Spoilers for The Witness below:
The Witness, the follow up to indie hit Braid, is a game that has been described as “Maze puzzles. Full stop.”
Unsurprisingly, The Witness is not an easily streamable game. “Maze puzzles” just doesn’t sound right. I mean, the technical infrastructure is there already. People are certainly doing it. It’s also true that some people will watch anything, even things not in any way suited for any kind of mass consumption.
The Witness fights what makes normal games work as video on the back end.
Triple-a games like call of duty have a very specific kind of rewatchability. There is this explosive recombinable textural element to it that can be summarized by this:
Caption: heads going boom
That video is a clip taken from the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s shockingly entertaining in context, less so pulled out for youtube. Watch it six more times and soon it becomes about as banal as anything you’ll find on the bizarre corner of youtube that is filled with fluid simulations.
Caption: fluid/fire simulation youtube
If we forget for a moment the sports broadcasting or radio jockey elements of let’s plays and streaming, we get something visually that is formed to a level just above the six watches deep contextless youtube blood fireworks.
The visual value add for a video of Call of Duty comes from the unpredictability. The new and varied timing and placement of the headshot melon blasts.
This visual recombination is just a hair different from actually playing the game. Video one ups traditional first person shooter gameplay by being able to showcase the “best” gameplay that is the fastest shots, tightest sequences and biggest booms. This is a fault of a system. A system that merely delivers visual noise.
The Witness offers something that mere content delivery misses. It’s so singular that it actually makes after the fact non-player content delivery tougher at least for anything other than solutions to puzzles (which ruin the puzzles). The Witness offers individuals specific context. Necessary to this context are restrained player instruction and visual rewards.
Player instruction? What player instruction? Absent a couple text prompts in the first minutes, you have to figure it all out yourself. It’s a healthy burden, one born of a desire for player initiative and necessary buy in.
The cliche has been written, “it’s not the destination…” but in The Witness it is a little bit about the destination. You wake up on a mystery island. After some preliminary line tests you can take a boat around it, you see your destinations. On of the great things about the open world aspect of the game is that you can go to all those places, their ledges and nooks, anywhere you could fit a moderately sized human. On this one man water tour an unavoidable towering geographic marker is the mountain.
Eventually found is a secret in the side of the mountain. There’s a print out of a line pattern that works as a code you can use to watch a lecture or interview about science in a windmill basement projection screen area. While these are fun bits that put words to the visual themes in the game, the real reveal, the real reward, is the view from the mountain hideaway. This reward is what I mean about restriction. There’s no dopamine hit. No craven attention grab. It has my attention and it knows. It’s simply a new angle. To the outside observer this amounts to a boring screenshot. It’s not faster. It’s not bigger. Things are smaller because of the great distance but that means many things fill our view. It’s what we’ve seen before but now wholistically, contextually rich. Lasers, the mark of basic puzzle sequence completions, rise up from the abandoned island.
Spaces for reflection, for realizing what you’ve done are wonderful. This moment is made better by all the moments that came before. Its culmination. A full breath completed by an exhale. Pulling any sequence of frames out for a video, or even pulling every frame out for a complete run through of the game is not sufficient. So much of the game happens inside of you. Inside your head. The connections just don’t show up on screen. But you see them. You’ll fail the little tests and exercises in the way that you know you fail tests and confuse problems. It’s like math. It’s process. While all math is the same, when you “do math” the diffuse principles and proofs find their places unique to you in your solution.
This context comes precisely because the game is so honest about what elements are “game” elements. In a traditional open world game some rote fetch quest would require us to use “gate” as a ludo-metaphor. The Witness has puzzles on literal gates and doors. New puzzles literally flip out from under a sequential stack as you complete them for your “next step forward” in the game.
In the end video I got you can see a person wake up, unplug himself (it’s just some sci-fi flavor as far as I can tell) and start exploring our world. This person is not adept at our mechanical language. It’s as if he has come from the game world itself! He traces geometric figures, follows lines, slowly learns something completely new. How to open a door? By twisting the knob!
Twisting is something I didn’t do at all in The Witness and I empathized with this stranger from the world of dots, lines and clean geometry coming into our considerably more complex and messy world.
We follow him through this knobbed door with the sense that these are something akin to a child’s first steps. Tonally it parallels leaving the starting tunnel in The Witness into the sunlight of the outdoors. Here the message of the game mechanics and the textural hints find their ultimate culmination. The raggedy old school educational films under the windmill and the audio log profundities about science, progress and observation suddenly make sense. They meet as if to say that there is a real world. Real and full of beauty with puzzles greater and more profound than the ones you just solved. The Witness is like life itself. What was true in the game is true here. Sometimes people or nature leave behind hints, there is a knowledge base to build off of. Sometimes life’s puzzles are obfuscated by decay and entropy. Sometimes we look and see something from an angle that only we have.
You owe it to yourself to give The Witness a chance and feel its simple pleasures of failure and wonder. This is a game where you have to be there to get it.