Jonathan Blow was at Gamelab 2018 in Barcelona mostly to talk about JAI, the new programming language he and his team are building at Thekla, Inc. to make game development easier and smoother, but we also wanted to talk about the puzzle experience Blow has offered in games such as The Witness, and the way it was designed for players to understand its mysteries.
"I don't really talk about that kind of thing," Blow responded when we asked directly about who created the game's island. "You know, the limit of what I want to say about that is in the game itself, so I prefer that people just get to play it and think what they want to think."
Blow is a little more open when it comes to talking about concepts though, which is helpful since the game's design was so unique. How did he come up with this combination of nature, technology, and art? What's the main message they wanted to send to players while they explore the island? These are some of the questions we simply had to ask.
"Well, the original idea of the game, you know, it's a very complicated game, with lots of stuff," he told us. "To get to that complicated game we had to start with some initial design idea and explore that to figure out what the locations could be and what the puzzles could be and all that, right? The original idea was something about... we wanted to make a game where you genuinely feel surprised by things that you see. The way I described it was, it's simulating an experience of epiphany. Where you suddenly understand something, and it's not something dumb or trivial, it's actually something kind of important. There's a moment where you don't understand something, and you are like 'I don't know why, I don't even know why I don't understand it, because it looks really simple, and I just can't figure out what's going on', and then, an instant later, you suddenly, you know, there's something that flares up in the mind and you suddenly understand and see. So it's a game about exploring different ways that can happen and creating the possibility for that to happen, over and over again, in different ways. You can't force people to have that experience, but you can maybe set something up where maybe they will."
When he mentioned "creating the possibility" we wanted to share with Blow our own personal experience to try and understand how these moments can, in a way, be planned in advance. We were exploring the island, we were solving puzzles, getting stuck during others, and then getting back, but that was just like your regular Witness experience and we didn't know yet -little spoiler alert here - those puzzles could literally transcend the panels and be used in the world, and be solved in the environment itself. For example, in the Monastery, you had a wall and the lemon trees outside, and that was our first moment when we realised that we could draw our lines in nature; it still gives us goosebumps. But how do you actually measure how players are going to find out about these things?
"It's difficult, right?" he said. "I mean, it's extra difficult because... like, if the main concern was 'I want to make sure nobody finds this by accident', then you could hide them somewhere or make them really hard to see, but then it's like not interesting, right? So, what makes it work is that the stuff is right in front of your face the whole time, so if you play for 20 hours you walk by a lot of things that you didn't just... it didn't register. It was right there on the screen and, in fact, a lot of the art style of the game, for example, was determined by this. So [...] the colours are very strong, and shapes are not broken up by a lot of texture details or lines. It's like fields of colours. And that was because we wanted shapes to register very clearly in your mind, and we didn't want to hide things by camouflaging them. We wanted to hide them by, like, you just didn't understand that that was important and now you do, right? So it's a very strong experience when you say 'wait, I walked past this thing like ten times. And the eleventh time I finally see why it's important'."
In other words, it's daring to go out and give it a try, to explore and experiment. In that simulated epiphany Blow describes, these moments can feel incredible, but what we also noticed is many players enjoyed The Witness the most when those moments were a shared experience. It can be really good to share and to find the different perspectives each player has, and the different approaches to puzzles. But was it designed to be co-op like that?
"That was something that I hadn't been thinking about in the original design," Blow admits. "But then very early we did some playtesting and we saw people playing it that way, and I was like 'oh, that's cool', you know, it's nice. And I would say for most of development we had the awareness that people might play it that way, and I don't know if that changed anything major, but it's definitely something we were thinking about. I realised that the reason that that works is because it's really... you know, it's a game about looking at things and understanding them, right? It's not that much a game about controlling in the world. There's a little bit, because maybe you want to go somewhere and look at a specific thing, but it's not like an action game or something. So, multiple people can participate at about the same level, even if one of them is at the keyboard or the controller. And so, I didn't plan for that, but once I saw it I was very happy with the idea because it's nice to have games that people could play that way, for sure."
With this sort of immersion, those who've played The Witness probably ended up like us, trying to find puzzles, shapes, and paths in real life; looking at architecture, art, or nature in a different way. But did this happen to Blow as well as he was creating the game?
"Yeah maybe a little bit," he recalls. "But not as much for me as for other people, because when you design something, it just lives in your head in a different way, whereas when you experience it as players, it's different."
Finally, with the game out on PC, PS4, Xbox One and mobile devices, we were wondering whether we could see a potential release of The Witness for the Nintendo Switch, given it's the only major platform left.
"Eventually, probably," he told Gamereactor. "Like right now... You know, we spent a lot of time working on the game, and even if you are working on a very good game, the team gets tired of it after a while and wants to do new things. So we're doing new things for now, but we'll probably do some more versions a bit later". The studio gets plenty of requests, but "for now it's been enough on that."
For more on Thekla's developments, you can watch the full interview below, with the first third all about JAI, while the very last question is about Jonathan Blow's new game, which is of course based on that technology.