When I was a kid, I was a nerd in the old-school sense of the word, and I preferred reading books to doing just about anything else. I never asked my parents for a Gameboy, or an N64, or a Sega Genesis, and they were all too happy to drive me to the library instead.
So here is my confession, and it really does feel like an unburdening: I don't play video games, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've even tried. So when I first started hearing about developer Jonathan Blow's new game The Witness, I surprised myself by wanting to play it. Badly.
A lot has been written about The Witness already, but for the uninitiated, here's the rundown: it's a puzzle game that takes place on a mysterious uninhabited island. You play a silent, unnamed, unseen protagonist and wander around the island solving maze puzzles. The island is sectioned into different regions (never named and distinguished only by landmarks and landscape), and completion of the puzzles in one region unlocks the next (sort of). The most common comparison is to 90s computer classic Myst.
What was always part of the problem with gaming for me is that even though I might be more interested in it now than I was as a kid, I feel like I've missed a critical period where it would've been easy for me to pick up the hand-eye coordination involved. Though it looks like fun when my boyfriend plays Grand Theft Auto—barricading himself behind a bunch of burned-out cop cars and shooting an RPG at hapless drivers—I'm hopeless behind the controls. In a way, most games have a similar language, and like any language it's best to learn it when you're young.
But compared to other games, The Witness may as well be speaking in smoke signals. The language you learn is a puzzle language specific to the game, and it slowly teaches you that language step-by-step. The mazes get more and more complicated. Last night around midnight, I had to start using scratch paper as an aid. I'm sure this is only the beginning.
And the game is quiet. So quiet. You can hear your own footsteps, the wind rustling through leaves, the lapping of waves, and certain sound effects associated with the maze puzzles, but that's basically it. The landscape is gorgeous, but it's eerie in its benevolence—and the creepy statues scattered around the island don't help. They remind me of Pompeii, the bodies immortalized in ash at the precise moment of impact.
Wandering around the island, you get the sense that you're supposed to figure out what this place was, and what happened to its inhabitants, but I'm a few hours in and so far nothing adds up. The island has an old-world Mediterranean feel, but it also has laser beams and electric doors. Not to mention one statue is shown playing an electric guitar, plugged into an amp.
Right after I started playing, I messaged Motherboard's resident games expert Emanuel Maiberg to ask if I could expect a payoff. (In addition to interviewing Blow, Maiberg had gotten an advance copy of the game and was much further along than I was.) "If it's just puzzles, I'm going to be mad," I said. Maiberg said he had "no idea," but now I'm not sure if I care.
Despite my lack of interest in video games, I did play computer games growing up, usually ones with an educational bent. One 1995 game that I never came close to beating was called MayaQuest, where you explore the ruins of Mayan civilization and try to solve archeological mysteries about how the Mayans lived. For a kid's game, it was very difficult, and provided minimal guidance. It was quiet, too, and had the same creepy, empty vibe.
The Witness reminds me of MayaQuest in a way, and the other, simple PC games I played as a kid. Nothing happens in the game unless you act first. The controls aren't too complicated. It relies on your own cleverness, on seeing things from the right angle, on patience. This is what drew me in. The leisurely pace, the absence of chaos.
I'm nowhere near done playing The Witness, but I'm already researching similar games to play in the future. Maybe they'll make a gamer out of me yet.
The Witness is available for PC and PS4.