by Adi Stein
My relationship with The Witness is... tumultuous. When puzzles are clicking and areas are being unlocked, things are hot and heavy. Finally figuring out the solution to a puzzle that has haunted and teased me for hours brings me the same level of satisfaction as defeating a boss in a Souls game. But when things are obscure or I’m stuck on a puzzle, I drop the game hard and fast. I’ll move on to other games, watch something on TV, and do generally anything other than engaging with the game.
Now I know what those of you who have played The Witness are thinking. “But Adi, the point is to walk away from the puzzles. Try another one and come back later with a clear head.” And sometimes that works, but the truth is I want to finish the puzzle I’m stuck on. I want to clear this area before I move on to another one. So this puzzle doesn’t feel like an option to me; it feels like the only option. So I shut down. Get frustrated. Blame the game. Blame myself. Anything but actually figure it out. I pick up something mindless and fun to play instead. A Just Cause 3 or a Broforce. I blow things up and declare war on a dictatorship that I couldn’t care less about. I clear my mind.
Then, after days of not playing the game, I’ll boot it back up, take two steps left, look down, and see the solution that has literally been under my nose the whole time. A powerful sense of euphoria surges through my brain as I come to understand that I am the smartest person who has ever lived. No one else could possibly have solved this and I did it within mere seconds of coming back to the game. And with that adrenaline rush, my passionate love affair with The Witness regains momentum.
But here’s the thing: after months of playing this game, I still haven’t finished it. I’ve explored the island for what has to have been dozens of hours. I’m completed over 400 puzzles. I’ve filled in confusing black totems and listened to hours of philosophical ramblings about the human condition, religion, and the meaning of life. But I have not yet finished the game. As I write this I am well into The Mountain (if that means anything to you) and I am currently stuck on one beast of an intricate puzzle which, as you’ve just learned, means that I haven’t played the game in about a week.
And that’s actually okay, which is totally bizarre to me. See, I’m the kind of person who always sees a game through to the end. I’ve probably played hundreds, if not thousands, of games over the course of my life and I could name on one hand the list of games that I’ve started and not finished. So to me, the idea that I won’t finish The Witness isn’t realistic. I’m really enjoying the game. I’m going to finish it. It just might not be this year. But that’s good!
While the gaming landscape is more diverse than ever, there is still an urgency that exists is most games. We need to save our family, solve a murder, save the world, or deal with any number of serious, life threatening situations. Largely speaking, modern video games are about forward moments. Yes you have games like Gone Home and Her Story that let you explore the environment and situation at your own pace, but for every Gone Home there are 15 Call of Duty’s. This urgency has largely created an environment where impulse and instant reactivity trump thought and gentle exploration. It’s created a situation in which I feel like I can’t help but finish, within weeks, every game I start.
But The Witness is different. It throws you into its bright, colorful, mysterious world and says, “Explore it at your leisure.” Yes there are right answers to every puzzle, but there is no “right” path through the game. From the moment it starts you can go anywhere and try any puzzle. You might not understand every symbol or be able to solve every puzzle but the game leaves it up to you to learn that.
That freedom instantly sets the tone of the game. It tells you, the player, that you set the pace and you decide what to tackle. It trusts your intelligence and ability to overcome every challenge. It doesn’t care how long it takes you. It doesn’t care if you give up. Much like Her Story, you can try it out at any time and in any order and what you get out of it is directly tied to what you put into it. For me, after hours and hours of elation and frustration I know what I’ve gotten out of it: patience.
With so many games coming out on a regular basis, I often feel rushed through experiences if only so that I can stay relevant in conversations about gaming today. But The Witness has taught me that “staying relevant” doesn’t matter. What matters is the satisfaction of conquering my own challenges; taking my time to draw a puzzle and solve it with a pen and some paper or going back to a section on the other side of the map to relearn a symbol that I thought I knew. It doesn’t matter if I finish the game within some arbitrary, socially defined timeframe. I mean, I’m just now writing about this game which came out two months ago. What matters is that I get some sense of my own satisfaction from exploring a beautiful world filled with complex mysteries.
I’m not a patient person. Ask almost anyone that knows me. “Patient” is not a word they word use to describe me. But The Witness has allowed me to slow down, take in the bigger picture, and finish the game at my own speed. I haven’t received the Platinum on it. I haven’t even finished it. But I’m really enjoying my time with the game, which is probably why I’m okay with just relaxing on the island and solving a few puzzles when I get the chance.