Thoughts on The Witness
I have been playing The Witness since it came out this Tuesday. The Witness is what is probably best described as a “puzzle game”, and if you haven’t heard about it yet and that sounds at all interesting, I encourage you to look at the release date trailer (and some reviews if you have to), buy it and stop reading this. Just come back after you’ve played a few hours.
I will not spoil anything in here; what I will say is that I’ve been playing it for something like 30-40 hours so far (I haven’t been keeping track exactly), and that it resonates incredibly strongly with me (no doubt in part because its preoccupations match my own). It’s hard to compare to any other game I’ve played because it really is in a category (or “genre” if you want to frame it in marketing terms) of its own; I do not mean this as some kind of hyperbole, but in a literal sense: it does not really make sense to me to directly compare The Witness to most puzzle games, because it’s fundamentally trying for something different. But let’s back up a bit.
I will not talk about the puzzles in The Witness, but to explain how they are different from other games, let’s talk about a few different examples in that class. One example would be various types of matching games; say the immense number of match-three games (Bejeweled, Candy Crush, you name it), but also games such like Tetris and Dr. Mario. These games have simple rules and emphasize speed; with sufficient practice, the game experience is one of continuous flow, a detached state where you just intuitively keep going without thinking about individual moves until eventually you either win, aren’t fast enough or the random number generator just screws you over. Let’s call this type of game “flow-based” for the purposes of this article.
I like these games, a lot. I still play 10-15 minutes of Tetris essentially every day (have been for years), and just discovered to my horror that my Steam play time for Bejeweled 3 is 257 hours (holy crap, that’s a lot of hours!) — although to my defense, I mainly tend to play that kind of game to have something to do with my hands while I’m listening to podcasts or similar and my attention is elsewhere (but still, man, 257 hours).
A second type is what’s commonly called “logic puzzles”. A well-known example would be Sudoku. These have a set of constraints (in Sudoku, “all 9 digits must appear in every row, column, and delineated 3×3 sub-square”) and a goal (“fill out all the cells”) as part of their rule set. A Sudoku puzzle is then a particular starting configuration (only some cells filled), and you use deductive reasoning to proceed from there to a full solution, initially very much step-by-step. Over time, as you gain proficiency, you start to observe certain recurring patterns and turn them into general inference rules; as you do so, your gameplay experience shifts into spurts of “flow mode” (where you just apply general rules you learned) interrupted by deductive reasoning at “choke points”.
This kind of game, I also like a lot. One particular (probably not that well-known but whatever) example would be “Everyday Genius: SquareLogic”, essentially a modified version of Sudoku with a lot more rules (and different puzzle types) that is specifically designed so that solving a puzzle never needs trial-and-error or backtracking. I mention here because it’s the second place on my Steam all-time playtime stats at 148 hours (narrowly beating out Civilization IV at 141 hours; it’s not all puzzle games!).
Then there’s puzzle games that actually include a manifestation of the player character in some way, and involve actually controlling that character directly in a more typical video game fashion, focusing on the interaction between the player and the world. Let’s call them “motion-based” for the purposes of this post. One classic example that’s still turn-based and essentially a logic puzzle is Sokoban. The more typical example is games which require both puzzle-solving to figure out what to do and skilled execution; e.g. puzzle platformers (like Jon Blow’s previous game, “Braid”) or games such as Valve’s Portal series. At the extreme, you have games that are still a puzzle (or at least “puzzling”), but are relatively easy to figure out, with all the difficulty being in the execution, for example Kaizo Mario World.
That latter example is not for me, but again, puzzle platformers and spatial puzzle games, I like. (Did I mention I like puzzle games?)
Final example: Rubik’s Cube. This one’s kind of interesting, because it ships in solved form. In that configuration, it can’t really be called a puzzle; it’s more of a toy. But it turns into a puzzle the instant you apply a sequence of moves and forget what exactly you did, so you can’t undo them; a Rubik’s Cube is a great visual aid if you ever needed to convince somebody that cleaning up a mess can be orders of magnitude harder than making one. (Alas, this does not seem like a particularly difficult argument to make even without such showmanship).
