Talk about biting the bullet.
I can relate. I’m having trouble with this one. Last week, I promised you a word about Jonathan Blow’s new game, The Witness, and I find myself at a loss for them. I anticipated writing an in-depth review, perhaps a few anecdotes regarding my favorite puzzles. Regaling you with my adventures, the mysteries of the world, and my interpretations before granting it some sort of letter grade.
But I can’t. The experience has proven to be more ineffable than tangible. And, to its credit, that feels like the point.
For those not in the know, Jonathan Blow ignited the indie game scene with a time-bending puzzle game called Braid back in 2008. After nearly 7 years of development, his second game was finally released on January 26th. The Witness is a first person puzzle game in which the player explores a mysterious and colorful landscape, solving mazes using vague clues provided by the environment. See, the game never strictly “explains” how to solve any of the puzzles. Instead, players must observe their surroundings – odd structures, statues, and symbols – to decipher the game’s secret, ever-growing language. With great effort and patience, I might add. I sometimes required graph paper in order to understand the puzzles. As I drew, erased, and redrew, I wondered if the difficulty and intricacies of the game would give me an aneurism. Someone would find my body alongside a notepad filled with indecipherable doodles, and sadly decide I’d gone fucking nuts.
But it’s only indecipherable from the outside, because as complex and as vague as this game is, it’s screaming for you to understand it.
I won’t get too far into spoilers, but if you want to play the game fresh, and are willing to put in the intellectual investment it will ask of you, just stop reading now with the knowledge that it is well worth your time and money. If you’re okay with some extremely vague information, keep reading.
The Witness is an amazingly well crafted game on almost every conceivable level, and is an example of why video games deserve to be considered art. The game design conveys feelings and meaning through the player’s discovery of the world, its rules, and their effects through gameplay. One of the strongest recurring themes is about balancing knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is information learned through experience and education, but wisdom is understanding how to put that knowledge to use, and how to proceed when knowledge fails. This game is all about that one-two punch, pursuing it like a holy grail that will release us from a stone-like halt and let us to move forward. Even that sentence holds more meaning the more you play the game, and really, that’s how the game wants to communicate with you. Not by saying “Do this”; just by saying “This”.
And it tells you in every way it can. Through puzzles, the environment, the sound design, even the placement of shadows. The Witness engages you directly, begging you to interact with and interpret it. And the reason why is because the game WANTS to be understood. It wants to be navigated, discovered, and have its secrets unlocked.
But only when you’re ready to understand them.
I wish I could tell you all the fascinating ideas and subtext I came up with while playing the game, but really, that would just deny you the opportunity to do so yourself. It would be a disservice to you and to Jonathan Blow’s craft. But even as I try to give you some palpable impression, the game fades. An echo of a fond memory, a distant one looked upon with reverence. I wish I could say more, but I can’t. The ideas it conveys are greater than any specific examples, and like a dream, its presence was evanescent and haunting, leaving the distinct impression that…
Well, I suppose that’s up to you.