Like many people, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Jonathan Blow’s The Witness over the past few days. It’s loaded with puzzles, beautiful visuals, and an interestingly vague narrative — one which players are working to figure out through subtle clues and audio logs scattered about the games world. Overall, it’s a really impressive piece of puzzle gaming that forces you to change the way you think in various ways — which keeps you driven to accomplish and explore more of the island.
But it isn’t perfect — and throughout my journey so far, I couldn’t help but wonder where the atmospheric music I had found in the trailer was while I was exploring.
According to the game’s developers, the answer lies in perception and detail.
In a blog post on TheWitness.net, Blow went into a little more detail about the reason an ambient soundtrack was removed from the game:
“The Witness is a game about being perceptive: noticing subtleties in the puzzles you find, noticing details in the world around you. If we slather on a layer of music that is just arbitrarily playing, and not really coming from the world, then we’re adding a layer of stuff that works against the game. It’d be like a layer of insulation that you have to hear through in order to be more present in the world.”
See, The Witness is more focused on maximizing the level of immersion you feel in the game — and since the goal was to make the player character feel alone on the island, they had to avoid all notions of reality.
“In everyday life if we imagine the sound of nature, we’ll think of some elements that have no place on the island. … There’s none of that in this game because in this game you are really alone, and it has forced us to be very creative with the audio in order to ensure things have depth and texture to them.”
Blow’s description does make sense in the context of the game — especially after you’ve logged some time into The Witness. While roaming around you’ll be solving hundreds of puzzles and figuring out different ways to do so. Some may require you to avoid shadows, some may require you to center off certain color blocks and some may even require you to solve puzzles that mirror each other — but no matter the puzzle, subtle audio does remain a key component in solving each by letting you know if your solution is right or wrong.
In ways, though — it does feel like a missed opportunity considering that Braid had just a phenomenal soundtrack behind it. In a way, music does work to help immersion, namely by helping to set the mood for various parts of a game and I can’t help but wonder how I may have felt in certain areas of The Witness with the right piece of mood music to accompany me.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll add it in a later iteration of the game like Myst did back in the day. Until then, we’ll all have to get comfortable with the concept of being alone, without music, in The Witness’s beautifully brilliant world.