Revisiting The Witness

Okay, I have to backpedal a little bit.  A few weeks ago I ran a couple posts critiquing Thekla, Inc.’s indie puzzle game The Witness.  My general impression was that I enjoyed the gameplay, but the philosophical underpinnings left me a little cold.  A lot of my opinion of the game was pretty heavily influenced by this review, which I read not long after I started playing the game the first time.  I still think it’s a fantastic piece of criticism, and it pulls in a lot of threads that influenced my opinion of the game even as I was largely unable to articulate precisely why.  After an evening out with Rachael where we spent a lot of time discussing literary storytelling, including in relation to The Witness, I finally admitted that I had been looking at the game with a major bias, and I probably hadn’t given it a fair shake.

About a week before that conversation I had with Rachael, I started up a second play through of The Witness, largely because I was between games and it was already there on the PS4.  The core appeal of the game for me, the puzzle solving mechanic, was enough of a draw that as I published my first post kind of bad mouthing the game, I became immersed in it for a second time.  This second play through was significantly faster than the first time.  Already being familiar with most of the puzzle mechanics helped immensely with running through and unlocking various areas, and in time I managed to find and finish all of the island’s sections (I had completely overlooked one of the segments).  I spent more time exploring the environment itself (mostly looking for the perspective based puzzles) and enjoying the little details I found tucked away in various areas (there’s one nook at the terminus of a side path where there’s a statue of a dog; there’s nothing else to the area that I noticed, just the visual reward of finding another weird statue).  When I encountered a few puzzles that I had solved previously but which I didn’t want to spend time working out solutions for again, I just looked their answers up.  Essentially, I gave myself permission to explore the game how I liked, and generally I found it a more rewarding experience.

Rachael pointed out to me that there were some perspective puzzles incorporated into the video clips that can be played in the underground theater on the island, and once she helped me find a couple of them, I got really excited about finding the rest.  It was a cool idea to build that kind of intricacy into the environment, and though I didn’t find all of those puzzles, I did enjoy the search (most of the video clips that I found were pretty interesting as well; I especially enjoyed the GDC talk that was presented in the longest video, which just has the visual of a moon transitioning from full to eclipse over the roughly hour long run time; its subject is the human fascination with hidden patterns in art, and it was clearly pretty influential for Blow and his team in designing The Witness).  I’d call it one of the high points of the game for me.

Another thing that I quite enjoyed was the Challenge, a small course of randomized puzzles that the player has to complete in order to unlock the vault where the pattern for the aforementioned video clip is stored.  It’s a very different sort of puzzle game, as everything is algorithmically generated and there’s a hard time limit set in place.  It’s not a relaxing, pensive experience the way the rest of the game is, and while I know I complained last time about accessibility of game mechanics (I must admit that for all the difficulty built into the standard puzzles of The Witness, their controls are extremely forgiving, and there’s no punishment for taking as long as necessary to figure out each solution), I can’t help admitting that I found the Challenge exhilarating.

One other thing that I explored, and I admit here that I looked up the solution for finding this because I simply wanted to see it, is the secret ending where the player opens a portal to a luxury hotel filled with game credits and culminating in a short video of a person waking up from some kind of VR simulation of the island.  The tone of the video is a lot more neutral than I was led to believe by the above review, and after discussing it with Rachael we agreed that it can be read in a much more positive light as someone who’s emerged from the game and begun seeing the patterns and connections in actual nature that are implied within the game world (this reading fits with the general theme of the game’s multitude of audio logs that emphasize various forms of universal connectivity).

My general opinion of The Witness‘s themes is a lot less negative now than it was after the first playthrough, but I still can’t quite shake old biases.  Some pessimistic part of me wants to embrace the cynicism of thinking that Thekla produced a game that’s wrapped in so many layers of artifice that its assertions about interconnection are mostly pat platitudes.  My optimistic side enjoys the way The Witness gathers a pretty eclectic pool of sources together to demonstrate a repeated communal pattern.  Whichever opinion I prefer on a given day is likely to be dependent entirely on my mood.

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