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Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations

I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)

You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)

You are you. The first-person view of Myst, like the second-person prose of Adventure, projects the world around a blank space which you invisibly inhabit. Your character has no voice, no body; your hand is abstracted down to a cursor.

Many adventures after Myst (and several before it) tossed this faceless ideal away with great force. Strong characterization serves most stories better than the invisible avatar -- what a later adventure mocked as the AFGNCAAP. And, of course, the blank protagonist isn't all that universal to begin with, not as long as "unmarked" still means "white, male, straight, not too old, not too fat..." (Yes, I've used the faceless protagonist in my own games. But I don't pretend that it counts as representation.)

The Witness lets you inhabit that blank space -- at first. You have a few moments to settle in and imagine yourself walking around. Then you emerge into the sunlight, and... perhaps you still don't notice your shadow. But when you do, the shadow is tall, lanky, short-haired, trousered, male. It's definitely not me. Is it Jon Blow? I certainly can't think of any other candidate, so let's assume that you play The Witness as a mute Jon Blow.

But why? "You" have no voice or background; the game does no work of characterization. But neither does it allow you to fill in your own. You are left a liminal, uncertain presence.

The game is your view of the world. Again, you initially have no reason to doubt this. The game's art style is not hyper-realistic, but we're all accustomed to visually stylized environments by now. Perhaps it's unusually low-poly for a modern game ("ironically low-poly", one friend commented). But then a lot of subtle work went into the texturing.

I figure the style was balanced to allow panoramic views across large swathes of the island. The Witness is generous with those. (Contrast Firewatch, which mostly hems you in with ridges, canyons, trees, and foliage to avoid the rendering cost of the whole world at once.)

Then you discover one of the game's more subtle puzzles, those of visual perspective. Why do two sticks, a rock, and a distant fence form that shape? It represents nothing in the world, but the game wants you to take notice.

Should we take the world as a purely visual contrivance, then, lacking physical reality? The perspective puzzles incline us that way, but then the island does have a physicality to it. Some clue-objects are bent or broken, implying a physical history: this twig snapped off and fell. A cable used to connect over there. That post was straight until someone leaned on it.

Again, we are left uncertain. The world wants us to believe every leaf was laid just so, but also that it is subject to physical decay. Why?

You act by manipulating the world directly. The first interaction most players encounter in the Age of Myst is a knife switch; you grab it with your cursor-hand and pull it down. From there, the game extends the arms'-reach metaphor in subtle but definite ways: you press buttons, pull chains, hold a lit match. (Plus, of course, the initiating moment: laying your palm on a magical book.)

Your first interaction in The Witness is a panel with a line on it. You drag the cursor along the line to activate it. For adventure gamers, the implication is clear: you reached out and swiped your finger along a touch-panel. (If you are my age, you went "Dzzzzzhhht!" like Kermit the Frog drawing a letter.) And you go on for quite a while, finding panels and tracing lines on them with your finger.

Only, maybe not. You might notice that your shadow, the ambiguous Jon-Blow-or-not, never reaches out to touch anything. According to your shadow, you're just standing motionless in front of each panel. A lazy animator, not bothering to construct the arm-motion? But you can see your shadow-feet shift and your shadow-head turn as you look around. This game does not scant the details.

It soon becomes clear that The Witness consists entirely of these path-tracing interactions. There is not a single lever, dial, or key in the game. Furthermore, you don't have to be in arms' reach to trace a path! The game makes it convenient to stand directly in front of each panel, but you can activate any path you can see. It works from any distance, as long the entire path is visible. (The visual-perspective puzzles hammer this point home, if you overlooked it.)

So we must give up the idea of swiping a finger along a surface. Touch has nothing to do with it. You never manipulate the physical world (if there is one!) in any way(*). Indeed, if you look closer, the island is most unwilling to react to your physical presence. You can hear your footsteps, but you leave no footprints, nor even ripple the surface of a puddle you step in. You cannot brush aside a twig or pick up a bit of paper to read.

You are a ghost, or a shadow of a ghost. Do you interact by observation? Perhaps you are simply recognizing the paths, and the panels react to that recognition. Or perhaps you are playing a game, manipulating it with your mouse or controller? Perhaps there is no metaphor at all.

