PAX 2010: The Witness

By: Derek Yu

On: September 7th, 2010

Those of you who went to PAX last weekend may have inadvertently missed out on a chance to play Jonathan Blow’s next game, The Witness, which sat quietly at an unmarked table next to two other indie games: Chris Hecker’s Spy Party and Andy Schatz’s Monaco.

According to Jon:

I had several reasons for wanting to show the game this way. Firstly: At a show full of companies trying to capture your attention and sell you things, I wanted to do something that is subtle, and a surprise — if you notice it, and decide to investigate, you find something unexpected.

Also, I wanted people to be able to play the game for as long as they want, not feeling pressured to stop playing because of a huge line of antsy people waiting behind them.

Stephen Totilo, who recognized it for what it was and took the above footage, did a nice write-up of his experience, saying “this is a game for the patient, the un-flustered and the observant”. Apparently so!

  • jeb

    Hehe, it bothered me a lot that they couldn't solve the last one of those bluescreen puzzles =)

  • Arvbarv

    game looks like a big piece of shit

  • Eagle0600

    Looks very relaxing.

  • Jimmy

    I smell Kinect/Move!

  • kwyjibo

    Not sold on the concept. I read on The Witness blog, that they're keeping the island small but gameplay dense, as if each portion of the island was gameplay-important.

    I think this introduces a feeling of artificiality into the game, and reminds me of Myst. Anything that reminds me of Myst is not good.

  • SirNiko

    I actually liked Myst, so this looks like fun. I love the 3-d environment where you're not restricted to single viewpoints like Myst. I'm really interested in this.

  • Nillo

    Reminds me of that time a famous violinist played incognito at a subway station to see how people reacted. Very clever :)

  • twincannon

    Not a fan so far. Just because John Blow's name is attached won't make me immediately fall in love with it.

  • rinkuhero

    in realmyst i believe you weren't restricted to single viewpoints

  • rinkuhero

    if i remember, almost nobody noticed that she was any better than average — it seems context is everything in evaluation

  • rinkuhero

    looks interesting, though i wonder if that the maze element is the core mechanic or just a puzzle in a particular area

  • XIX

    I hear it blue screened a lot.

  • esq

    Maybe add a tag for “TheWitness” ?

  • mjau

    I really hope that's not the core mechanic. I like what I see of the game other than that, but those mazes are not very interesting as puzzles.

    Also, I see people compare this to Myst, but the puzzles in Myst were varied, often more mechanical in nature, and mostly fit in context. These maze billboards don't seem to have that, they could've been anywhere.

  • bateleur

    Whilst I'm curious to see this game, I don't feel like this clip really showed us anything.

    At least, I hope it didn't because leaving aside the nice visuals there isn't any gameplay there I find remotely interesting. I suspect there's a lot more to this and the fact that this was filmed randomly and isn't a prepared demo means we can't conclude much.

  • Dodger

    Wow this game sure is purdy! I usually don't swoon over a game based on it's graphics – because in all honesty the graphics mean very little if the game has nothing compelling to offer in it's game play – but this looks very nice and has some very sharp visuals. I really don't know much else about the game aside from what I've seen in the video. I love the look of the game but I certainly hope (and would almost assume) that the entire game isn't about going around and solving little labyrinths – that would get boring very quickly. However, it does look like a Myst-esque set of puzzles that perhaps function and operate something elsewhere… There's obviously a certain mystique about the game, but only because we haven't seen very much of it and I guess that's the way Jon wants it. That's probably a good thing though, give us a taste but not an actual piece of the Cake.

    The Cake is not a lie!

  • rofldude

    I didn't want to say this, but it seems this game is going to play like shit.
    Mazes ? wtf ?

  • XRA

    I saw this game at the show, the nondescript setup made it stand out, but it didn't really interest me at all.

  • Macho Madness

    Sounds like Jon's just copping out of “nobody really wanted to play it”

  • Dodger

    I don't really buy that. I mean you could be right, but considering how many people actually respond to high definition graphics and go gah-gah over a games looks first and it's actual gameplay mechanics after – I think there would be quite a few people who would want to play it and try it out just based on it's looks. Whether what Jon did to sort of promote / not promote the game to either enhance the mystique about it and get people even more interested, whether the anti-promotion actually worked – only time will tell. Like Jon said though, what he did was a little different and by the sounds of it that's what he set out to do. Whether it makes the game more successful or works out for the better in the long run, only time will tell. But the fact that people are discussing a game (and kind of wishing they had an opportunity to try it out) seems to me like at least there is some interest sparked by it surfacing at PAX with the intention of not attracting much attention or distracting from other games in a way that other developers would normally want so they can to promote their wares.

