February 13, 2016 - Game Design
Today i want to write a short post about Jonathan Blow’s new game The Witness and why i think it has some serious design flaws.
Warning this post contains spoilers for The Witness, if you don’t want to get spoiled stop reading here and come back later.
I’ve been following Jon’s work for several years now. I do believe that his approach to making games is interesting and has a lot of value. There are several talks that he gave showcasing his way of thinking about problems related to games and to societies in general. While his older talks go into specifics about human behavior and how games can manipulated them a few of his more recent ones revolve around deep and ambitions work. He also perfectly frames issues in modern F2P design compared to tv shows in the 80s. Another very interesting talk is about truth in game design where he dissects puzzle game design.
I’ve finished the regular end of the Witness with 9 lasers up. While i completed 4 of these lasers on my own, the rest of the game was guided by several walkthroughs. While one can say that my view on the game might be heavily skewed because i have not experience it the way it was meant to be, i still want to point out three particular parts of the game that deeply disappointed me.
On respecting the player’s time and being generous
In many of his talks Jon speaks about how many games disrespect the player’s time by giving him arbitrary tasks that do nothing else but lengthen parts of a game or making them harder to complete just by adding meaningless obfuscations. While some games basically evolve around the concept of grind, he believes that everything that stands in the way of the player that not adds to the experience should be removed immediately. He has several talks on his “first” game Braid where he uses this technique to improve the game’s overall quality. The other issue he raises with many modern games is that they are not generous. While generosity is a very vague term in relation to game design, it can be interpreted to the way the game let’s a player take actions on his own while keeping the things he actually can do limited. He uses the example of time rewind in Braid as generous design where he points out that time rewind is not a limited resource and can be extensively used at any given point. In comparison to that he brings up Prince of Persia’s time rewind which is bound to a resource and limited in a way that is really against the natural flow of the game. While he brings up these two points in many of his talks on game design he spectacularly fails them on several occasions in The Witness.
Self disabling Panels
The first thing that really offended me in The Witness are the self disabling panels. There are plenty of panels in the game that are connected via wires that indicate the power flowing from on panel to another. A lot of those panels disable them self when a wrong solution is entered. This means that you have to go back to the previous panel and reenter the correct solution again and again. This can basically happen an unlimited amount of times, each time more punishing. This is not how a game respects my time, this is a game that punished me over and over for basically nothing. There is nothing to gain here besides frustration and pain.
Unstoppable water level
The next thing that really bothered me was part of the desert level section. The desert puzzles revolve around reflection of light on the panels to reveal the path that is drawn on it. It’s basically a homage to finger smears on an iPhone screen. In the basement of the desert temple there is puzzle that is based on water reflection. The principle is the same but this time you have to arrange the water level of a pool to reflect in the right angle to see the solution to each of the panels in this room. While this puzzle is hard enough because obviously the water reflects the solution up side down and mirrored there is again an element to this puzzle that is far from being generous. The water level is not stoppable. This means each time you don’t get the puzzle solution you have to wait for the pool level to raise or lower completely until you can try it another time. This is really annoying because the speed in which the water raises is super slow. Why am i not able to stop the water where i need it?
Endgame obfuscated panels
The final issue i found was in the very last puzzles. In the end room there is a series of puzzles that have broken terminals. These puzzles are not particular hard in their puzzle logic but artificially obfuscate the solution by rotating the panel, displaying it in wrong dimensions, making it move along with your movement and so on. These puzzles are exactly what i would describe as grind. There is no challenge in actually solving the puzzle, they’re just setup to make it hard to interact with the puzzle panel it self. This is what i would definitely call bad design since the elements added to this puzzle do not contribute to the enjoyment of solving the puzzle but just making it fucking hard to do a trivial task.
These are just three examples but i’m sure there are more in the game. Again i think The Witness is an interesting game but for me it just had to many of these flaws to be considered good, especially coming from a developer who preaches how to design good puzzles games for years not following his own best practices.