First things first, a confession: I have not finished The Witness. I don't know if I'm even an eighth of the way through. Heck: I don't know if I'm ever going to finish it, the way things are going. (I might tear out all my hair first, and I don't really have that much hair to spare, to be honest.)
The Witness was put out in 2016 by a development team headed by Jonathan Blow, creator of the beloved indie platformer/puzzler Braid. I was planning to skip The Witness. Something about the Cult of Jonathan Blow doesn't appeal to me: there's a dude centricity to it that feels alien and like I'm not welcome. It's a mostly baseless feeling, though perhaps fueled a little by Indie Game: The Movie, which was such a boy's club that I almost shrugged myself out of existence while watching it.
But a couple of friends I trust recommended it to me. Maybe I have retroactively imagined it, but didn't they had a certain desperate gleam in their eye? Wasn't their bag brimming over with graph paper, scrawled with lines and notes? Didn't I ask, "Isn't it just a bunch of puzzles?" And didn't they respond, "OH, YES, IT ABSOLUTELY IS."
And goddamn if I've suddenly found myself in the same boat. Goddamn if it's not me buying up graph paper like it's going out of style and thinking about puzzles literally all the time. Even if I never finish it, I feel confident in saying that The Witness is infuriating, beautiful, surprising, stupid, and genuinely smart. In short: it's excellent.
I remember going over to my friend Emma's house in middle school. She asked if I wanted to play Myst.
I hasn't played it. I had a fundamental misinterpretation of the game: something about the abandoned island spooked me and I assumed it was a horror game. So, when she booted it up and we found ourselves on an island filled with puzzles, I was intrigued. Emma was so excited about the ending that she played through the entirety of the game for me in some version of a speed run. I didn't get a chance to actually play through any of the puzzles, but I watched Emma as she relived all of her frustration. "Oh, this one is the WORST," she said as she tried to remember the way to solve the piano puzzle. It was amazing to me that such a simple device could elicit such a pure and unrestrained response.
The Sims didn't even make me feel that way, and that was a game where I was supposed to be in charge of people's LIVES. In The Sims, I had no qualms with putting a Sim in a pool and removing the ladder (which now feels sociopathic, but which was done by literally everyone when they got tired of a Sim).
But I could feel that Myst was different: the emotions it elicited in the player ran much deeper. There was a level of investment in the game and the story that was developed by the continued repetition of task: you were invested in it because it challenged you and made you focus solely on it.
Myst clones are everywhere, but The Witness feels like a game that saw what made Myst great, and built upon on it rather than just try to emulate it.
The Witness is a box full of line puzzles in some beautiful wrapping paper. The player navigates around a (lush, incredibly rendered) island, which is littered with screens. Interacting with the screens involves drawing a line from point A to point B. Of course, The Witness quickly adds on rules: there are colored dots on the screen, and no two dots of the same color can be in the same section; you now control two lines that are mirrors of each other and have to pass through certain points; this puzzle has some small triangles on it and what's that about?
The game does an amazing job teaching you the rules with no hand-holding. There are no written tutorials. You learn through iteration, with each iteration becoming increasingly complex.
I've seen mastery of the puzzles in The Witness analogized with learning a "language." This feels apt. The learning process is a difficult thing to describe; I've even had difficulty explaining what exactly a "line puzzle" is. ("Um, you are given a starting point--well, sometimes a couple of possible starting points--and then you make a line to an end? But there are sometimes other rules? You know it when you see it.")
But that disconnect, that one step away, from the absolutely explainable is what makes The Witness work. It taught me a communal language that we could share, a language that is difficult for me to translate in English (or any other spoken language). It's like twins who communicate to each other in a secret language that only they know.
In The Witness, the world the player enters isn't just the one rendered on a computer screen. It's an ad hoc one that is created in the interaction between Me and It. It's the space between us more than the rendered environment on the screen.
But it's easy to get lost in the game, too. More than once, I stumbled across something or solved a puzzle to reveal something hidden, and I had the immediate thought of "I'm the first one to do this." This flight of fancy is, obviously, wrong (I assume this game has been searched down to the last possible pixel; the internet is vast and the combined time people could spend on this is unfathomable), but it felt real. Even if I know that other folks have played this game/are playing this game/will play this game, my personal experience with it feels utterly mine.
It reminds me a bit of playing Kentucky Route Zero or Night in the Woods, but the difference here is that The Witness does it all with no clear story or characters to speak of. So, it's not that I'm attached to the story of anyone or anything in the game. I'm attached to the story that the game is asking me to build with it.
A world made for me
So far, I've talked about what's beautiful about the game, as well as what I found captivating about it. However, it's also infuriating. I have started texting friends in the middle of playing the game just to confirm whether or not I'm losing my mind.
I should also confess that I'm a glutton for punishment. My partner has, on more than one occasion, commented that I sometimes don't seem to read books for enjoyment, but instead gravitate towards ones that I have to actively fight with in order to finish (A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, The Wake, and [God help me] an adolescent love of House of Leaves all seem proof positive of this). I also love puzzles: I relax by playing room escape games on the internet, not to mention the times I've been in the "live" room escapes with friends.
But I'm also embarrassingly prone to checking for walk-throughs at the slightest hint of difficulty. I don't like to be wrong, and not knowing the answer to something is instantly upsetting to me. I'm the typical first-born child: a perfectionist and a micromanager. So, playing The Witness has been an ultimate exercise in self-control. Literally any puzzle that takes more than 10 minutes (and some take much, much more than that) becomes a battle of wills: what puzzle will be the one that finally breaks me?
But, surprisingly, this is the game that has me least excited to cheat. Since there's no clear story to go through, nor is there a clear "endgame," I'm not rushing to complete the puzzles to figure out what's going on (unlike, say, Myst). The puzzles exist just to be solved, not to propel me forward in the plot. This isn't to say that the game doesn't have something deeper running underneath: there's an air of mystery, but it's so opaque as to barely register as a major component of the game.
This opacity is what keeps me from cheating: I know that solving a puzzle just brings me to another puzzle, so I can't justify it in my head as to why I should look it up. The point of the game is the solving, not what that solving get you.
Like I said at the top: I'm honestly not sure I will finish this fame. It's not that I don't want to, I just know how I am. That's why I wanted to write this now: to hedge against that definitely possibility.
I also know that I would rather not finish the game than cheat and look up solutions online. I'd rather leave the world that the game and I created in tandem. I'd rather forget the shared language we learned. I'd rather do all that than break that spell.
But I do hope that I finish it. It's maddening, but there are also glorious highs when you solve a puzzle that's kept you in the dark for so long. For a moment, you feel like the smartest person in the world, right up until the game silently takes your hand and moves you on to the next.