    Interesting to me.

  • chrisz

    Dang, I hung out for a while at the Monaco booth and didnt even notice this setup. I was wondering what Jonathan Blow was doing at PAX as I saw him chatting with some people over by the PAX10.

  • ashton bahnmiller

    Not impressed at all, but I'm hoping that it will end up being amazing since Blow is working on it.

  • uxtull

    I like Myst and I like this so far

  • !CE-9

    I don't judge a game based on graphics (and I try not to based on their developers). However, the graphics of The Witness are so inviting in here (I love how warm the sunshine feels — and I wanna eat those plants. There, I've said it.), that I am inclined to get in there and investigate even though these early puzzles are not exactly too interesting.

  • Noggle

    I fucking hate the celebritizing of game developers and how people keep calling it “Jonathan Blow's The Witness” and just shut the fuck up it's a game maybe it'll be fun, probably not since he decided to do a stupid stunt to promote it but who cares god I hate all of you

  • All of Us

    We love you, too, Noggle.

  • Vania

    Why not get rid of the 3D world and just turn the game into a sequence of blue screen puzzles?

  • Jay Facet

    yeah, it does look a bit shit.
    it's all about “Jonathan Blow”.. yeah, so what – he did one supposedly good game, and now everyone worships him. it actually looks shit – stop saying “the lighting is amazing”, it's not. it's fairly average. just because *he* said the lighting is amazing, doesn't mean it is. he's just a guy, and this is just a shit looking game.

  • Steve

    if this was by anyone else, it would've been totally ignored. it wouldn't even get this coverage. it's a video of someone walking round an island pressing slidey things on doors.

  • Jayce

    It was Joshua Bell.

    Of course, there might be others who do this, too.

  • Chris Whitman

    Man, everyone's got a celebrity complex about Jon Blow these days.

    From the description, it seems like he just sort of left the game there for people to play. I think people are reacting to this as if it's an E3 promo (i.e., scripted areas showing as much excitement as possible). Why would you assume these five minutes represent every single puzzle in the game? That seems silly.

    Who knows if it will be good? Braid had a really positive reception, although I noticed that before it came out there were still a lot of people frothing a the mouth over Jon Blow simply because he was very vocal about his design ideas (Oh no!).

    The point is, y'all need to cool your jets. No one here is pretending that Jon Blow is a golden god. Actually, I feel bad for him. All he does is make a game and put it in an unassuming booth with basically no promotion, and the entire internet is like, “WHY DO YOU THINK YOU'RE BETTER THAN US!?!!11” If you're getting cursing mad over five minutes of video game footage on a blog, I think you just need to chill.

  • Chris Whitman

    I guess I should restate “Who knows if it will be good,” as, “Who knows if you will like it,” which is really what I mean. There's a crazy sense of entitlement going on in games, where people are like, “If I'm not entertained within fifteen seconds, then this is shit and I hate it and I hate you.” If you're of the opinion that a game is badly made just because it didn't amuse you, that's sort of bordering on the solipsistic.

    I think game developers should band together and make really only unappealing, blatantly un-fun games until further notice. You can have your toys back when you learn how to behave yourselves.

  • Dodger

    Alrighty there Pastor Terry Jones, let us know how that Qur'an burning goes.

    Sheesh, lighten up will you.

  • Randomoose

    I think a bit of the complaint about Jon Blow is about the pre-Braid background.. essentially the complaint goes that Braid didn't really use any original mechanics (there had been plenty of time travel themed games already), but that Jon went into it knowing that he had the experience and contacts from his time as a games journalist. This meant he knew he would be able to secure superior marketing (ie, XBLA SoA) and that in turn meant he could spend more time and money on the game than a typical indie – who would have to be prepared for their game simply being swept under the carpet – otherwise could. He's even been compared to Zynga.

  • Dodger

    Yes, and the whole purpose of a preview is to keep you guessing and wondering what else there might be involved in the game. Obviously this little clip has worked for some people. In that respect it doesn't matter who designed the game. Just enjoy it or don't. However, if someone else is enjoying it what they're seeing you can share your opinions about the game and what you don't like about what you see without raining on other peoples parades and then make generalizations about gamers who want to enjoy something. This game isn't even out yet, it's a preview, nothing more. So none of us really know what to expect, there's nothing wrong with getting a positive vibe from preview though and if you don't feel the same way then there's no need to try and take that away from the ones who do.