But if you're a ghost, you're a ghost with eyelids and retinas. (Someone had to point this out to me! Hit the pause button; watch the solar afterimages fade.) And we like immersive metaphors, anyhow.

(* In a couple of places, the game seems to implement "pressure plates" -- triggers that activate when you stand on them. This might be a physical interaction, or it might be reacting to your presence (or shadow!) in some other way; it's not made clear. I'll let it slip by.)

So The Witness leaves us off-balance, uncertain in our presumption of how adventure games work.

We might question whether "adventure game" is the right label at all. Is this island just a pretty picture with abstract puzzles pasted on? No, that description is inadequate. The physical laws of the island may not involve you, but they exist -- sunlight, shadow, reflection -- and you must apprehend them to solve the game. You must consider how buildings connect and how they might have decayed. Those are the understandings of an adventure game. And there are, after all, gates and drawbridges and elevators to play with -- even if you do so by the tracing of control-paths on panels.

These ontological musings do not slow you down, regardless. The puzzles are before you and you work your way through.

(They're brilliant puzzles, by the way. This post is not a review, but I didn't want to leave that out.)

...And then you reach the end-game (or the post-game, maybe, or the epilogue). I said up top that The Witness has "no explanation"? Play far enough and you get, mm, not an explanation, but an indirect trickle of clue. You can make some guesses. If you pass through the post-end-game (post-epilogue?), you find a cut scene which exposes a little more information.

I won't spoil it, except to say that the game's motif is perception -- clarity, perspective, focus. That's the title, right? It (kind of) makes sense that you, the witness, are (sort of) seeing out of Jon Blow's eyes, and your presence is sort of perceptual (but not exactly), and the island is sort of physical (but not really).

But a theory isn't a justification. We can still ask why Jon Blow (the real one) wanted to make a game called The Witness, in which you are a ghost with his shadow. Yes, it's all a thematic package, but why that package? You have to bear the uncertainty through most of that game, after all, before the half-explanations ever appear. If that shadow is discomfiting, you spend a lot of time uncomfortable.

It's not an enticing discomfort. It says: something is wrong here, but don't ask why. It invites you to withhold rather than speculate. This is subjective, I know, but I never reached a point of saying "Aha, now it all makes sense in retrospect!" At best it was "Well, I have a theory which could be thematically consistent with it all."

In the end, I must chalk it up to an aesthetic disagreement. Jon Blow wanted his adventure game to be distancing and not-quite-immersive. He chose a theme and style (and title) which suited that effect. It worked. It's not what I would have done, and that's all I can say about it.

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On shorter games

Quite by accident, my last post reflecting on the trend away from difficult slogs in all kinds of games fell on the same day that several indie game developers banded together to blog in support of intentionally short videogames. My post and theirs drew inspiration from the same well, though; many of these posts pointed to the brilliant Limbo, which I wrote about on Monday, and the sniping it received from the enthusiast press for having a total play-length of less than ten hours.

As expected, Jon Blow writes a compelling (and short!) entry, after which he (like all the other writers in this exercise) compiles a list of links to the other participating game developers’ short-game essays (a list which, to my delight, includes Boston-based developers and Gameshelf friends Eitan Glinert and Scott MacMillan). Jamie Fristrom also caught my attention with a look back, with some regret, on decisions he took part in producing Schizoid and Spider Man 2, both long and difficult games which very few of their fans have played to completion. (In fact, I count myself among this impressed but unfulfilled majority in both games’ cases.)

My spur to finally write this acknowledgement came via Sean Murray’s “The Long Game”, in which he stands with the short-game fans, but then flips the argument onto its head in a defense of longer games (such as the one that his own studio develops). While I do appreciate the perspective, I can’t quite cross the bridge he builds there.

Arcade-style skill contests like Geometry Wars to one side, I’m very skeptical of any single-player videogame’s ability to “amaze and delight over weeks of play”, at least not with the unremitting intensity of novelty that defines the games on the Braid/Portal axis. Members of this family are short because they end when they’re empty, when they have no new things to show the player within their intentionally narrow play-domains. The tightest examples of the form establish their rules and spaces quickly, and then proceed to explore every interesting permutation of it, avoiding repetition in either game presentation or player activity. When the whole space is explored, the curtain closes (perhaps after a finale that ties up the frame story, if necessary).

