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Jonathan Blow's The Witness is an Exercise in Symphonic Game Design

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A symphony is a long-form composition, a collection of musical ideas tied together by shared themes and motifs. The composer weaves melodies and harmonies over the span of several movements, knitting them into a sprawling, cohesive whole. That vision is then realized by an orchestra, led by a conductor.

In a lot of ways, Jonathan Blow's upcoming game The Witness is a game design symphony. That may sound grandiose, but I don't mean it in a bland, broad sense. This game is a tightly built set of puzzles and designs, all interlocking and building on one another into a grand finale that ties everything together. The design is the symphony. The game is the orchestra. And you, the player, are the conductor.

Last week during the Game Developers Conference, I had a chance to meet with Blow for a few minutes to take a look at The Witness. I should say here that I'll be talking a bit about the game and how it works; I know that there are those of you who'd like to go into it completely fresh, and if that's you, consider this a spoiler warning.


Sounds simple, right? It is not.

Last week's meeting was far too short to get any sort of sense of this game, but fortunately I'd already played it for a couple of uninterrupted hours at Blow's sparse studio in Emeryville last spring, so I'm already familiar with how the game works.


Around that same time, Stephen Totilo had a hands-on time with the game and was similarly impressed with the richness of the game's design.


The Witness is somewhat like the classic adventure game Myst, at least on the surface. Players wander an unpopulated island, solving puzzles and solving the mystery of where they are and why. But it's actually much more than Myst—the puzzles in The Witness all relate to one another, and are an expression of Blow's distinctive approach to unified, cohesive design.

When speaking with Stephen last year, Blow said that he was inspired by Myst, but also by the non-existent games that could have been inspired by Myst but weren't.


From Stephen's article, starting with a quote from Blow:

"It's like there's some really fucking awesome game like Myst that nobody ever made because it was filled with all of these illogical puzzles and stuff, right?"

I didn't follow. He was inspired by an imaginary game?

"I can picture in my head what that game would be," he said. "I'm letting that inspire me. I'm not saying [The Witness] is that game either but this is sort of like if those games… if, instead of people making a thousand shitty Myst clones, they actually successfully improved the genre over time. This would be inspired by those. But as it stands, actually, a lot of those games are an anti-inspiration." He explained that the successors of Myst were full of obscure puzzles and confusing graphics that made it hard to determine what was a puzzle and what wasn't. They played by strange rules.


The Witness' rules may seem strange at first, but as you play, they are revealed to be highly logical. Every puzzle represents a motif of sorts—the puzzles are all start as small grids on a blue monitor, and each one requires tracing lines in a certain pattern around a grid. Sounds simple, right? It is not.

The monitors serve as a jumping-off point for more involved, elaborate puzzles. In other words, each one represents an opening design motif that is part of a grander piece. Solving any given puzzle means figuring out its rules—in one, you may have to trace the lines to cover dark spots on the grid. In another, you may have to trace the outline of an object in the background. Once you've determined each puzzle's rules, it becomes clearer and clearer how it fits together with the other puzzles surrounding it.


Each of these puzzles represents a motif. Each area of the island is a movement. They island itself is the symphony. Back when I played last year, I found myself solving a series of connected puzzles while standing on a large mechanical structure. Each time I solved a puzzle, the structure would move and rearrange itself. It wasn't until later, when Blow turned on no-clipping mode and flew me around the level, that I realized what I'd missed. The structure itself was a reflection of the puzzles I'd been solving, and its final solution required me to fit its pieces together in a way that mirrored its component parts.


The island of The Witness is shrouded in mystery, but that's not an accident or the result of lazy design. Everything here is of a piece, and it's all building toward a finale that incorporates aspects of the entire experience that leads up to it. Blow didn't show me how the game ends; to do that would be to rob the experience of much of its meaning. The catharsis provided by The Witness' finale won't be due to some character-based revelation or some epic boss encounter. Its catharsis will come from a culmination of the design ideas put forth and explored in the game leading up to that point.

The Witness isn't the first game to take this approach, but its one of the purest. Even a Zelda game, which follows a similar format to the one I just described, feels a bit noisy next to The Witness. Where Zelda games give you multiple tools to solve each puzzle, The Witness gives you none—the puzzles are the game, and you have only one point of contact with which to manipulate them (almost like a conductor's baton, now that I think about it.)


The Witness lives and breathes in its puzzles, and as a result feels more composed. So when I step back and consider it, I can't help but be reminded of a symphony. While many famous symphonic finales introduce new-sounding melodic themes, those themes are usually based in part on the motifs that have preceded them. The finale is where a composer weaves together the motifs he or she has established in the preceding movements, creating a fully realized climax to the work. And hey, because this is Kotaku Melodic, let me show you what I'm talking about by sharing one of my favorite symphonic finales of all time:

Shostakovich's fifth symphony is an astonishing creation, a roiling mix of stabbing violin lines, eerie and beautiful woodwind melodies, and crushing, oppressive brass. It was written as a protest against the tyranny of Stalin's regime, and its musical motifs bear that out. The opening violin motif from the first movement (with which many are familiar) ends with three As, repeated by the violins.


Those "A"s feature throughout the symphony, until finally reaching a resolution during the crashing section at 9:15 in the video above. Notice how the violins are playing that "A," over and over. The minute you hear it, you can't un-hear it—it's weird, right? We have the huge brass, the crushing russian bear, playing this triumphant melody over the constant screams of the violins.

That screaming note was an echo of the screams of the people, crushed beneath the unstoppable brass anthems of Stalin's regime.


That jarring, repeated "A" was no accident. When he composed this symphony, Shostakovich had been in trouble with the state for the subversive nature of some of his work, notably his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District. He was in a very real danger of being labeled an enemy of the state, and his fifth symphony was to be his return to favor. And it was—it was hailed as a great Russian symphony by those in power. But the public understood what he was really saying, they knew what that shrieking "A" represented. That screaming note was an echo of the screams of the people, crushed beneath the unstoppable brass anthems of Stalin's regime.

That's just one (particularly dramatic) example of how a symphony ties its themes together to make a statement. And while The Witness does not appear to aspire to anything as outwardly grand as a cry of rebellion against an oppressive government, it remains remarkable how thoroughly it explores its mechanical themes.


Structure and form, discipline and growth, theme and variation—this is the stuff of great musical composition and great game design. So many games allow for out-of-place mechanics, odd boss battles, and formula-breaking finale levels that deviate hugely from their design up to that point.

Games like Geist, the first couple of Assassin's Creed games, Uncharted 2, Halo and Halo 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution—all jettisoned the systems they had developed in order to change things up for the finale, rather than ending in a manner that felt in tune with the rest of the game. That approach isn't always a bad thing, but often those kinds of games can feel like a heavy metal performance dropped at the end of an orchestral symphony—they may be kind of cool on their own, but they hurt the cohesiveness of the broader work.


Blow's The Witness is an ambitious game, not in its scale but in the tightly wrought depth of its design. Blow and his team are now completing the art, squashing bugs, and preparing for release. He's not yet sure which platforms it will be released on, but I hope to see it on the iPad as well as the PC. The puzzles would lend themselves splendidly to a touch-screen interface.

The Witness represents an unusually focused stab at creating a game design symphony, a collection of puzzles and interlocking systems that layer and build until the final notes are ringing out and the work is complete. It's a symphony I plan to attend on opening night.