  • Chris Whitman

    Well, Braid is gorgeous, has good puzzles and doesn't harass my friends when I play it. So I don't see how Jon Blow is like Zynga except that they both make games and you don't like them.

    I mean, yes, obviously the system is broken. Financial rewards for games are disproportionate, and limited press devoted to indie games means you are pretty much going to have to pull strings if you want to make enough money to actually fund an entire team. But it seems like what you're mad about here isn't that Jon does well, but rather that other talented people do poorly, and honestly that isn't Jon's fault. If he'd let Braid just sit on his hard drive and rot, that wouldn't mean XBLA featured more than… what is it, thirty games a year? Likely, you would just be trash-talking someone else for getting that spot instead.

    If Jon Blow's success is unfair, it isn't because he made a bad game while amazing artists starve and suffer in silence, but because he's one among many talented people working on indie games right now, and everyone else didn't get the recognition they deserve. Browbeating everyone who is successfully because of all the people who didn't make it is firstly irrational, and secondly doesn't do anything solve the problem. Even worse if we try to rationalize it by asserting that Jon is an idiot, or has no idea how to make games, or his work is shit, or other things which just simply aren't true.

    The problem is a publishing and marketing system beholden completely to people who don't know anything about games, and don't care about them. I mean, money has always been connected to art, but in Renaissance painting, say, with the patron system, you have people paying artists money *for their work*, so people would give you a bunch of money to make art that's beautiful or at least something you like. When all you care about is what you can sell to people in these enormous volumes, you get a really fucked up system of incentives: is it already recognizable? How well does it grab someone's attention? Is it louder or faster than everything around it? The main criteria for a commercial game are set around competing for space in a messy audiovisual field, not around making something good or something that speaks to you or whatever. So you can blame publishers, kind of, but in reality it's more of a problem with late-stage capitalism in general (and you see an analogue in everything from consumer electronics to toothpaste, really).

    And, like, *there's* your problem. The fact that Jon Blow was successful because he, to some extent, gamed a broken system: that's not the problem. I think what you're mad about is a very legitimate thing, but I think your specific choice of target of your anger is really misdirected in this case.

  • Chris Whitman

    Tl;dr version: I understand what you're getting at here, and I agree with the sentiment, but I think you're taking it out on the wrong guy.

  • Jay

    Chris Whitman is right. The real people to be angry at are the indie games blogs which further help in the disproportionate PR of “big indie” games, rather than help out the little guy… TIGsource, indiegames blogs needs to post more games from the indie devs who don't have the contacts and the “name” to get all this coverage people like Jon Blow do.

  • Derek Yu

    Why I posted this: the game looks cool, the PAX experiment was cool, Jon Blow is a cool guy.

    Is it about the games or is it about the people? Well, imo, it's about both. So yeah, I am interested in the developers behind the games, in their reputations, in how they think about their games and portray them.

    You guys are always complaining about too many 2d platformers (among other things), so here's something different!

  • rinkuhero

    i don't think that's a primary problem but it's certainly part of the problem, yeah. that's what i'm trying to fix with my 'top 10 new releases of the week' articles.

  • rinkuhero

    this is a pretty good analysis but i'm not so much sure that the problem is 'late-stage capitalism' (that's too abstract) so much as the local system of indie games in particular, and the nature of social networks, and just with the human tendency to hedonism (posting about their friends and not about strangers).

    which are much longer-term problems than capitalism, while at the same time at least being easier to deal with than capitalism — since one man can't, like, break up capitalism and start some crazy new economic system, but one person can resist the temptation to post another preview of a jon blow or a cactus game and instead post about a new game from an unkown that was just released.

    which to be fair we are doing: look at the last three articles here. one entry previewing a game from some unknown guy, a post about jon blow's next game, and a post with reviews of 11 released games, mostly from unknowns. i think comments care too much about the 1/3 of the blog that's hype and celebrity, and miss the 2/3 of the blog that isn't.

  • rinkuhero

    but also, to quote an above comment, the same applies in answer to you jay:

    “which to be fair we are doing: look at the last three articles here. one entry previewing a game from some unknown guy, a post about jon blow's next game, and a post with reviews of 11 released games, mostly from unknowns. i think comments care too much about the 1/3 of the blog that's hype and celebrity, and miss the 2/3 of the blog that isn't.”

  • Derek Yu

    I guess my question is: why should I resist the temptation to post about Jon's game? Because he's popular and we hate popular things, because it reeks of “mainstream”?

    You guys are a bunch of filthy hippies! I'll post 10 cactus games in a row, just to spite you all.

