update witness.thoughts

I have cooled significantly on The Witness since my last post.

Those thoughts were made, say, halfway into the game, before it started to grate on me. Before I started to notice the holes in the game. Before the wonder and the magic went out of the island and I started to get bored. Before I got mad at myself for buying into the hype.

Let me explain. Spoilers for The Witness follow, insofar as you can spoil it.

First off, I should apologize- I made some very grossly incorrect and even callous statements in my initial thoughts. I said that I could ‘confidently’ assert that anyone could pick up, play, and eventually beat the game on their own steam. This is a fairly thoughtless statement. As smarter people than I have already noticed, several puzzle groups rely on colour differentiation and sound, bricking off whole sections of the game to the colourblind and hearing-impaired. I wasn’t thinking of this when I wrote my initial thoughts and I’m sorry- that’s on me. And there are even parts that I couldn’t solve; one puzzle group is based entirely on differentiating sounds, picking a single tone out of a cacophony of noise, and my brain would not parse it. I sat for hours before finally giving up and snatching a guide. Point is, I was blinded by my initial excitement, and I didn’t think before I spoke.

Furthermore, there are things about The Witness that I would not have solved, not because I’m unable or because they’re even especially difficult, but because they are at odds with good puzzle design. Hear me out: I think that your ability to solve a puzzle should be completely contingent on your understanding of the puzzle systems. Right? The only thing standing in your way should be your ability to parse, understand, and apply the rules of the system before you. The Witness occasionally ignores this entirely, requiring you not just to understand the rules of the puzzle, but also to view the puzzle from the right physical angle within the world. What this does, effectively, is put a barrier between you and solving the puzzle that is totally unrelated to your understanding of the puzzle system.

Let me outline what I see as the most egregious example of this. There’s a ruin in the island’s desert that contains a collection of wheel-shaped puzzles, each with multiple starting positions and multiple finishing positions. There is no visible indication from most points of view (including the ones from which you will actually be solving the puzzle) which is the right place to start and which is the right place to finish. The trick is to stand at such an angle that the light of the sun catches on the puzzle panel, at which point, the path you must take will be shown seared into the panel’s face. This is a frustrating design for a puzzle because I can understand the rules of the puzzle itself- go from start to finish without doubling back- and even understand the environmental catch, and still be rendered unable to solve the puzzle because I cannot find the exact right angle that the designers intended.

There are more puzzles like this- puzzles where you have to position yourself to view the board through multiple layers of coloured glass, puzzles where you have to maneuver yourself around statues so your path isn’t blocked, puzzles where you have to line up tree branches with the board to highlight your path- and they only get more and more infuriating. See, a good puzzle, to my mind, has four elements: an initial state, a desired state, a set of rules, and a reliable, predictable system in which those rules are applied. A good puzzle game, like TIS-100 or Spacechem, will tell you all four of those things, unambiguously, and then sit back and let you solve the puzzle as best you can. The Witness, on the other hand, will often disguise, or obfuscate one or more of the above. In the case of the puzzles requiring environmental placement, it is the initial or desired state which is hidden. In the case of puzzles where you have to look through sheets of coloured glass to see the true layout of labyrinth boards, it’s the reliability of the rules that is taken away. All of the rules themselves are hidden behind the game’s encyclopaedic collection of symbols and colours, which- as it happens- are only sometimes well-explained.

And the reason for this ambiguity becomes clearer and clearer as the game goes on, because the fact is that without obscuring crucial information, The Witness’ puzzles are almost always straightforward and, if we’re being honest, pretty dull. The game’s puzzles are, really, not that complicated (a limitation of the game’s central gimmick), which means that an added layer of artificial difficulty needs to be stretched over them. The sheen fades quickly, and before long, you’re left wondering not what mystery and wonder awaits you, but from which pixel-perfect angle you need to view the puzzle in front of you in order to be able to solve it.

