The Witness
Developed by: Thekla Inc.
Published by: Thekla Inc.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4

Like most who have played an immodest number of video games, there are many I never completed.  The majority of those unfulfilled ventures I hardly think about. And, though I may never find eternal rest if I don’t finish reading “The Man Without Qualities,” I suppose I’ll scrape by if I don’t reach the credits of every Zelda game (and, hand over heart, I fancy Zelda plenty.)  But I’ve never spoken to anyone about how I’ve yet to reach the conclusion of “Braid” (2008) without broadcasting a pang of regret.

“Braid” is a 2d-puzzle-platformer coded by an artist. It’s a game about memory and fallibility that allows players to manipulate time. The game wants to make you think, not simply to serve as some diversion. Its puzzles demand conceptual insights, not twitch skills. Hoping to prove myself up to the task, I refused to look up solutions to its puzzles on YouTube. Consequently, somewhere along the way I got stymied. And, what can I say? Life intervened.

When I recently spoke with “Braid’s” creator Jonathan Blow, he said that one of the reasons he made it was because he felt that “games don’t try much to be expressive in the way that other artistic media are expressive. I want to do that. I want to show that you can make a game that [is artistically expressive] that is also a good game. … I want to say look… gameplay itself is a medium for being expressive. You don’t have to throw away the gameplay part to get an art part for games.”

Blow’s new open-world puzzle game, “The Witness,” is the monumental result of seven years work. He told me, “What I was doing all across this game was exploring the different flavors of non-verbal communication that games can have, which I think is important to understanding games as a medium.”

Set on an uninhabited island whose geography runs the gamut from an autumnal grove to a limestone quarry, “The Witness’s” sedate atmosphere is accentuated by its minimalist sound design. The landscape is dotted with architectural structures suggestive of different forms of human activity — a worksite, a church, a windmill, etc.  Wandering in and away from these sites, one encounters a cornucopia of puzzles. Many of these take the form of electric panels of varying dimensions.

The first couple of panels only require you to trace simple lines over their surfaces using the left analog stick. Soon, you’ll come across panels all over the island whose surfaces are laid out in grids. Deposited among many of these grids are shapes of varying colors and dimensions that require you to trace lines around them in accordance with a system of unwritten rules. For example, on some grids you might have to organize blocks of different colors into uniform groups by drawing precise, non-overlapping lines. What sounds like the epitome of a boring game mechanic, in practice makes for a mind-melting activity akin to learning a foreign language or working through mathematical problem sets.

With a calligrapher’s flair, the game keeps things interesting by building on its chains of symbolic logic. At one point, you’ll encounter a cluster of transparent panel grids stationed along some bluffs overlooking the sea. These require you to use what you’ve learned to trace objects in the background, as if you were a geometrician who decided to apply her craft to landscape art. Working through such tasks, naturally led me to consider things like representation and the myriad ways the mind can fail to accurately perceive the world. You needn’t be an academic to intuit that “The Witness” is designed to promote an internal dialogue within the player through its gameplay. On the phone, Blow told me, “The game is designed for people who are interested in going into a space and investigating what is going on — where what is going on is not even in an action type of sense but what are the ideas in this space.”

Sometimes, I feel like I’m very much a part of Blow’s target demographic. In an interview with The Guardian he said, “I want to make games for people who read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’” However, after fussing over a grid for well over thirty minutes, I wondered if my woefully inept mathematical imagination will prevent me from ever seeing the “The Witness” through.

During one particularly tricky puzzle, I enlisted the help of two of my friends, married physicists Jonathan Rameau and Sarah Campbell. In minutes, they breezed through puzzles I’d been stuck on for ages and then bantered about the solutions by referencing mathematical concepts.

When I asked Jon later to describe his insights into the game he said, in an email: “Puzzles in ‘The Witness’ are built from concepts like symmetry and graphically represented abstract algebras which physicists find the most aesthetically pleasing and fun to play with. This sort of thing shows up all over theoretical physics and math. The most challenging puzzles in the game are set up with progressively more complex examples of mathematical rules. This setup leads the player to think rigorously but be creative with what he or she has learned from previous examples and then apply them to more difficult, less obvious problems. This is exactly the kind of inspired reasoning skill we develop in our training and love applying to hard scientific problems. It’s a treat to exercise this mental muscle for fun and to move a story along.”

When I relayed my friend’s appraisal to Blow, he said, “That sounds accurate.”

“The Witness,” is a game that feels impossible for me to sum up as there are still an overwhelming number of secrets for me to discover. At present, all I can tell you is that I’ve found it to be daunting, confounding, maddening, and beautiful– altogether, in that order.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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