  • Chris Whitman

    I didn't say that, and I totally disagree.

    For most of the developers I know, their real goal is to keep making games and not die. So the issue with “lack of success” is about meeting (relatively moderate) financial goals, not some blog popularity contest.

    I think all the “scene rage” is bullshit: acting like you've been blocked from entering some club when you haven't even made an effort to participate. As for whether TIGSource (or any indie gaming blog) gives too much coverage to “popular” devs, it seems one person's spirit of community is another's raging, out-of-control nepotism.

    It's normal to like your friends, and to want to promote their stuff. Obviously there's a point where it becomes a problem, but like Paul says, if you scan the front page, how many articles about Jon Blow do you see? When TIGSource changes its name to “BlowBlog: The personal fan site of Jon Blow” and its title bar to a picture of Jon Blow's head encircled by hearts, you can start worrying, but until then, please try not to lose your shit every time he's mentioned.

  • rinkuhero

    that's kind of a strawman, derek. please try not to use those, if only because it prevents you from taking the other side's points seriously.

    nobody hates popular things or popularity per se, we just don't like the systemic unfair treatment of the unpopular that's a consequence of popularity. to use an analogy, it's not the popularity of the popular kids in high school that makes them less likeable people, it's the way some of them treat the unpopular kids that does, and the favoritism that teachers show them, that they pass their classes without having to work as hard, etc. etc. — but popularity itself? who can dislike that?

    anyway, to answer your question, the reason we should resist that temptation is simple fairness / justice / objectivity. we are journalists (or play as them) after all, and there's such a thing as journalistic integrity. and journalistic integrity is reduced when you let any “outside influence” other than newsworthiness influence whether you post about something or not.

    of course, people differ on what they find newsworthy; i don't find vaguely interesting previews of games with programmer art by people who made great games in the past newsworthy, you might, that's a valid position. what would have been more newsworthy (to me) is perhaps an interview with jon blow discussing this game, elaborating on what he's going for in it, explaining a little bit (not everything, for games need some mysteries prior to release) what those puzzles are and how they work, making the a case about why we should be interested in his game at all. this post doesn't make a very good case for why we should be interested in it, besides that it's made by jon blow and has good graphics (for an indie game) and some mazes.

  • Chris Whitman

    Indie games blogs are great resources, but honestly I don't think most people who play games read them. If you start to dig into what actually makes a game successful, in the sense of, like, selling enough units to fund your next thing, the major correlates are things like “being on the front page of the iPhone store” and “getting on XBLA instead of XBox Indie Games” or whatever.

    I really like what you're doing in trying to get some attention for smaller developers, because I like finding out about them, for one, but I think the unfairness of blogs isn't that much of an issue for success, unless maybe the blog is BoingBoing or something. There are more issues regarding corporate structure and other kinds of promotion or marketing which make the partiality or impartiality of blogs just not that big a deal.

    I understand that having a more balanced community is something that's important to you in its own right, and while I don't necessarily agree on its importance, I see where you're coming from. But I don't think that having slightly disproportionate representation on indiegames or TIGSource is really why Jon Blow was successful where lots of people failed.

    And regarding the economic issue, the solution isn't, like, “smash capitalism, comrades!” I don't think, so much as “how do we find ways to depend less on traditional business models and marketing.” And I think that includes everything from forming collectives or companies with more equitable business models which encourage individual expression to public initiatives like government arts funding.

    There're lots of things you can do that aren't flipping over cars and starting fires (although I'm not saying that isn't fun).

  • Dodger

    Heh, now that's a comeback people won't be able to make a comeback to! Good one!

  • Chris Whitman

    “Why I posted this: the game looks cool, the PAX experiment was cool, Jon Blow is a cool guy.”

    I think this is really all the justification you need to post on a blog.

  • Derek Yu

    “nobody hates popular things or popularity per se”

    I could believe that you don't feel this way, but judging from a lot of the comments I've read on TIGS over the years, I don't think this is universally true. People do hate things because they are popular. In fact, I hate Justin Bieber because he can get laid more than me and he's only 8 and a half years old.

    Regarding simple fairness, I think it'd be unfair to deny Jon a newspost simply because he IS a popular developer. Simple fairness would say that, hey, because Jon has worked hard to build himself a reputation, it should work in his favor.

    I think you make a good point in your last sentence, though, which is that I didn't go far enough to explain why this was interesting to me.

  • Chris Whitman

    Also, to double post, the last post about a game Jon Blow did was last May. If this is too frequent for you, I just don't know how to help you.