And the island itself grates on me as well. Although I love its colour palette and the look of it all, it gradually becomes a stifling, cloying place. When you crest the hill for the first time and see a castle keep in the middle of a field splattered with explosions of colourful flowers, it’s breathtaking; the first time I saw the rust-orange shipwreck set against the sharp blue sea, my heart skipped a beat. But as I played further and further, I was struck by how sterile the island feels, how empty it is, how devoid of life and charm. I can’t help but think of Myst Island. Sure, it was every bit as small, and weird, and devoid of life, but it was a place with a story, and that story came out as you played and tooled through the world. When you stepped into Sirrus’ room on Stoneship, there was a story there- the luxurious bed, the cold white lighting, the lavish tapestries- and the syringe and sinister vials hidden away in a drawer. The Witness has no moments like that, no characters to imagine stalking the halls of its island, no story to give its island life. One reviewer compared the island to a mini-golf course, with its sharply segmented sections and garish palette, and that seems an apt comparison.

When I started to lose faith in The Witness, I started reading up on it, and that’s when I stumbled across something that interested me. Jonathan Blow said in one interview, speaking about The Witness, that “[he wants] to make games for people who like to read Gravity’s Rainbow.” Now, that’s interesting, because I have read Gravity’s Rainbow, and knowing this, it throws The Witness into a whole other light.

Richard Dawkins once said something about postmodernism, the genre to which Gravity’s Rainbow, and arguably, Jon Blow’s work, belongs. Although I tend not to agree with Dawkins, I think he had a point. The quote was long-winded, but it was something to the effect of “Suppose you were a hack with nothing meaningful to say, but you still wanted everyone to pay attention to your work. You wouldn’t write with any kind of clarity, because it would expose your lack of content.” This, more than anything, shows up what I find frustrating about The Witness, because it is exactly the same thing that I find frustrating about Gravity’s Rainbow. Both neatly approximate the experience of having a conversation with a very smart person whom you do not especially like, and whom you silently suspect is not actually as clever as they think they are. Neither is there for any other reason than for the creators to showcase how smart they believe themselves to be.

And, yes, The Witness is a lot like Gravity’s Rainbow. Both are concerned more with being impenetrable for its own sake rather than having any kind of elegance or clarity. Both are more concerned with dawdling between half-finished scraps of what they think is interesting more than involving you in the narrative dialog. Both end more or less mid-sentence with no meaningful resolution. A shame they’re not more alike, though. The Witness would have been livened up considerably by a spoon fight to the death.

And, like Gravity’s Rainbow, I eventually hit a point in The Witness where I realized it was more of a collection of vague themes and navel-gazing than a story or even much of a game. I realized I was playing a game that had nothing meaningful to say- or at least, nothing half as meaningful as it thought it was saying- I realized that shorter, less ostensibly highbrow games (and books, for that matter) had given me more enjoyment and wisdom and had more thoroughly enriched my life in less than half the time. Ultimately, The Witness and Gravity’s Rainbow were both deeply tautological experiences. When I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow, knowing that it was going nowhere, I wondered why I was still reading, and the only answer I could come up with was ‘to have read Gravity’s Rainbow.’ At the end of the day, I felt the same way about completing The Witness. Why bother, when there is nothing meaningful to be said, nothing interesting to be learned, nothing enriching to be found? So that I can say I did.

When I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow, all I could think of was The Last Unicorn. In 200 pages, The Last Unicorn made me laugh, cry, and generally feel, for better or worse, more connected to the universe around me, more thoroughly than I ever thought a book called The Last Unicorn could. In 800 pages, all Gravity’s Rainbow managed to do was make me bored.

Appropriately, I’m having a similar reaction to The Witness, having just played Firewatch. In four hours, Firewatch- though far from a perfect game- made me chuckle and smile, shiver with dread, laugh knowingly and even very nearly cry a couple of times, and it made me think about people I love and places I want to go, and just how short and unfair and sad and quietly beautiful life can be.

In much, much more than four hours, The Witness has intrigued me, then frustrated me, then finally, at the end of all things, bored me.

Cheers,
Bruce