At no point does the game suggest that it might be worth the player’s time to go tromp through a fifth procedurally generated dungeon, or scan an eighteenth planet for random-number “rare ores”, or what have you. They are not about escape, of spending as much time as you can away from reality before the game comes to a close (or becomes too boring to bear any further). Escape will always have a role in the world of videogames, but there is no good reason why new games should be judged in light of how expansive an escape they provide. Some games would rather try to enhance your life with brief and brilliant new patterns that will leave a mark on your mind than deliver a slow-drip soporific.

(Yes, there are always exceptions. Most multi-player games I hold almost entirely exempt from this line of reckoning, since I find them such fundamentally different experiences. Then again, I suppose I might want to label treadmill-based MMOs as exempt from my exemption. And where do half-breed board-gamey timesinks like Sid Meier’s Civilization fit into this? Well, perhaps that’s a column for another time.)

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Jon Blow talks about the stars in Braid

Jon Blow, author of the hit indie videogame Braid, gave a talk about game design in January 2010. The talk is short, about 20 minutes, but the Q&A that followed was about an hour, and I found it to be even more interesting than the talk. In particular, he answered a question about the stars in Braid, which is a part of the game that he is usually silent about. So I thought it was worth excerpting the question and his answer (about 9 minutes total). But, if you have time to listen to the full talk and Q&A, it's got other interesting stuff too. (He initially blows off the question and takes another question, which I edited out; that question, by the way, was about Wulfram, a team-based first-person tank shooter game with some pretty cool strategic elements that he co-wrote in the mid-90s.)

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Transcript of Jon Blow's 2007 MIGS talk

I'd been meaning for a long time to listen to Jon Blow's celebrated and controversial 2007 presentation, "Design Reboot", at the Montreal International Games Summit. It's been available for years as an audio file and (non-synchronized) slideshow from his own website, but only yesterday did I discover that Michael Camilleri transcribed it, editing it for readability. Which I appreciate, clearly, since I just read it.

The talk's most lurid (and therefore most virulent) meme is World of Warcraft is immoral!, and of course that's an oversimplification. A better summary is that Blow compares WoW to junk food or cigarettes. In small doses these things are fine, and can serve as an occasionally welcome and rewarding treat. Their mere existence is not intrinsically evil. But all three products, by their natures, are open for misuse, and what's more all three are couched in industries that intentionally promote this behavior.

That's where the immorality lay, argues Blow, who feels that junk-food games' propensity to burn up countless hours of their users' lives without offering much in return is real harm, just as clogged arteries or filthied lungs are. The remedy he suggests involves a call for game makers to study some examples of recent games that do offer to enrich their players' lives in a small amount of time - like a good film, or poem, or concert - and to think about how they can apply similar principles into their own work, whether they're indie devs or part of huge triple-A studio projects.

Anyway: required reading. Thanks to Doug Orleans for the pointer.

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Two Braid-related things

Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about indie videogames, featuring Jason Rohrer (Passage), Jenova Chen (Flower), and Jon Blow (Braid). Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • "Ebert said video games can't be art," Rohrer said. "He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer."
  • "Other media are capable of masterpiece-level works of art," Rohrer said. Behind him, a slide showed Picasso's "Guernica," a poster for the movie "Blue Velvet" and the cover of "Lolita." "The question we have to ask is: How can we follow in their footsteps?"
  • "I like technology," Chen says, "but the blockbuster games use it for the same thing over and over again. What we tried to innovate was the emotional content." Flower has an environmental message, about the fragility of life, but more important is the primal experience of playing. You can experience it like a film, passing through a whole range of emotions from beginning to end. "Flower," Chen says, "is about the sublime." It is a game to be played in one sitting, he said, and preferably "alongside your lover."
  • "People are starting to realize that games can't survive on narrative and character," Rohrer says. "It's not what video games are meant to do. It doesn't explore what makes them unique. If they are going to transcend and have real meaning, it has to emerge from game mechanics. Play is what games offer."
  • "Braid is something you could show to Roger Ebert and say, 'Here is a work of authorial intention,' " Rohrer says. "It captures something about the modern zeitgeist."

