Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later


Steven Poole puz­zles over the in­tri­ca­cies of The Wit­ness

What is a puz­zle? The et­y­mol­ogy of the word it­self is puz­zling. The Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary sug­gests pos­si­ble deriva­tions from ear­lier Euro­pean words about be­ing be­wil­dered when try­ing to choose. And in English, the state of be­ing puz­zled is, from the late 16th cen­tury, that of be­ing con­fused or at a loss. This is how videogames of­ten try to make us feel, hope­fully in a plea­sur­able way. And they do this by be­ing filled with puz­zles.

Yet a puz­zle, in mod­ern English, has the sense of some­thing rather triv­ial. It’s some­thing that’s both dif­fi­cult and point­less. A puz­zle isn’t as se­ri­ous as a ‘ prob­lem’, some­thing a se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual might worthily at­tack. Lud­wig Wittgen­stein re­put­edly said there were no real prob­lems in phi­los­o­phy, only puz­zles. And in the lan­guage of chess books there’s an ev­i­dent hi­er­ar­chy of se­ri­ous­ness from chess puz­zles (which are for ju­niors or begin­ners), to prob­lems (for the sea­soned player), to stud­ies (the most el­e­gant and artis­tic prob­lems).

But in games, we don’t talk of prob­lems or stud­ies; only puz­zles. And this lit­tle word is used for a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of ways the game might chal­lenge the player. You might have to work out how a gi­ant, el­dritch ma­chine spread through sev­eral rooms is sup­posed to work. Or you might have to find the right key­card to open a door. Per­haps you’ll have to roll a heavy ball through a booby-trapped maze, or just slide some vir­tual tiles around to com­plete an im­age. A puz­zle can be a grand chal­lenge of many in­ter­lock­ing de­duc­tions and phys­i­cal ac­tions, or it can be a con­nect-the-pipes minigame.

Con­nect-the-pipes minigames, as it hap­pens, are the ba­sis for the hun­dreds of puz­zles in Jonathan Blow’s The Wit­ness. And this ex­tra­or­di­nary game, with its lovely echo­ing cab­ins, sur­re­ally hy­per-sat­u­rated is­land flora, and its glo­ri­ous build­ings and struc­tures, is not just a game filled with puz­zles. It’s about solv­ing puz­zles, and also about learn­ing and teach­ing. It con­cen­trates on one of the most ap­par­ently triv­ial and fa­mil­iar kinds of videogame puz­zle and ex­pands its pos­si­bil­i­ties re­lent­lessly, to an al­most hal­lu­cino­genic de­gree.

The game teaches the player, word­lessly and quite bril­liantly, how to play it. As the sim­ple maze puz­zles at the be­gin­ning ram­ify re­lent­lessly with new twists, the fa­nat­i­cally sys­tem­atic way in which this is done re­minds me of noth­ing so much as the pro­ce­dures of learn­ing a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, or of de­vel­op­ing a mu­si­cal theme in com­po­si­tion. When you’re learn­ing to play the pi­ano, you first be­gin play­ing scales with both hands in par­al­lel. Later, you’re in­tro­duced to ‘con­trary mo­tion’, in which the left hand goes down the key­board while the right hand si­mul­ta­ne­ously goes up the key­board, be­fore they re­verse di­rec­tion and meet again in the middle. It is freak­ily dif­fi­cult at first. And so is the mo­ment when Blow in­tro­duces con­trary mo­tion to his puz­zles, with two paths snaking around the maze in op­po­site di­rec­tions at once. Other vari­a­tions are in­tro­duced by ma­nip­u­la­tions through mir­ror in­ver­sion or ro­ta­tional sym­me­try, just as with the se­ri­al­ist tech­nique of gen­er­at­ing new tone rows in modernist com­po­si­tion.

Each set of puz­zles is also a tiny para­ble of the learn­ing process. When a novel rule is in­tro­duced – ei­ther within the puz­zle, or some­how out­side it – you’re urged through the same mi­cro-nar­ra­tive of hy­poth­e­sis-test­ing, fail­ure, and the even­tual tremen­dous sat­is­fac­tion of the “Aha!” mo­ment. Chal­lenged, mon­strously yet be­nignly, you end up chal­leng­ing your­self any­way. Sure, you can of­ten stum­ble through a puz­zle by trial and er­ror. But the plea­sure is far greater when you’ve stared it down and con­structed the cor­rect so­lu­tion in your head first.

The Wit­ness is bril­liant and mes­meris­ing, and oddly men­tally re­fresh­ing. How pleas­ant to play a game with no lengthy back­track­ing, no un­skip­pable FMV, no repet­i­tive grind­ing. But it’s fair to ask what it all adds up to. Yes, one may ad­mire its dis­dain for su­per­fi­cial orig­i­nal­ity, com­bined with its deep orig­i­nal­ity in the al­most philo­soph­i­cal de­vo­tion to ex­plor­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of pathfind­ing chal­lenges. But in mu­sic, or in writ­ing, or what­ever dif­fi­cult thing you like to do away from the con­sole, there are end­less puz­zles ev­ery day in the ser­vice of some­thing greater. Is The Wit­ness any­thing more than a kind of gi­ant an­i­mated com­pen­dium of su­doko puz­zles? What does it all mean? It’s in pro­vok­ing that ques­tion, per­haps, that its cun­ning artistry lies.

Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

How pleas­ant to play a game with no lengthy back­track­ing, no un­skip­pable FMV, no repet­i­tive grind­ing

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