There’s an island covered in puzzles, you solve them. It’s very pretty and and quite breathtaking. There are people statues and tape recorders with recordings of people talking about god — or something. Um… the puzzles get pretty complex. That’s the game.
The Witness is the second major release from gaming giant Jonathan Blow, known most however, for his work at the Games Developers Conference. The whole point of the game was to showcase game and storytelling. Not simply delivering a narrative via dialogue but delivering the story and gameplay in a way that only a game can. Allowing game’s talents for exploration and player agency to guide the player naturally through the story and the adventure.
It was released on January 26th, 2016. It’s competition was Pony Island (PC, Mac, and Linux), Darkest Dungeon (PC and Mac), and FNaF World (PC).
The Witness is a game in which the player solves a series of puzzles made like geometric grid mazes. Each one begetting more puzzles and more rules that combine to transform routine puzzles into mind bending affairs often incorporating elements of the natural environment to present meaning. Recordings of the islands, presumed, previous occupants can be found hidden among the puzzles.
The issue with talking about the gameplay of puzzle games is that I cannot speak more about them without spoiling the solution, undoing the point of the game. So I’m instead going to speak at length about my response to those puzzles.
I cannot recall the last time a game had me from moment one and then lost me at moment 4. The opening puzzles were a gentle guiding hand, showing the bare basics. As were those outside the first section these served to introduce that some grids had rules and paths that had to be crossed. Then came the symmetry puzzles, which introduced restrictions that complimented the path crossing rules nicely. The troubles started in the Desert Ruins. I could not manage to solve the first puzzle in the sequence.
I wasn’t sure if I didn’t know the rule or trick of the puzzle and therefore should wander until I found something different and new that would lead back to this. Or if I didn’t know that I was supposed to understand what was going on. This lead to ten minutes of guessing, checking, and brute forcing in the hopes that finding the solution would reveal what the method to it was. It did not. I solved the first, but when I approached the second I realized I had no idea how I had completed the first and therefore was still unsure whether I had or had not figured things out. It became apparent that my success had been the product of blind luck and that I had learned nothing about the puzzle’s intended solution or method.
I elected to leave, running into more and more areas with more and more puzzles. I was unsure whether or not I did or did not have the tools I needed to solve them. Some I did manage to solve but it felt like dumb luck again rather than the application of concerted thought or effort. I managed to figure out what to do, not by any deductive reasoning, but more like a prehistoric man banging rocks together until one of them gains an edge. Yes, it’s sharp but it also grows dull easily. Thankfully there are always more rocks around but unfortunately the process of chippings rocks takes a fuck-load of time. I found rules that I had previously encountered and thought I had mastered but with new twists that I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around or presented in new ways unlike their previous iterations.
Which would then prompt me to run further, trying desperately to find a group of puzzles that had a thematic link, something that would help me complete them. This was my understanding of puzzle games. Each zone has the basic mechanics of the game but plays with them in interesting and different ways. Thankfully I was able to stumble upon an Orchard and a Zen Garden that offered such things but they too offered seemingly insurmountable walls of difficulty. Somehow this felt worse than bouncing off a series of puzzles wholesale like I had at the temple. Now I knew what I was supposed to be doing, at least I thought I understood the rules and logic, but now I could not manage to apply them.
Overcome with despair and doubt I committed the great sin of looking up a guide. Particularly for the Desert Temple. It was my understanding that that’s where my confusion began. I figured that if I could complete the puzzles in that area then I would learn more about the rules and logic of other puzzles I had found. Upon seeing the solution and seeing how I was supposed to come to it my immediate response was to wonder in dumbfounded confusion how the hell I was supposed to figure it out. But the response was obvious, “fuck around with it until you figure it out.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like fucking around with things for too long. If I don’t apprehend something quickly — I give it 10 minutes of messing around tops — I get the distinct impression that I’m missing something, not that I just need to keep experimenting more.
