‘The Witness’ Is 2016’s First Absolutely Essential Video Game
Jonathan Blow's comeback is a magical achievement that has little to do with video gaming precedent.
All screenshots from the game's official website
For a game so quiet, The Witness never stops talking. There is no music. The trees creak and birds chatter. Stand still for long enough and you might hear the distant chime of something unknown. Occasionally you might see a Dictaphone discarded on the ground—a message left perhaps by a previous occupant of the island, or maybe something else entirely. But the real communication is conducted within the 660-plus puzzles dotted around the island. It's a language spread across hundreds of mazes, and with each one you get closer to understanding the whole.
I've been asked to not say too much about the game, which is totally correct. The Witness is about learning and discovery, of closing the distance between creator and player. For me to tell you anything other than how it made me feel would be robbing you of that experience. It made me feel quite good.
In The Witness, players will find themselves walking around an island, isolated, solving puzzles in order to discover more about... Well, that would be spoiling it.
Within the many, many hours I spent exploring this stunning world, I realized its closest parallels are to literature and epistemological philosophy, rather than other games. Across human experience, we've always been obsessed with puzzles and solutions. In Teju Cole's novel Open City, for example, Julius—a young Nigerian immigrant—wanders around New York City ruminating about the maze of life and the variety of monsters hiding around every corner. Alone and always moving, Julius's New York is not just a city, but a shifting sandbox of discovery, where everything from getting out of bed to social interactions becomes a puzzle to be solve. The city morphs before Julius's eyes, and he often doesn't know if it's him or the buildings that have changed: "The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten." I found myself constantly thinking about Open City as I played The Witness, and many other books and films too.
In Ben Lerner's novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator similarly finds himself wandering and musing through life, in search of "a profound experience of art." He goes to gallery after gallery—always wondering whether he'll be found out for inauthenticity—hoping to be moved. He never is. In The Witness I found myself solving puzzle after puzzle hoping to be moved. I was.
Just as with Open Cityand Leaving the Atocha Station, The Witness is less about solutions to the incomprehensible and more about our journey to the end. That may sound ridiculously pretentious, but I genuinely believe it's true: Its designer Jonathan Blow has, clearly, chosen the puzzle genre as a way to talk about life. This is handled best with the puzzles, and less well with the occasionally hammy Dictaphones dotted around containing quotes from famous theologians and scientists. Very seldom have I played a computer game that has made me think—via its mechanics alone—about the philosophical issues underpinning it.
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One of The Witness's greatest strengths as a game is its consciously stripped-down approach to the puzzle and open-world genres. The puzzles are always obvious in their location and what function they serve, and it is very rare to not know where to go next. (Note the black wires winding around the entire island that link each section—don't know what you just achieved? Follow the wire.) This is an improvement from Blow's previous game Braid, an experience that was both very fun and deeply annoying, to the extent that I'm fairly sure Blow is at his happiest when he's pissing off the player. The Witness is more of an even fight. Not to say it's easy—it isn't—but that the answers are, often, right in front of your face.
What was particularly wonderful about my time with The Witness was that, despite being alone on the island for countless hours, I felt constantly locked in conversation—with the world around me, with the puzzles that threatened to melt my brain, with its creators. At no point did I feel genuinely lonely—I knew I was a rat in a maze, but the fact I was learning to speak back to the game was an incredible experience I have never felt before in this medium. Braid, by contrast, often had me feeling like I'd revised for my maths GSCE and accidentally stepped into an A-level physics exam after slamming two pencils in my eyes.
One weakness of having so many bloody puzzles is that the strength of each individual one is almost impossible to maintain. Not all of them are satisfying: Some alter mid-series and frustrate for hours, while others simply aren't that tough. I felt I spent far too long, for instance, in an area with a very tedious and not at all challenging puzzle involving light and perspective. This was followed by an even more irritating section set within what can only be accurately described as a gigantic toilet. To counter that gripe, my favorite area is a wonderful cohesion of theory and execution where you spend your time literally building pathways in the air with your mind. It's wonderful.
The mazes aren't so much hard as they are alien: In order to get them, you have to figure out what they're trying to say to and about you. I like to imagine the whole game is that one wonderful scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the humans first discover how to communicate with the mothership, but stretched across anything from 20 to 100 hours. The Witness is all about your perspective: The higher above the maze you get, the clearer the picture becomes. Just as Oedipa Maas discovered in Pynchon's The Crying Lot of 49, you have to rise above the maze to finally see the "hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate."
'The Witness,' release date trailer
While not perfect, Blow's second release is the closest I have come to being moved by a computer game, by its function and message alone. Like staring at a piece of art in a gallery, my hours spent with The Witness caused changes within me. I found myself letting out many a "fucking yes!" when I worked out the solutions. I don't do that when I down a boss in Bloodborne.
For a game about isolation and being alone, there is a real warmth about the experience. The game's artists—Eric Anderson, Luis Antonio, and Orsolya Spanyol—have created a world that looks sort of like a child's drawing after they've gotten high on ice cream. Which is to say: It's one of the very greatest worlds I have ever explored. Not only does it look good enough to eat, it is also thematically consistent with the game—it begins with childish wonder (like the player) and slowly, steadily darkens as the player learns more and more of the information the game wants to provide (this is, essentially, a metaphor about growing up). Ah. Everything in The Witness coheres with the central idea, and that is an astounding achievement.
Whenever I would activate a maze panel and attempt a solution, I would be surprised by the wonderfully tactile nature of it. A bright line would appear, accompanied by a subtle buzz, moving sturdily along the path I drew. It is often cruel: Solving one puzzle often only lights up the next, which can be quite frustrating when you've spent an hour on a single maze, which was eventually solved after a stiff drink had loosened up my brain. However, feeling frustration with The Witness is precisely what it's designed to do. Learning how to speak is not easy. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. But suffer the lessons and there are great awards.
You will never feel so close to the architects of a game than you will with The Witness. And that's a pleasure open to everyone who wants to play it, and who doesn't cheat. Looking up a solution online is like learning 25 letters of the alphabet. Any word containing the one letter you don't know will make no sense to you. It's robbing yourself of understanding, nobody else.
What I'm ultimately saying is: Somehow, in a game with no characters and no scripted narrative, I have been moved. I have walked through the island like Cole's Julius and experienced Lerner's narrator's profound experience of art. All that in a game about drawing a bloody line through a grid, over and over and over again. Blow has shortened the distance between game and player in a way other games can only dream. It's a magical achievement.
The Witness is out now for PC and PlayStation 4, with a iOS version planned for later in 2016.
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