Gameplay Time: The Sublime Frustration of The Witness

Note: The Witness is best played with as little knowledge of the game as possible. I personally advise you to play it yourself before reading about it.

The Witness. An island, some puzzles, no characters or written instructions. Released in 2016, it’s one of the hardest games I’ve played, and absolutely the most satisfying. Lead designer and gameplay wizard Jonathon Blow (Thekla, Inc.), has very particular ideas about the gameplay experiences he wants to give us. His core philosophy seems to be ‘trust your players to be smart,' and he’s not the kind of developer to do things half-way. The Witness doesn’t patronize or spoon-feed. That’s not to say that it doesn’t teach you how to play, but it makes sure to teach you in ways unique to the medium. It rewards players for making an effort to understand the gameplay and figure things out. The game is also acutely aware of how frustrating it can be and uses interesting methods to make this a positive part of the experience.

Open a game, any game. Whichever game you picked, it's going to have to teach you how to play before you can play. Some games have an NPC give you instructions, with developers attempting (often poorly) to disguise this as plot. For instance, the first moments of Halo, where you wake up after being in cryostasis and are asked to look around by moving the mouse so that “your space armour can be calibrated.” Other games take a bigger gulp from the devil’s cup and actually pause the game every few moments to give you an audio or text tutorial. Both of these solutions are pretty awful -- any instance where a player loses control of their character to be given instructions halts the experience, puts distance between them and the gameplay, and takes away their agency and sense of control. These situations can make players feel pretty patronized, too.

In The Witness, there is no guiding NPC or instructional text. Players are given a problem and, if they choose to solve it, they will learn something about how the game works. You’ll notice the ‘tutorial’ if you know what you’re looking for, but Blow has ensured that it’s subtle and clever enough to avoid the pitfalls listed above. Players find themselves facing a door with a simple maze on it. They click it, experiment for a little while, and realize they can draw a line on the maze. Solve the maze, the door opens. This leads to a courtyard strewn with more maze puzzles. The player solves a puzzle; a wire lights up, they follow the wire to a gate, and draw the conclusion that solving all the puzzles in the courtyard will open the gate. All they have to do is an experiment, to think for themselves. Jon Blow is trusting them to be smart enough to do that. 

Every journey begins with a single step; every solution with a single burst of understanding.

Every journey begins with a single step; every solution with a single burst of understanding.

The area teaches gameplay. It also introduces how the game deals with reward. The core reward in The Witness is achievement. The sense of satisfaction at having figured something out, at having solved a difficult problem. The game tries hard not to let other motivators cloud or diminish this. Look at other bestselling games, and consider what they give players for doing a good job. Badges that provide players with some real-world social status, a cutscene that progresses plot, more lives so that players can crush candy for a few more minutes. That’s not to say any of these are necessarily bad things, although I agree with Jonathon Blow that some reward systems are inherently unethical. But if we’re making a game that explores gameplay, that takes gameplay to exciting new heights; it’s nice to let gameplay create its own reward. In this way we have a product that is designed holistically, every aspect of it focussing on the same thing. In this introductory area, that’s what we see, from our first interaction. ‘Drawing a line on this maze opens the door. And I figured that out all by myself.’ 

The game is hard. Blow trusting his players to be intelligent. This is the only puzzle game where I’ve had to pull out a pen and paper to draw some of the puzzles, just to make sense of what I was seeing on-screen. Whether this detracts from the immediacy of the game experience is hard to judge. But the end result was that when I, after tens of minutes of trying, finally figured out a puzzle, I felt an incredible wave of satisfaction. One of the most important high-level considerations in puzzle games is the balance between frustration and success. Make things too easy, and there’s no satisfaction. The ‘win’ feels undeserved. Make things too hard, and players will stop playing. The Witness often strays into ‘too hard,' but it doesn't feel like an accident. The game accounts for player frustration and provides ways to manage it. 

Exploration is a great way for players to blow off steam. The game world is an island that’s split into a wide variety of areas, each with its own visual style, showing striking variations in environment, architecture, color palette and soundscape. These areas are full of interesting little distractions, from statues in interesting poses to perspective tricks, to paths lost in the trees that ask us to investigate. There are little devices lying around that play audio recordings, as well as unusual and inventive puzzles that can only be discovered through exploration, and that carry their own very special sense of satisfaction once completed. 

These areas are used to split the game’s core puzzles into discrete groups, each group featuring a particular gameplay concept. Each concept requires players to think about it in a particular way to succeed, similarly to how Tetris and Snake require different ways of thinking. When frustrated, players can walk to a different area of the island to try out a different puzzle type and engage their brain in a different way -- a more ‘productive’ break than simple exploration. Players are taught, if they didn’t already know, that hammering away at an intellectual issue for an extended period is not an effective way to solve it. If they put the problem down, do something else and then return to the problem, they are more likely to have success. This is key in a game like this, where players are fully engaged with the process of problem-solving, chasing the feeling of satisfaction and success. By giving players multiple possible activities to complete, Blow gives players opportunities to chase these feelings while never putting them in a position where their overall progress is halted. No matter how incredibly frustrating a particular puzzle chain is, players are never made to feel that they cannot progress, and this makes a massive difference.

When I played through The Witness, I went all in. I was fascinated by it. I dedicated time to it. I dreamed about it. When I finished it, I had to take a walk. The Witness got me really excited about gameplay. It’s not a perfect game, and it’s not for everyone. Perhaps therein lies its success -- by not aiming for the mass-market, Blow could tailor the experience, express what he wanted to express and take gameplay risks that produced gold. Blow asks players to try their hardest and demands genuine understanding for success. The result is that if players make it to the end of the game, there’s no doubt that they’ll grasp the true depth and breadth of the gameplay ideas being explored. The interaction between developer and player will have been richer. And, in a strange way, without the fluff and achievements and ‘watch this ad to unlock more lives’ nonsense, the interaction between developer and player becomes a little more honest, and a little more intimate.

This won’t be the last time I write about The Witness or Jonathon Blow -- they’re posed to be incredibly important as we move forward in this exciting and ever-changing industry. In the meantime, what did you think of The Witness? How many handfuls of hair did you lose? Did it inspire you to do anything with your own game development ambitions? Let me know in the comments!