Speaking of Braid, Blow pointed out on his blog a video walkthrough of a game suspiciously like Braid, Time Travel Understander. The Game Helpin' Squad also made video tutorials for two other games, the MMORPG World Quester 2 and the sports game Severe Running. All three are very helpful, with excellent attention to detail. You might need to watch them multiple times to get it all!

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Braid, Portal, and selling poetry to gamers

I am pleased to report that I am the 1,492nd person to complete Braid, according to its leaderboard.

I really like Braid, and recommend that anyone with an XBox 360 download it and take its free trial levels for a spin. It's already a darling of the professional reviewers, and deserves all its praise. That said, I do wonder how its sense of reception will fall out after some tens of thousands of people have kicked it around for a week or so. It's an interactive art piece, implemented by mixing dollops of text (which, in style, intentionally evoke Italo Calvino), quietly beautiful graphics, contemplative music... and an action-oriented puzzle game that requires a moderate level of video-game skill to get through. So, as art, it chooses to limit its audience to people who are at least pretty good with video games.

Not that there's any kind of deception afoot, here: Braid bills itself primarily as a puzzle game, and it's a very good one. It also follows in the footsteps of Portal - last year's celebrated action-puzzler - by balancing its brevity with a tight structure and sense of purpose, so that when the game is done you feel more like you've just experienced a fine work of artistic entertainment, and less like you just pushed over an amusing but rather small collection of puzzles.

But Portal was bursting with, begging your pardon, a very nerdy sense of humor, full of dark-jokey irony that echoed the best of Monty Python. It also left players with a basket of souvenirs to take home after the game was over, most notably that catchy Jonathon Coulton end-theme, and some repeatable catchphrases and iconography suitable for wearing as T-shirts or forum avatars. Braid eschews these; after playing, you take home no more than what you would after, say, savoring a short poetry collection, or studying a large oil painting for some time.

The striking difference in attitude makes me very curious to see how well the game is received by the XBox-owning public, for whom - if I may risk stereotyping - Portal's macabre humor seems like a far easier sell than Braid's airy, contemplative sketches on the fragility of human relationships and the tenacity of regret. (Yes, by way of puzzles where you dodge cannon-fire and bounce off monsters' heads, which as far as I'm concerned is part of the joy of it.)

Portal established a precedent for high-concept, low-budget commercial games with small, tight structure and scope, planting its flag in relatively safe territory and reaping tremendous success. Braid starts there too, and ventures a little further out, taking some unusual and interesting risks, given its audience limitations. I want to see and play more games like these, so I really do hope that it enjoys a similar fate as well.

Aside: Braid also, for me, shines light on some of the more interesting challenges that digital games face when they present themselves as art. I carved out these bits and may turn them into another post later.

Aside 2: This is the second XBLA game I've played this summer that prominently features an in-game reference to the iconic phrase but our princess is in another castle, which originates from 1985's medium-defining game Super Mario Bros. Always interesting to witness the construction of a 25-year-wide artistic feedback loop, and be able to say you were there at the start.

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Braid is almost here!

My old friend and college roommate, Jon Blow, has been working on a video game called Braid for the last 3 or 4 years (with the help of artist David Hellman), and this Wednesday, August 6, it's finally being released for Xbox Live Arcade. It's superficially a side-scrolling platform game a la Super Mario Bros., but the central mechanism of having infinite rewind, even after dying, turns it into a thoughful puzzle game. And the art is beautiful.

It's more than just brain and eye candy, though. To quote the game's home page, "Braid treats your time and attention as precious. Braid does everything it can to give a mind-expanding experience." Jon is a deep thinker about the role of video games in society; for a brief taste of some of his ideas, check out his Short Essay About Serious Games. He has also given a number of lectures about game development, which are available as either video or powerpoint-plus-audio in the Appearances category of the Braid blog. These talks range from advice about making game prototypes to philosophical discussions of how the design of World of Warcraft is unethical. All of his lectures are worth checking out; some of the same slides appear in two or three different lectures (and I think he manages to mention The Marriage in every single lecture), but the lectures come at their topics from distinct angles and are full of thought-provoking (and sometimes incendiary) statements. Several of them also include Braid previews, if you want to see the game in action or get a glimpse at the history of its development.

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