Zen and The Art of Puzzle Solving: The Witness Review

This review was originally published on February 22, 2016.

And there it was.

Midway through my first play through of The Witness, I experienced a small, calm, unceremonial epiphany. I hadn’t found a new piece of information that connected disparate threads, nor had I triggered a revelatory programmed event. I was simply solving some low level puzzles when everything suddenly clicked.

For about an hour, I had been steadily solving puzzles in the quarry when I suddenly realized that, while staring at the grid in front of me, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I was totally focused in a blissful, zen way. I was accidentally meditating. Even when consciously trying, I had never been able to meditate like this before. I’d tried a few times doing the whole leg-crossing, “om” thing but I was unable to completely empty my mind like I was instructed to. But now, while playing this decipherable puzzle game, that’s exactly what happened.

It felt almost profound, my centeredness. It felt like I had learned something, and yet, paradoxically, that something was nothing. That something was emptiness. And in that moment, I thought to myself: “ah, so that’s what you’re trying to do here, isn’t it?”

It’s no surprise that speculation about The Witness’s meaning runs rampant. The game seems to demand it. It is, after all, set on a mysterious island that evokes both the elegant mystique of Myst and the pure confusion of TV’s Lost. Somehow the island is divided into climate zones featuring everything from a scorched desert to a snow-capped mountain. The lack of any written text or signage only increases the mystery. There are no cutscenes, no explanations. What is going on here?

The 600+ puzzles scattered throughout the landscape double down on the game’s obfuscation. Each puzzle is found on a grey, touchscreen-style panel (at first). The object is to trace a line across a grid from a start point to an end point. The the rules dictating the path of that line vary from puzzle to puzzle. Some require logical deduction, some require environmental observation. None of this explained, it can only be learned through trial and error.

Any story The Witness contains is about as concretely explained as the puzzle’s rules. Tiny MP3 players are hidden across the island, but it feels misleading to call them audio logs. A few seem to indeed be diary entries recorded by potential island inhabitants, but most just contain decontextualized recitations of quotes from scholars spanning the spectrum of obscurity. Beyond a few bizarre stone statues, this is the totality of the story.

But, as if all of that weren’t enough, the factor most stoking the need for some sort of explanation, the thing seemingly guaranteeing there must be some deep meaning, is the fact this game took a whopping seven years to be completed by none other than Jonathan Blow.

Since releasing Braid in 2008, Jonathan Blow has developed a complicated persona. Braid, a deeply complex work that used time travel to twist and distort Super Mario style gameplay in the service of telling a heavily veiled narrative, became a smash hit. It arrived just in time to be a sizzling piece of evidence in the evolving “are games art?” debate. Blow, the solo creative force behind the game, was heralded as one of the first videogame designers that might one day be mentioned beside Picasso or, at least, Spielberg.

But there’s more to Blow’s reputation than a brilliant indie game. The flip side of his brilliance is that he often speaks directly and harshly about other videogames. He’s often correct, but in the most caustic possible ways. In a 2012 piece in The Atlantic entitled “The Most Dangerous Gamer,” Blow is quoted as saying “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity.” Kill Screen started a series of posts entitled, “Unsurprisingly, Jonathan Blow hates…” featuring his strongly worded tweets railing against everything from watermarks to “achievements and your distracted lifestyle.”

But Blow doesn’t strike me as a pointless contrarian. He doesn’t even strike me as a Kanye West-style, id-driven celebrity. If you asked him what is behind all this, he would just say that he is trying make a work that is to games what Gravity’s Rainbow is to literature. Rainbow, a supremely dense, 776 page, tangent ridden novel by Thomas Pynchon, is widely regarded as brilliant. It won the 1976 National Book Award and would have probably won the Pulitzer had it not contained descriptions of coprophilia. (I’ll save you the Google search: copro is feces.) But, of course, it’s also 776 pages of extremely detailed writing. It’s not exactly a pleasant literary journey.

So, to sum it up: Jonathan Blow made a brilliant game called Braid, and now that he has tons of money he’s spending it to create a game called The Witness that, if the interviews are to be believed, is going to be resemble a gargantuan prize-winning novel. Many hype trains have traveled through the videogame station, but none as unique as this one. If this thing actually works, if Blow is the genius he purports to be, if the seven years were really worth it, this should be a unique, brilliant, transcendent game.

And damn it, it is.

But it isn’t brilliant for the usual reasons. Although The Witness does excel at certain goals pulled from the Imaginary Universal Game Design Rubric (ex: it is very good at teaching the player without explicit explanation and the environment is both aesthetically pleasing and functional), it fails at almost all others. The game never rewards the player for their accomplishments (unless you consider more puzzles a reward). The story is so sparse it seems almost forgotten about. And, if you spent the weekend powering through the game in hopes that the end will contain answers, the conclusion may seem like it’s laughing in your face.

The refrain is that there’s nothing here. There are hundreds of questions but not a single answer. You get nothing for succeeding. You get nothing for failing. There is no story to follow. Julie Muncy called it “a sterile, lifeless videogame.” There is nothing here.

You can stop searching. If you are looking for the one thing that ties everything together, the one hidden key to unlock the master door of The Witness, don’t worry: it doesn’t exist. But there are a few videos buried deep in the game that may explain or, at least, contextualize what is happening here.

One of those videos features a person asking, “What is here when I stop trying to get anything?” She’s talking broadly about life, but try asking that question about The Witness. What is here when I stop trying to get anything? When I stop thinking about what’s next, when I stop trying to complete this, when I stop trying to feel complete, what is left?

If you experience the same thing I did in the quarry, the answer is obvious: nothing. A nothingness that is so serene and total that it is all encompassing. A nothing that is everything.

The Witness is like a Zen Garden; it is an abstract representation of nature that is designed to facilitate meditation. Much of that is obvious: the sights and sounds are calming and soothing. And although determining the path for a puzzle can be frustrating, the actual process of inputting it is simple and mindless.

Neither of these guarantee enlightenment, but they gently push you towards it.

In that Atlantic article I mentioned earlier, Blow said he wanted The Witness to make players “step outside their human viewpoint and see what the world is.” If you’re lucky and open to the experience, that’s exactly what it does.

One day, after playing The Witness, I was driving down a road when I saw a cloud hanging low in the sky, sharply reflecting the setting sun. I was transfixed by it. Sure, it was conventionally beautiful, but something about it reminded me of The Witness. I imagined tracing its outline like one of the line puzzles but, of course, silly me, this was the real world. I kept staring at the cloud for a moment or two before looking away. I knew exactly why it was so interesting but I struggled to put it into words. I opened my mouth to describe it to my passenger but then exhaled without a word.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Nothing.” I said.

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Chris On Videogames

Chris On Videogames

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Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.