I continued through the temple hoping that now that I understood the basic logic of what I was meant to do would guide me through the rest. I was wrong, so incredibly wrong. So incredibly guide guzzling wrong. I eventually opened my laptop, with the guide open on it, only glancing at it when I was confused, which was almost constantly. Deeper in the Desert Temple I could not even recognize the method for finding the solution, I only copied them knowing that I would need this logic later, having not learned it and therefore ruining the rest of the game if I didn’t stop using the guide as a crutch. But… I was at a standstill. I could not manage to derive the logic with the guide. Nor could I solve the puzzle without it.
And so I quit. I admitted defeat. I wasn’t having anything that could remotely be called fun. I wasn’t experiencing that feeling of discovery I had heard about and read about. Every success only prompted me to consider my past failures or the puzzles that I had found and still had no clue how to even begin to solve. And if I couldn’t understand this logic here, then what hope did I have of understanding the parts I found later?
But I can’t bring myself to give up, I can’t bring myself to leave it behind completely. I know I won’t enjoy it, unless something changes dramatically — either in myself or in the game. But I can’t let it beat me. I was able to finish Bubsy, goddamit and that game’s only got nine lives and two continues. I could certainly finish, but certainly not complete — who knows how many hidden puzzles Blow’s tucked away — the game. But… I dread going back.
The world is incredibly pretty, but I often spent too much time looking at it with a critical eye. I was unable to simple smell the fresh air. I was too busy scouring rock outcroppings, trees, and piece of geography in a manic and paranoid frenzy, desperate for direction or meaning. No longer was a derelict ship simply something to look at and explore. It was now, perhaps, some place I would find meaning or more puzzles to solve, perhaps not. Soon I began to suspect that there was no decoration, that every object or surface was some sort of clue that I was unsure whether I could or could not decipher the meaning of. But, at least, it was all very pretty.
The sound design is spot on, the sounds of beginning and completing a puzzle are chipper and encouraging. The sounds generated by failure are not discouraging for the first 20 times or so but after that they get quite grating. Most liberating of all were definitely discovering the sources of the larger puzzles, as the light on the grid gives way to some sort of fire that burns across the lines.
I think the lack of music is supposed to leave no distractions in the way of figuring these puzzles out but I ended up feeling alone — and not the good sort of ‘company of myself’ alone. I’m talking the ‘looking inward at oneself and no longer recognizing the individual whose eyes I am currently staring from or at’ level of alone. In constant conflict between playing my own music or playing the game as it was meant to be — or something. An Oddworldesque leitmotif ambiance could have been a welcome to distraction to my near constant frustration in the latter portions and maybe helped me understand when I was entering a new zone with new rules.
God, I wish I could jump. Not huge Mario jumps or something, just little hops. Perhaps the ability to climb chest high walls. I cannot relay the number of times I’ve come to a small cliff I, my literal self, could climb up or down but instead have to find a path around. Sometimes it leads me to lose my way to an area I really wanted to go. But I don’t want to leave this new area behind. I mean, it was put there for a reason right? Was that vista meant to lure me to this point? Is this puzzles?!
The Witness is a game I’ve only played for four hours but has felt like far more and I mean that in the worst way. Every setback, every puzzle I found but did not have the knowledge to solve — but also did not have the knowledge that I didn’t have the knowledge –, every puzzle I could solve but could not apprehend the ruling logic created an incredibly frustrating experience. I feel that searching for a puzzle that I might be able to solve was meant to be an opportunity for a scenic tour of the beautiful landscape. But it instead transformed into a desperate affair. Hoping, often in vain, that I would find something I could call forward progress. Or at least something that would release me of the stubborn feeling of total stupidity that lingered in my success and festered in my failures.
I know that the point of the game is to stump the player until they un-stump themselves but I found the experience of being stumped so distasteful that it was not nearly balanced by those rare moments of brilliance. Any pretense I had to intelligence or discovery was doused in thoughts that someone had been able to solve this puzzle with incredible ease. That even when I had cracked the code it was not impressive or interesting because someone else had. Relating the experience of having cracked it rendered as pointless as going in detail about a dream I had. The Witness invited me into a grand maze, I wandered, and was lost. But I keep coming back in the gloomy hope that I might somehow find my way. Or at least show it couldn’t defeat me.
Next Week: Space Pirates and Zombies