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I wanted to call this article “Playing ‘The Witness’ Feels Like Doing Math Homework and I Can’t Stop.” I was going to start it by describing what I think sounds like a math problem (I don’t really remember what math problems actually sound like):
Two trains leave the station, one from Los Angeles and one from San Francisco, traveling at 200 mile per hour…
Then I was going to describe some of The Witness’s typical puzzles, of which the game has hundreds, in similar terms:
Two lines leave their starting points, traveling at a speed equivalent to the depth to which the player depresses his or her controller’s right trigger. One line mirrors the other as you control it. The lines need to bisect a field of black and white blocks so that squares of a different shade are separated—or—the lines need to intersect with the nondescript dots placed strategically around the puzzle—or—they need to form various Tetris-like shapes, never overlapping—and ultimately reach an end point on the corners or sides of the puzzle.
But then I remembered, who the hell wants to do math homework? Who would want to play a game that I said feels like math homework, even if I explain that it’s like the good part of math homework—the part where you learn to solve well-designed conundrums and feel like you’re getting smarter in the process? The answer is: nobody. Not even me (especially not me). And that’s not really the best way to describe it anyway.
Too late, I know, but let me start again.
The Witness is only any good at all if you pretend the internet doesn’t exist while you play it. Then, it’s absolutely phenomenal—or at least it has the potential to be. That potential lives within each player: you will enjoy The Witness if you have the patience and the aptitude to get through the game’s first few hours, during which you’ll repeatedly think you understand it only to have your assumptions about how the game’s puzzles work thrown back in your confused-looking face over and over again.
Get past this hump, make some real progress, and you’ll start to feel like a certified genius (until the next new set of puzzles forces you to change the way you see the world again, and again, and again). Repeat until addiction sets in and you start seeing line puzzles on traffic signs, work memos and the backs of your eyelids when you try to go to sleep.
A GREAT BIG WORLD
The Witness takes place in possibly the most beautiful game world ever created (right up there with Another World and Journey in my book). You wake up at the far end of a long, featureless tunnel and emerge into a lush garden, and you start solving puzzles. There are puzzles in the trees, in the water and the flowers, in statues and windmills and hidden passages. There are puzzles in the birdsong and in elevators and in underground complexes whose purposes you can’t begin to divine. And they’re all beautiful.
They’re also maddening. The puzzles start out simple, and they never really become not-simple, but they do get tough—really tough.
It’s rare for video games these days to ask players to employ more than what’s immediately in front of them—on the screen—to overcome their challenges. Tutorials or clever level designs teach you everything you need to know, and if there’s a risk you’ll get lost, you probably have a map somewhere in your menus. In contrast: a friend of mine used to, half in wonder, tell me how his dad scrawled sheets and sheets of hand-drawn maps while playing 1994’s Super Metroid. Heck, my mom asked me to sit down and play Colossal Cave Adventure—the original text adventure, from 1976—with her over the holidays so she could reminisce about the notes and diagrams she and her college friends amassed to keep the game’s mazes and puzzles straight.
One notable recent exception to this is Fez, whose comparisons with The Witness are inevitable for a lot of reasons. Both Fez’s and The Witness’s creators, Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow respectively, are well known and outspoken game industry figures who were featured in the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie, which chronicled the challenges they and others faced as pioneering indie game developers. Fez, released that year, went so far as to present players with a QR code in the game world that led to a website with a puzzle solution on it (QR code scanner apps were a lot less common back then).
The Witness is never as brazen, and I suppose that some players can solve all the game’s puzzles without resorting to the tricks I had to use. But where Fez asked me to download an app, The Witness made me create my own, out of sticky notes, lined paper, sharpies, and highlighters—office supplies, in other words (thanks Playboy).
You need to understand that Blow worked on The Witness for something like eight years—think about that—and he’s been showing it off in various forms almost as long. Another friend last week pulled up a picture on his phone from a game development talk Blow gave at his college in 2010, where Blow was already showing off the type of puzzles that eventually came to define The Witness. That’s kind of amazing.
