I’m a terrible puzzle game player; not in the sense that I’m rubbish at them (though sometimes that’s true too) but that I simply don’t care enough. When a solution eludes me for more than half an hour or so, I either give up entirely, or I consult a walkthrough. Then I feel ashamed for cheating, enjoying the game less as a result. Another puzzle game will invariably gain my attention, only to lose it after a few hours of me thinking: “It’s nice and all, but what’s the point?”
Much to my surprise, none of that is true for The Witness. When I got a review copy for a magazine I write for, I expected to solve as many puzzles as necessary to get a solid impression and see the game’s finale. I appreciated Braid, but didn’t adore it in the way many others did, and I thought the same would be true for Jonathan Blow’s new game. I expected to consume it, then move on to other things. Instead, it consumed me. And in the course of what must have been dozens of hours, my obsession only grew. When I’d finally “finished” the game, I’d solved almost 450 panels, far more than necessary to unlock the ending, and I’d never once been tempted to cheat, no matter how impossible some of the puzzles may have seemed. And now that I’ve moved on, I still keep thinking about it; its seductively glowing lines penetrating and sliding through the maze-like pathways of my brain. Maybe I should go back in and rack (wreck?) my thought machine for one or two more puzzles?
After weeks of obsession, The Witness stands tall not only as my favourite puzzle game, but as one of my favourite games, period. So it’s safe to say that I agree with a lot of the praise expressed in reviews. It’s true that The Witness is brilliantly designed both regarding puzzles and aesthetics; that the way it teaches its rules and mechanics subtly through the puzzles themselves is masterful; that the alternating rhythm of deep confusion and moments of euphoria-inducing epiphanies – that are carefully fostered by the game, but still feel yours alone – is utterly compelling. It’s all so very true.
And yet: I feel like these are insufficient explanations as to why The Witness is so special. The answer, I think, lies in its (the player’s?) epiphanies, and how they work in the context of the game’s world. They are more than satisfying moments that stroke your ego and send you off to new challenges with a sense of confidence; they are more than tasty pearls on a string that draw you, Pac-Man-style, through the game’s mazes. Instead, they convey (for me at least) a sense of almost spiritual insight, rapidly oscillating between contentedness and inquisitiveness. Importantly, they do not suggest an end point. Rather, the game seems to say: As long as you keep questioning and searching, you’ll gain glimpses beyond the skin of the world, see parts of its skeleton and its inner workings.
Finding the solution to any puzzle, no matter how mundane, is a sort of reconciliation. At first – for a second or an hour – there’s friction. As soon as puzzle and friction are (re)solved, the puzzler’s mind is aligned with the puzzle and its rules, and through it, with the mind of the puzzle’s creator, allowing for a moment of harmonious co-existence. The more pronounced the contrast between struggling and finding the solution, the more satisfying the puzzle. Solving a puzzle piecemeal one small step at a time can make you feel like a work drone, not a genius. On the other hand, an epiphany following hard on the heels of intense frustration in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge is the most satisfying scenario; a sudden reconciliation that obliterates friction and gives you a sense of relief as you realise that it all makes perfect sense, once you see the pattern.
Picture the island of The Witness. It’s an absolutely, stunningly beautiful place to be sure, but there’s a lot of quiet dissonance – of friction – not only in its puzzles, but also in its spaces and the entities they contain. There’s an orchard of cherry trees right next to a desert; a rusty shipwreck next to a castle; and a castle next to an oriental shrine. But even more noteworthy, perhaps, is the way strange technology penetrates the otherwise idyllic landscape. Fittingly, the puzzles – the problems – themselves with their panels, cables and connected machinery seem at odds with much of the rest of the island. Who installed them there, and why? [The answer, of course: the same people who put the idyllic landscape there, the game’s creators. Why? So you’d ask yourself this exact question.]
An unsolved problem, apart from a failed intellectual effort, also symbolises a jarring clash, or an itch you can’t scratch: there’s the panel, obstinately protruding from its environment like a sore thumb, like a splinter in your flesh. It doesn’t belong. Then you notice that the lines on the panel resemble the branches of the tree in front of you; that the mirroring lines on the transparent screen can trace the forms of rock formations and their reflection in the water; that the shadows thrown on or around the panel draw forms that may guide your glowing line.
Then you try to find a way through the maze that conforms both to the forms of your environment and the abstract rules of the symbols on the panel itself. If you’ve been a diligent observer throughout the process, your idea will click like a key in the right lock. What seemed convoluted and confused at first becomes admirably, even astonishingly elegant in retrospect. You realise that everything was exactly where it belonged; the panel, the forms around it – and even you, who needed to look at everything from precisely the right angle, both in a metaphorical and literal/spatial sense.
The Witness teaches you that perspective is all-important; if something doesn’t seem to make any sense, look at it from a different point-of-view. Abandon bulky preconceptions. Be flexible. Only then will you recognise how the shapes of the island are elegantly mirrored in the abstract lines on the screen, or vice-versa, as clearly as the ocean reflects the island. Just as many puzzles build expectations that will have to be torn down soon after, the panels are put on this island only so their frames can be collapsed and opened up to the patterns around them. This is the essential work done by the epiphany; breaking down barriers in our minds and seeing that two really equals one as seen from different eyes, each perceiving different facets of the whole.
Thus, solving and understanding a puzzle in The Witness reconciles seemingly disparate things and makes them whole. There’s a harmony behind this world, recurring patterns that manifest themselves in every aspect of our experiences, but you have to earn glimpses of it, and prove that it is there by solving these problems.
Depending on how we view the world of The Witness as a whole, the implications of all this are very different. If we focus on the obvious artificiality of this world – what some have criticised as a superficial, plastic aesthetic – we see a virtual world that was specifically and carefully designed in a way that would allow reconciliation and harmony. From this perspective, The Witness becomes a self-enclosed work of design; a brilliantly constructed machine that produces a certain effect in the player. We play the game, admire its craftsmanship and elegance of composition and leave with the uplifting thought that human beings can create beautiful things that are separate from the chaos of the “real” world.
Of course, we can also look at the forms of the island and let ourselves be willingly deceived into recognising aspects of our own world inside the game. The world becomes “plastic” in the sense that you feel like you can actually touch and manipulate the objects you see. The lush trees become idealised stand-ins for actual trees you have seen and touched; you’ll never see an island like this in reality, but it is still perfectly recognisable as an island. From this angle, The Witness makes an argument about our actual world, claiming that its underlying harmony is not “just” expert design, but in some way an actual feature of the world we live in. When we exit the game, we may think about how we perceive our surroundings, and how we might see more of the world if we looked at things differently.
So, which is it? Of course, it is neither and both. Working through the game’s microcosm has already encouraged the player to question common sense distinctions such as civilisation vs. nature, art vs. science, or worldliness vs. spiritualism. The last and biggest leap of faith is to accept that there is no real friction or contradiction between the authentic and the artificial view of the game. The Witness is comfortable with its own artificiality, flaunts it even, without, however, retreating from our world into the realm of the wholly abstract or nonsensical. While most other “meaningful” games would anxiously attempt to conceal the struts that supports their weight or just pretend that they aren’t there despite their obviousness, The Witness consciously lays them bare even as it entices you to admire the beauty and faux-materiality of its world.
This is a problem. Not the game’s problem, however, but yours. It challenges you: shift your perspective, and things will make sense.