a game is right at the start, when I have the sense of the unknown and a lot to discover. Like reading a good book, sometimes after playing a game, I wish I could experience it again for the first time.

    Do you specifically aim at keeping the player’s curiosity high? If so, how do you do it?

    Best regards to the development team from a fellow programmer!

    • Just out of curiosity, why did you feel compelled to provide a link that makes fun of Jonathan Blow (or, at the very least, of the Atlantic article) on the page run by Jonathan Blow? I suppose what I’m asking is whether you were being humorous or provocative?

      • I found it rather funny and harmless. Did it upset you Mr. Anonimous?
        Why wouldn’t he post it here? If you’ve been folloeing the blog you’ve been following this character Justin. He always does things like this for unknown purposes. Mr. Blow must have thick skin and he has the personality of a buddisth monk.

        Some people have commented they believe Justin is Jonathan.

  15. Will the game be non-linear in the order in which you tackle puzzles/ explore and discover across the islands? If there are only certain areas you can access at early stages of the game it would be cool to have a reason to be locked out of an area, because often developers cop out and just have an invisible barrier or come up with something lame that limits the players natural exploration and guiding you down a pre determined path while giving you the look of exploration (i.e. RAGE). It would be I think quite cool if you could access an area or puzzle but not be able to solve it because you need something from another area (think Monkey Island 2-although too much of that gets frustrating); even better would be not requiring something, but requiring the knowledge gained from another area; that would be sooo awesome.

    Also, do you have a rough idea of release time. Like late this year, or do you think it’ll be pushed into next year as you strive to polish it more? When did you come up with the idea for the game?

    • Yes, the game is very non-linear and where there are blockages we try to do as good a job with them as possible.

      We are starting to firm up ideas around release date and platforms. I expect we will announce something there before too long.

  16. Jonathan,
    I read the recent article in the Atlantic about you and your games, it made me curious. I am not a gamer in any way so I don’t see the appeal in either the popular social games or the awareness inspiring puzzle game you’re attempting to create (Jenga is the only game I own). My impression garnered from the article and your choice of Tai Chi clip posted on your web page, is that you appear to be a bright and creative guy with an eye for balance. So let me put this out there, your game “The Witness” is just another video game to guys like me. To the droves of gamers out there, I’m sure it will offer something new and spark new fires of stylized creativity in your community. But I think if you really want to create something lasting, you have to go big. Create a game, which will challenge gamers to give up their title as an anonymous gamer with unlimited lives. Create something which will encourage them, assist them, travel with them to the precipice of who they are, not as the controller of an imaginary icon, but as a human being. Help them understand themselves, their decision making processes (including the decision to play games) and how that relates to not only a game but to life and the relationships which constitute life. If this is possible, then why not aspire to it? If it is not possible, then you know more than I.
    Kind regards,

    • I certainly do aspire to things very much like this. However, it’s easier said than done. (Perhaps the more one knows about game design, the harder it looks).

      • Jon,
        I know nothing about the limitations of game design, from my limited experience it appears to be medium not very different than poetry and prose, both of which have the ability to convey great meaning and beauty but often used as a tool for simple entertainment. Can a game be created that isn’t a game, but a path to something else? Can a designer, such as yourself, move beyond logic or design complexity as tools of creativity? Could you get away with frustrating players without loosing them, by not adhering to the rules of fairness, right or wrong? Can you give them puzzles that are not meant to be solved but explored? Can you strip the player of their sense of control yet keep them engaged? Can you be god like?
        Kind regards,

  17. Always great to see new development updates!

    Now that the island’s topography is being reworked, would the team mind catching some time lapses as they work? Being a level designer myself, it would be awesome to see the team’s thought process in laying out the world and how it will correlate to the whole experience.

    If you think this might give away a little too much of the game, don’t sweat it; don’t mind waiting for the finished game.

    • Because it is a puzzle game, we are being careful about spoiler leaks, so I don’t want to do this. On a different kind of game, though, it would be fun.

  18. Gg4TUB Looking forward to reading more. Great article post. Really Cool.

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