The fascinating thing about Rubik’s Cube is that when it first shipped in 1977, nobody knew how to solve it, and is somewhat notorious for vastly understating its difficulty on the packaging. Initially marketed as having “over 3 billion combinations but only one solution”, the actual number of states a cube can reach from the starting configuration is in fact about 4.325*1019 – 43.25 quintillions, which is 43.25 billion billions. And by any objective measure, solving a Rubik’s Cube from scratch is hard. The first published general algorithmic solution I’m aware of was David Singmaster’s in 1981, after the Cube was already being sold for 4 years! Believe it or not, part of the maths underlying Rubik’s Cube is still an active research subject. For example, the question of how many moves were required to solve the Cube in the face-turn and quarter-turn metrics (20 and 26, respectively) was open until very recently (2010 and 2014, respectively).
Today, most Cubes ship with a folded flyer or instruction booklet that states a solution algorithm, and there are speed-cubing competitions; the fastest speed-cubers, as of this writing, can solve an “average” (randomly scrambled) cube in about 6.5 seconds. Speed-cubers use relatively complicated algorithms that mostly rely on visual pattern-matching to figure out which one of a long list of lengthy memorized move sequence to perform. And thus, after nearly 40 years, Rubik’s Cube has come all the way from a literally unsolved problem that took serious research, to being yet another flow-based puzzle that people play as a competitive game. What people today do when they solve the Rubik’s Cube with known algorithms in “flow mode” bears little resemblance to the experience puzzle-buyers in 1980 would have had when trying to grapple with the cube in “discovery mode”.
Which, at long last, brings me back to The Witness.
Discovery, in more than one sense, is what The Witness is all about (hence everyone’s insistence to please avoid spoilers). You find yourself on an island and have to figure out what to do. The game does not tell you what to do. It cannot tell you what to do without defeating its own purpose. For example, logic puzzle games will tell you the rules and leave you to figure out how to apply them successfully, or efficiently.
That is, fundamentally, not what The Witness is interested in. What The Witness instead tries to do is, essentially, recreate that moment in the late 70s and early 80s when the Rubik’s Cube was out, but nobody really knew what to do with it yet. It was this intriguing object with certain mechanics that let it move in some ways but not others; some of the configurations are nice and symmetric and satisfying, others are a mess, or at least appear that way (though they may be just a few moves away from being solved, if you know the right thing to do!). But it’s not clear how to solve it at all. (In fact the only reason original buyers of the cube had to believe that it was even solvable was that it shipped in solved state, and every move they make is obviously reversible).
The Witness is difficult, no doubt, but to put it into perspective, none of the puzzles in The Witness are anywhere near as hard as the Rubik’s Cube; the hardest I’ve encountered so far (and I’m now in a state where I could start the endgame if I wanted to, which so far I don’t) are maybe as hard as a “hard” Sudoku puzzle you would find on a website or in a magazine (though it’s hard to compare, obviously), provided that you know the rules.
The primary source of actual difficulty in The Witness is exactly this – for most of the game, you’re not quite sure about the rules. You discover them as you play the game, and with alarming regularity, you run into a challenge that seems to make no sense (or be impossible to solve) given what you know so far, forcing you to re-examine your assumptions about the game world and what you think the rules are. Where most conventional puzzle games give you some knowledge front-loaded and leave you to figure out the implications, The Witness is far more interested in how knowledge is formed than how it is applied.
To some players, this evidently feels like the game is intentionally messing with them, being deliberately vague and then getting annoyed with them when they get it wrong. This is unfortunate; but really the game generally goes out of its way to avoid bottlenecking you on a single puzzle that eludes you, and if you’re stuck on a particularly difficult problem, there’s usually another, simpler puzzle elsewhere that lets you figure out things more gradually. There are plenty of things to do at any given time, and while any individual idea might not be obvious from the puzzle you’re looking at, rest assured that for every concept in the game, there are plenty of puzzles allowing you to discover and understand its meaning.
