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