But despite that, little was actually known of The Witness prior to its release. It remained oddly mysterious, and one of the big questions was whether what Blow had shown of it so far, at press events, on stages and in trailers, was the whole of it—whether we’d actually spend the entire experience tracing lines on grids peppered with arcane symbols.
The answer is “yes.” There is only one way you interact with this world: not by jumping, or picking things up, or doing any of the other things video games usually let you do, but solely by drawing lines.
When I learned that I feared The Witness would quickly grow stale, but it doesn’t. It’s concrete proof that there is no limit to how far a truly skilled designer can stretch one simple concept. And it turns out my brain can’t stretch quite far enough to keep up on its own.
As I explored the game’s small but ridiculously dense (and, again, gorgeous) island environment, the puzzles quickly became too difficult for me to solve on my own. A couple of hours in I began encountering puzzles, on a beach, in a forest, on a mountaintop, that displayed Tetris-like symbols. I had no idea how to solve them, and everywhere I ran into one I simply placed a mental bookmark there (I eventually began taking notes of all my unsolved puzzles) and moved on to a different area. I began to feel stuck, and not in a fun, I’m-so-close-to-solving-this way. Narcissistic millennial that I am, I live-tweeted basically my whole journey through this game, and this is what the first couple looked like:
I don’t WANT help with The Witness. I want to be smart enough to figure it all out on my own. But I think I NEED help.— Mike Rougeau (@RogueCheddar) January 27, 2016
Actually I think I’m giving up on The Witness— Mike Rougeau (@RogueCheddar) January 27, 2016
I didn’t give up. I kept playing the next evening, and I found the boat. On the boat, there is a map, and on the map, there are symbols that tell you, essentially, which area of the island to venture to if you want to learn how to solve a specific type of puzzle.
I found the Tetris piece on the map, and I went to that location, and I tried to learn, and I mostly failed. These were (and are) a bitch:
Can anyone offer me a hint here I am literally on my deathbed pic.twitter.com/fplN8yRX6v— Mike Rougeau (@RogueCheddar) January 28, 2016
But I figured it out, and I did so by extending my methods beyond the game itself into real life. I took screenshots and manipulated the images in PhotoShop. I took photos with one phone, then held that phone in front of the bathroom mirror and took a second photo with another phone, to gain a mirrored image of some puzzles.
I feel I may have crossed a line here but I can’t stop now pic.twitter.com/pc7uCuD1K5— Mike Rougeau (@RogueCheddar) January 29, 2016
And I traced and placed and ripped up dozens of sticky note Tetris pieces, sometimes rearranging them continuously for 45 minutes at a time to solve a single puzzle.
A lot of writers pitched me articles on The Witness. Eight years in the making, unbelievably beautiful and smart and poignant, it’s kind of a big deal. The pitches were all great, because there’s a lot to say about this game. But to me, the lengths it made me go to solve its mysteries—some of them, at least, as I’m not even done yet—is what’s most amazing.
I could have caved. A few days after the game’s launch there were already a million places to simply look up the solutions to any of the game’s hundreds of puzzles. But that would, quite literally, ruin it.
In most games that have puzzles—as opposed to straight up puzzle games like Tetris or even Candy Crush—the puzzles are a means to move the story forward or make players feel engaged with the world. They’re obstacles in the way of progress, and the reward for solving them is that you get to continue playing the rest of the game. But The Witness is more like a crossword puzzle than a typical video game; you might want to occasionally consult a dictionary, and you’ll definitely feel the urge to ask a friend for help once in a while—which is fine. But simply looking up the answers renders the whole thing meaningless.
So even if playing The Witness sometimes makes you feel like this—
This shit can die in a grease fire pic.twitter.com/t23g8qB05l— Mike Rougeau (@RogueCheddar) February 5, 2016
…and it most certainly will—play it like it’s 1994, or even 1976: with a pad of paper and a ruler, and a group of friends or family who you’ll brain-meld with 20 or 30 distant years in the future so you can reminisce about the good old days, in 2016, when video games were hard and the world was a brighter, more mysterious place.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He’s solved over 400 puzzles in The Witness and he’s eager to solve more. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.