But why do this in the first place? Simply said, because the joy and satisfaction of figuring out the rules, of realizing the thing that you’ve been missing even though it’s been in front of you the whole time, is far greater than the more mechanical pleasure of becoming good at solving any particular kind of puzzle well that is the bread and butter of most puzzle games (though no worries, The Witness does give you enough of that satisfaction as well). The Witness is a game about discovery, careful observation and, most of all, epiphany—that sudden feeling of clarity as you realize something and suddenly everything clicks into place. It may seem distant and withholding at first, but it only does what it needs to do to truly let you feel the exhilaration of actually discovering something about the world. Where other games all too often tell you exactly what to do and then pat you on the back as soon as you accomplish some trivial task. The Witness respects you enough to simply trust that you are smart enough to figure it out, and never talks down to you.
One complaint I’ve heard from a few players boils down to the game being very stingy with any kind of tangible rewards. The aforementioned pats on the back are, indeed, conspicuously absent; usually, your reward (if any) for solving puzzles is just… more puzzles! All I can say on the subject is this: as I’ve been trying to explain, The Witness is a game trying to evoke the joy of discovery, which is in itself rewarding. If it’s not working for you (fair enough!) and you need external motivators to string you along, if the game feels just like a chore to be completed that needs some carrot along with the stick, then it’s evidently not working for you, and you should spend your time doing something else; provided you’ve played at least for two hours or so, your experience is broadly representative. If that’s not doing it for you, then by all means, stop.
I have to admit that I was a bit worried about this going in. I really liked Jon Blow’s previous game, “Braid”, and found its mechanics and gameplay very satisfying, but the story elements, though interesting, never clicked for me.
I need not have worried. The Witness does not have a story as such (at least not as far as I’ve played it!), but it does have themes, and the audio logs and other narrative elements scatter over the island reinforce the very same themes already present in the game play: The Witness is mechanically a game about clarity and persistence, about discovery, false alleys and doubt, about perspective shifts and epiphanies. These are exactly the themes of “story elements” (if you want to call them that) as well: they are, primarily, quote from scientists and philosophers on those very themes. And it does let them make their point in full; rather than feeding you a quick sound bite, these recordings try to give you enough context to truly stay faithful to the source material. Not exactly light fare, but all of it is very much coherent with the rest of the game. (Though if you don’t care, fair enough; just skip them, they are not important to your progression at all.)
The Witness is not being coy with you when it hands you these recordings; these are not hidden messages, nor ciphers to be decoded. In showing you what it does, the game is simply wearing its heart on its sleeve. You may care for it or not, but calling it “pretentious” as some do seems to miss the point entirely to me. When the game is quoting philosophers and scientists, it is not trying to put on airs, nor trying to bask in reflected glory; there is no pretense here. The themes present in the narration are precisely the themes explored by the game mechanics themselves.
On that note, one further observation: as mentioned before, Braid’s story didn’t really do it for me, but it’s very interesting to contrast with The Witness. Braid’s story revolves around themes of narcissism and obsession; about the protagonist, Tim, literally warping the world (via the time-manipulation that is Braid’s core mechanic) to get what he wants. The Witness is the polar opposite; the titular player character is never even given a name (or a face), and the game is emphatically not concerned with changing the world in one’s image, but rather learning to see the world as it really is; there is no conflict to speak of, and all major developments are internal (purely in the player’s head) rather than external. What little changes there are in the world at all never alter it substantially; on the scale of opening a door or flicking a light switch. It’s an interesting choice.
Here’s the thing that’s most baffling to me, as a former game developer and current developer of tools for game developers (I guess that makes me a metagame developer?): as a game developer, you know there’s a certain semi-industrial process to making games. Things get made somewhat separately and independently, by different parts of the team, and then at some point they get joined together. And if you’ll allow me an extended metaphor, it’s a bit like injection-molded bits of plastic. You cast these two or more separate shells to form your shape, and they all come out slightly warped because that’s the nature of the process. And then you apply a bit of force and glue it all together along the fault lines, and there’s some rough edges that need to be filed off, and once it’s smooth enough you say “good enough” and ship it. So as a developer, I’m used to that injection-molded plastic process, and I know what works well with that and what doesn’t, and you just try to stay away from that. And you think you know things work because you know everything worth knowing about injection-molded plastic. And some people do these tiny jade figurines that are hand-carved but everyone knows you can’t do anything big like that!
