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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (2/26/17) 9:36pm - ... wherein Peter discusses The Witness more fully (i.e., with spoilers).

Here are my spoiler-y ramblings about The Witness.

I got badly addicted to this game for four days.

I put in about twenty hours to solve enough puzzles to hit the endgame, and my attitude towards the game quickly tilted from "oh, let me put in a little more effort on this enjoyable pastime" to "dammit, how many damn mazes are left, I JUST WANT MY LIFE BACK." Something possessed me to try to get through the game with no hints whatsoever, so, there I was, pounding my brain against one geometric nightmare after another. And I was, for the last day or two, convinced I was surely coming up to the ending, right?

Side quests? Fuuuuck that. Collectibles? Nah, no thank you.

I put in my 21 hours, I gathered up the 'endgame' achievement, and I dusted off my hands and said, "phew, I'm done". I stopped my moratorium on hints and cheats, and read absolutely everything about the game.

And that is when I discovered I'd missed the real ending.

Jonathan Blow conceived of the game's main 'narrative' of maze puzzles as sort of a distraction, really -- something to keep your immediate attention while you explored the game on a deeper level. This deeper level mainly to do with the so-called "environmental puzzles", where you find some sort of dot-plus-line shape in the landscape around you and trace it out for... nothing, really. Some sparkles flit through the air, and you hear a rumbling sound.

I tried this in the most obvious case, tracing the river from the mountaintop, in front of the identically-shaped panel that is the designer's way of screaming, "SEE?! ENVIRONMENTAL PUZZLES ARE A THING!" And I did it, and nothing seemed to happen, so I shrugged and moved on. I also spotted several architectural circle-lines accidentally at the Aztec temple. I traced them out, saw sparks, heard thunder, and... nothing, apparently. I figured the mechanic would crop up again to solve some aspect of the temple, but... nope, never did.

Sure, I was *seeing* the circle-plus-lines everywhere. And it was vexing to me: what are these? Are they map clues for some later panels? or is it just part of the design aesthetic? It never clicked. And now, since I've read all the players' guides, it never will.

Again, the big secret of the game, possibly its biggest surprise, is that the whole maze-panel mechanic is just a sideshow from the environmental exploration that the designer *really* cares about. And this pays off in a nonverbal punch line that I find frankly hilarious: you get that subpar ending for solving all the panels. And okay, fine, you restart the game. And then, three minutes in, you spot a white line tracing down a post and around the edge of the gate that leads out of the tutorial level. It's always been there. You walked right by it at the start of the game.

And shining behind it, right at the top, is a pefect white circle: the sun.

Line that up and trace it out, and it opens a magic door to a strange hotel lounge -- a sprawling interior that contains audio recordings of the game credits. It finally sends you down a hallway wherein, as you walk along the hall, reality slowly crumbles around you: the walls disappear, the ceiling vanishes, and you're wakling a narrow footpath that spirals through an endless black void, with instances of random game artifacts suspended in the air around you. You pass through a final door, and... you wake up. A first-person FMV shows you stumbling out of bed, removing some kind of VR dongle from your head, and... exploring the dev studio behind the game, fumbling with common household objects, and looking for environmental puzzles.

*That's* the real ending. *That's* your reward for playing the game properly.

I feel like an idiot, both for letting a video game kudzu over my life for four days, *and* for, even then, completely missing the game's point.

--

So I didn't have fun. But is it a good game?

I think so. The design in the game, from the puzzles to the landscapes to the architecture, is uniformly breathtaking. I'm sure developers can learn a lot from how it's put together, from (say) its compact (and thus loading-screen-free) setting and its patient, nonverbal instruction-by-example. And lots of players love The Witness dearly, and have been profoundly affected by it. Judging from Mr. Blow's discussions of the game, he has certainly made the game he set out to make. But I don't think it's the game I wanted to play.

As adventure games go, The Witness quite deliberately breaks from its Myst-y forefathers in several ways. The Witness eschews variety in its puzzles. Every single puzzle is a maze. Sure, there are interesting variations *within* that -- they wrest every last drop of gameplay out of the mechanic, including the double-walkway pièce de résistance towards the end. One reviewer put it beautifully: it's the Goldberg Variations of maze puzzlers.

Also, The Witness positively laughs at the notion of making the puzzles make sense in context. The last decade or two of development in the interactive-fiction scene has been partly an effort to flee the tone-deaf and retroactively-laughable arbitrariness of, say, The 7th Guest, where your haunted house story gets interrupted to play out some hoary old Henry Dudeny sliding-tile problem. I-f writers labor to erase all the seams, so that each 'puzzle' emerges organically from the setting and the story. Again, the Witness says phooey to that, and says, "Here's another panel. Don't ask why. Just solve it."

More generally, The Witness has little patience for any notion of 'story'. It drops a few coy, elliptical hints here and there, but even the obsessives who, bless their hearts, have painstakingly gone over every inch of the game (including picking apart its source files) have found barely anything beyond "it's some kind of VR game and you're a playtester with amnesia". The game is more *about* your act of learning to solve puzzles, and uses a variety of philosophical quotes to frame that effort as a metaphor for seeking deep truths about the real world.

(Side note: nope, the game has little use for humor or self-deprecation, either.)

But this all feels a bit "stone soup," to me. Here is a mechanism that gives you a smattering of "eureka!" moments (fun!). Here are some ponderous quotes read in a monotone by video-game actors. Here is some backstory that the island in the game really is... a game.

You can add meaning to that, sure -- the game does frame an empty space with which to fill your own thoughts. But that leaves the game itself feeling... well, empty. Almost oppressively so. You're alone on the island. You're solving puzzles because the puzzles are there. You're in a place with no history, no people, no animals, no purpose. The designer across from you feels combative and distant.

Anywhere in the game, when you look down into a pool of water, you find that you have no reflection -- that moment of unsettling nothingness feels like the whole game, writ small.

And mind you, even though I had a *bad* experience with this game, I wouldn't call it a *meaningless* experience. Clearly it's given me enough to think about to write a thousand-plus words about it. It's reminded me how hyper-focused I can get on solving problems (though real life reminds me of that amply). And my playthrough, sour though it's turned out to be, will stick with me.

But I do hope it will be a while before I jump into another big video game like this. For all the time and attention it sucked up, The Witness paid off far too little.

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