I always tell myself that I’m hard-working and studious when dealing with a subject that matters to me. I have educated myself about any number of endeavours, from basic digital audio design and production to physical fitness and proper diet. I am well-versed in a number of historical subjects never taught to me by a professor, and can build a remote-controlled helicopter with my own damn hands.
Because of all this, I was under the impression that I required more from a game than just explosions and pretty pictures. I wanted to be above that. The Witness, in all its brilliance and complexity, has cracked the sapphire mirror in which I observe my supposed intelligence. I no longer believe that my determination makes me a work horse, dressed with blinders to remain on course. What I’ve found out is the following: I am, for all intents and purposes, fluid. I systematically seek the path of least resistance.
The Witness is a project I’ve been following for some time now. Having enjoyed Jonathan Blow’s previous title—the esoteric indie platformer Braid—I was curious to see what he would accomplish with a more sizable budget and a team of artists acting as the wind in his sails. When the first screenshots for The Witness appeared, I was pleased with the refreshing and colorful art style. When the maze puzzles were discussed, I stroked my beard in contemplation of the myriad directions he could take these in. All in all, I looked forward to being stumped by cleverly designed conundrums. A modern version of Myst? Sign me up!
Ironically, what I like best about The Witness is its simplicity. There are many things on the abandoned, surreal island that aren’t enigmas at all: where the puzzles lie, how they function, and how progress is measured—these are all communicated with abundant clarity. My role is to unlock their hidden language, the patterns of lines that will lead me to victory. In this way, I love The Witness. When I’m firing on all cylinders, blasting through puzzles, I’m in a groove that feels similar to threading through traffic in the defunct Burnout series: I am one with the game.
My issues arise when things get difficult and all that momentum suddenly grinds to a halt. This is the point at which I cannot help but diverge from what (I would assume) Blow wants me to do, which is show some tenacity and perseverance, really earn my victory over the island and its mysteries. Unfortunately, this is where I fail him (and myself).
In my defense: I really did try. I took studious notes, drew pictures, even wore headphones to help me decipher the puzzle sounds. I bent my brain and pondered endlessly, attempting in vain to best Jonathan Blow’s vastly superior version of a brain. But alas, as the rest of my life continued its course, it became less and less appealing to sit staring at a puzzle on my screen. Big games I looked forward to came out. Games that were more bombastic. Games that would pat me on the back for my victories. Games that, even though they seemed poised to challenge me, were built for me to overcome. The Witness felt different. It felt intent on letting me know that there was no easy answer. There was no difficulty slider, there was no built-in hint system. There were only puzzles and more puzzles.
Maybe if I were younger, or had more time to play games, I wouldn’t feel so compelled to turn away from The Witness and let my eye wander towards that sinister mistress, the game guide. Maybe I wouldn’t load up Tomb Raider or XCOM 2 to use my few hours of freedom in a gratifying manner. Maybe. But at the end of the day, the sad fact is: I’m not a hard working gamer. I already work all day solving problems for a company. I spend extra working hours piecing together music and fitting sounds together. I am no longer at the point in my life where I can devote hours to staring at a single puzzle. I just can’t.
And now it’s time to come clean and tell you all the dirty truth: I have cheated. I have cheated as badly in The Witness as I did in my Spanish class in college. I have passed off the abilities and knowledge of others as my own. I know, I know. As my grade school gym teacher used to say, “you are cheating nobody but yourself!” But I just couldn’t help myself. This was followed by pain, embarrassment, and some not-so-gentle teasing from my girlfriend. I should have pushed harder, but instead I took the easy way out.
Once I took the easy way out, forcing myself to work hard in the hopes of reaching new states of satisfaction was no longer an option. I won’t lie and say that I felt guilty, or even mildly ashamed. Instead, I just felt apathetic to my cause. I realized that with easy access to the intricate information of the game’s puzzle language, I no longer felt compelled to parse it out myself. The lesson the game taught me was one of utmost importance. I am, in a sense, fluid. I am weak. I am strong only in so much as I start and STAY strong. Once I have broken the illusion, I am done for. I cannot put the egg back into the shell.
I have continued to revisit the game over time and have found enjoyment, but I have also noticed that it is not the same. The mystery is missing. The enjoyment of discovery is gone. I have peered behind the curtain and understand that many beyond myself have visited this island. Indeed, most have pieced together more of the mystery than I ever could or would. I am mediocre. I am not special. This is the greatest lesson that I have learned from The Witness, and somehow, I feel that was its intention.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I will say this: anyone capable of restraint and looking for puzzles should PLAY THIS GAME. It is visually arresting. It is mentally satisfying. It offers a complex and fascinating portrayal of metaphysical ideals. It is the rare modern game that couldn’t give a fuck if you finish it or not. But, if like me you have the black heart of a cheater pulsing in your chest, consider yourself warned.
You might think that modern games are too easy. You might miss the golden days of yore when the puzzle was king. You might wish for a difficult and satisfying experience. You might even wish to be stumped. I did! But there’s one thing I learned out there on the island.
Be careful what you wish for.