Cue The Witness, apparently carved out of a single massive slab of marble, a lot more solid than what you’re used to, with no visible fault lines, no glue residue, no filed-off corners. And you look at it and it’s there and it makes no frickin’ sense to you whatsoever; this is just not How Things Are Done. How did this happen? How can anyone make something this big without slicing it into parts and gluing it together?
That’s where I am right now. I have never seen another game as cohesive as this. Not even close. Without getting into specifics or spoiler territory, I have never seen a game with such manifest intention behind every single detail, nor one where all the details cohere this well into a whole. This goes for the design and gameplay itself, but also across traditional hard boundaries. Game design and art play off each other, and both of these are tightly coupled with some of the engine tech in the game. It’s amazing. There is no single detail in the game that would be hard to accomplish by itself, but the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, with no signs of the endless compromise that are normally a reality in every project.
In one sense, seven years of work seems like a lot of time to spend on developing a game. In another, I don’t see most teams being able to deliver a game this whole, for lack of a better word, in any time frame.
If you had told me a couple of years ago that anyone was making a puzzle game about epistemology and epiphany, I’d have laughed you out of the room. That the game ever got made feels like a small miracle. How well it succeeds at doing what it’s trying to do is another. One of the recurring frustrations of my life is that I’ve never been able to explain to anyone really close to me just how much the sense of discovery and true understanding I get sometimes when programming matters to me. The reason this blog exists is because of my desire to share my discoveries, such as they are, with others that might appreciate them. The Witness means that I can now share this feeling itself with others that are receptive to it. This means more to me than I can put into words.
It should be clear at this point just how much I like this game.
One dissenting opinion from Tom Chick at Quarter to Three, who evidently isn’t feeling it (warning, review contains mild spoilers!):
When I was done, the feeling wasn’t elation or even satisfaction. It was that feeling you get when you finally pass part of a game you never want to have to play again. I couldn’t shake a vague resentment that I’d squandered dozens of hours to no effect beyond now knowing the made-up language of The Witness’ puzzles. Not that I’m above squandering dozens of hours in a videogame. It’s just that I prefer squandering them because I’m building something, or leveling up a character, or beating a time or score, or resolving Trevor’s storyline, or collecting more pointless stuff in virtual Gotham, or figuring out how to use banelings, or rescuing the princess from whatever damn castle she’s finally in.
As I’ve said before, by all means, if you aren’t enjoying the game, just stop. Really. As I already said, the game very much wears its heart on its sleeve. If you’re grinding through hours of the game hoping for the Big Twist, stop. It is what it is.
But do let me point out that the levels of our character, or a score, or “pointless stuff in virtual Gotham” are just as made-up, arbitrary and ultimately ethereal as anything in The Witness. And is the level really what you care about? In most non-online RPGs, you can get your character to level 80 and complete all the quests with nothing but a minute of “work” in an ordinary hex editor, and save yourself hours of play to get there! Would you want to? Probably not.
The levels, the scores, the collectibles aren’t the meaningful part at all; in the end, they’re nothing but proof that you’ve spent a certain amount of time (and exhibited a certain amount of skill) in the game world. Whether that time spent was meaningful or not is entirely up to you. On which subject I am going to close with another quote; feel free to call me pretentious too if you want!
In music, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition.
If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord—and that’s the end!
But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling that gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded, and what we do is we put the child into this corridor of this grade system, with a kind of, “come on kitty kitty kitty”, and now you go to kindergarten, you know, and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade, and then come on, first grade leads to second grade and so on. And then you get out of grade school, you got high school, and it’s revving up—the thing is coming—and then you’ve got to go to college. And, by Jove, then you get into graduate school. And when you’re through with graduate school, you go out and join the world.
And then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance, and they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that. And all the time the thing is coming! It’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing, the success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day about 40 years old, you say “my god, I’ve arrived!” “I’m there!” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt. And there’s a slight letdown because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything!
We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end: success or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But, we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.