The Witness: New Trailer, Release Date Announced

Hi everyone! Long time no see! Sorry for the hiatus, I just started a new job at Microsoft and moved to Seattle, so I haven’t really had time for blogging or playing video games. But rest assured, I have definitely been keeping up with gaming news, and I’m currently playing through The Last Story for Wii. [Insert Slowpoke meme here.] Expect a review soon!

Jonathan Blow, creator of indie darling Braid and the upcoming The Witness, just did an interview with Polygon about his new game, and if you’re a fan of his work or indie games or if you’re interested in good game design, it’s a must-read. He talks about how he takes an incredibly simple concept, solving a maze, and stretches it to its fullest potential, not afraid to make gamers get stuck along the way.

A new trailer also got quietly released yesterday, announcing the release date to be January 16, 2016. It looks absolutely gorgeous, even better than it looked in the E3 trailer. If this game is half as good as Braid, it’s going to be a must-play. I’m a big advocate for games as an art form, and The Witness looks like it’s going to be another point for games as art.

Making Games is Hard.

I guess I already knew that, but I’m reminded of it now that I’m helping to make another one for my Media Studies final project. It makes me think about all the hard work that goes into games made by small teams, like Dear EstherBraid, The Path, Super Meat Boy…the list goes on. After watching the documentary Indie Game: The Movie (watch the trailer here) I better understood the pain and struggle of completing a game. You put your sweat, blood, tears, soul, everything into it for a few years and let it out into the wild to be judged. You spent all your money on this game–if it flops, you’re broke. That’s part of the reason I buy indie games, and that’s part of the reason why I try not to make snap judgments about them. It takes so much time and money and must be the worst feeling in the world for it not to be received well. In Indie Game: The Movie they asked the creator of Fez what he would do if the game didn’t sell well, and he said, “Probably kill myself.”

But all that effort usually pays off. Independent games are often some of the most unique experiences you can find, pushing the boundaries of gaming and asking important questions. Often they engage the player on a much more emotional and intellectual level. In essence, they treat you with respect. Indie games are notoriously hard. They don’t coddle you. They don’t tell you everything you have to do. The developers understand that you are an intelligent human being and you can figure it out yourself.

Every game we played in my class was indie, which I think is saying something. The games we played had stories to tell. They were more than just your average shooter–they stuck in my mind for weeks to come, making me ponder their hidden meanings. I mean, Dear Esther is an extremely simple game gameplay-wise, and takes only two hours to complete, but it takes much, much longer to begin to understand the story and meaning in your head. When I came back to play it for the second time, I was surprised by the different text, and came to more revelations about the story. (I recommend everyone play it more than once)

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I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make here…but I guess I think more people should play indie games. A lot of my friends dismiss them as simple and stupid, but I think if more people gave them a chance they would not be disappointed. (Side-note: you can buy bundles of indie games here–you set your own price)

Braid Review

This is the second time I’ve played Braid. I wasn’t able to solve all the puzzles without a guide either time. Braid is not a game I would call “accessible.” However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Braid’s gameplay forces you to think in ways you don’t normally, in ways you thought you never would. Jonathan Blow, the creator, said he hoped it would be “mind-expanding,” and it certainly was for me. It simultaneously pays homage to and deconstructs platform games and how we approach them as gamers.

The classic platform games of the NES and SNES eras are often celebrated for how difficult they were. They required pinpoint accuracy and razor-sharp reflexes. Braid is difficult for very different reasons. Wrapping your brain around each new mechanic is incredibly hard, and once you feel you’ve mastered the concept, putting it into practice is an entirely different story. This translates to the narrative as well—it is very deep and whenever I thought I had a piece of the puzzle, something else comes up and I don’t know what to make of it. An interesting thing to note is that you can actually blow through the game without collecting all the puzzle pieces, but you won’t see the ending, which is really the crux of the narrative, unless you do. Blow rewards players for engaging with the game and understanding its systems.

In many ways, Braid is a critique of modern gaming trends. Its references to Super Mario Bros. and its very different take on the “save the princess” motif are particularly striking, but something else I noticed is that you really aren’t given very much choice. Each puzzle has exactly one way to solve it. It is very deliberate, almost scientific puzzle design. A trend in modern games is giving the player more choice, and making those choices have impacts on the game world. “Open-world” is the name of the game; “linear” is almost a bad word. Since you can’t really die in Braid, it’s kind of like a sandbox for the player to experiment in, which could have lent well to having more player choice, but Blow’s decision to make the game without choice provides a very different experience. Since the gameplay is so scientific and exact, it makes me think that the narrative is similar, in that there may be only one way you are supposed to interpret it. In his interview with the AV Club, Blow seems to suggest that some people get it and others just don’t. I think he intended for there really to be only one interpretation of the work. “Braid isn’t a subjective work of creativity: it’s a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn’t up to broad interpretation. If you think the puzzles are too rigid, or you hate the text – maybe it’s because you don’t understand the point. If you pull an interpretation out of thin air, it’s probably wrong.”

Aside from gameplay and narrative, Braid features beautiful, painstakingly crafted graphics. The backgrounds look as if they are alive, using particles and other effects to give the illusion that they are moving. But they don’t distract from the gameplay, because everything in the foreground is sharper and more focused. The music is also very beautiful, and works well with the time-rewinding mechanic, playing backwards when you reverse time. A particularly cool instance of this is in one world where time is mapped to left and right movement—that is, moving left rewinds time, and moving right moves time forward—and a lullaby is played, forwards and backwards in time with your character.

Everything in Braid is there for a reason. There are no random platforms, no random enemies. Everything is very deliberate, everything has a purpose. The same goes for the narrative. It is clear that a ton of work went into making the game as polished as possible. The puzzle and platform design is very tight. My only complaints are that the game is unnecessarily frustrating at times, and I don’t see how anyone could solve some of the puzzles without using a guide. There is no mistaking it—Braid is a hard game. But it is so worth playing. If the ending doesn’t blow your mind, I’d be very surprised.

9/10