It seems like it wasn't that long ago when a lot of people were grappling with the question of what constitutes intrinsic versus extrinsic value. How do we create games with a greater measure of intrinsic value, games that reward players with feelings of satisfaction and gratification through the mere act of playing the game? And how do we—at the same time—avoid the ethical pitfalls of extrinsic motivation as it relates to psychological or behavioral manipulation?
It's a topic that a lot of much smarter people than I (as well as, I assume, a few amateurs and pretenders) pondered and theorized about in books, blog posts, and maybe a few TED Talks. It also coincided, strangely enough, with a corresponding movement in business culture, as major companies were beginning to hire game design and "gamification" experts in the hopes of creating new tools and methods by which to capture audience attention and engagement for their products and services. It turned out there was money to be made not just in games but in their DNA.
This is all based on my own outsider impressions. Just some vague recollections of a time when the field of game studies seemed to be gaining newfound momentum, shifting in the direction of a more enlightened territory of understanding and public appreciation. I'm sure these types of discussions are still being had in their various spheres and corners of the internet and the academic world at large, but it feels like a lot has changed in just a few short years. Maybe the great Gamergate dumpster fire of 2014 caused the game luminaries to retreat from the public spotlight. Maybe cultural criticism all but suffocated our collective appetite for other forms of discourse. Maybe nothing so drastic changed at all, and I just stopped following the right people on Twitter.
Whatever the case, I find it a little bit unfortunate that The Witness came out in 2016, because I think it's a game that feels so ripe for examination in terms of those fundamental questions of what actually compels us to play games at all.
Best known as the follow-up to Braid, the highly influential 2D puzzle platformer developed by Jonathan Blow (one of the primary subjects of the popular Indie Game: The Movie), it was a game that came with high expectations. Many people were curious to see if Blow would live up to his reputation—deserved or not—as one of gaming's most thoughtful and introspective figures. Admire him or hate him, it was hard to deny Braid's status as a landmark title.
I myself was neither all that hot nor cold in my reception to Braid when I played it in 2012, a good chunk of time after its initial 2008 release on the Xbox 360. At times it felt like a somewhat clumsy mashup of experimental game mechanics and ill-conceived narrative framework, the latter of which manifested in a series of prose snippets that players could read in between levels. While they seemed to convey a narrative of sorts, it was a purposefully opaque one, intended (it seems) to color the player's interpretation of the game's ultimate meaning, as well as the meaning of its various elements.
I found that part of the game—the quasi-narrative part—too cryptic and uninteresting to really care. And the rest of Braid? It was OK. The ideas were certainly impressive, but it felt at times like a chore to collect all of the various puzzle pieces that would unlock the final stages. Some of the puzzles I solved through brute force tactics—weaving the player character through slightly different patterns of movement until the solution clicked—leaving me with only a partial understanding of how I had managed to spring the lock. I did a lot of thinking and experimenting without necessarily feeling as if I'd learned anything worthwhile in the end.
As such, I came to The Witness at the end of 2017 not with great hopes or anticipation but simply out of curiosity. Similar to a lot of high-profile games, it enjoyed a pretty warm and favorable reception upon its initial release, later tempered by a greater volume of more sober and critical takes after the fact. Having recently finished the main game, I find it to be something quite special indeed. But it's a game that didn't hook me right away.
I enjoyed the first few hours, managing to solve a few sets of puzzles as I poked my way around the game's open-world setting. That setting was intriguing with its winding paths and grand architecture but also cold and intimidating with its abundance of gated-off sections, locked away behind so many inscrutable puzzles. For every puzzle I managed to solve, I probably stumbled on three or four others bearing symbols or solutions that made no apparent sense.
At the time I thought it might be a game I would tackle in short bursts over a longer span of time, something I could come back to in between other games. But then I sort of ignored it. The prospect of playing and not making progress made it something of a nonstarter. That was the case for quite a few months until I talked my wife into playing it. Much in the same way as I had done, she wandered around for a couple hours, managed to turn on one of the game's 11 laser beams, but then got completely turned off after stumbling across a handful of hidden audio logs and video clips. I think she had begun to sense a rotten ethos at the core of The Witness, that the game was being pretentious and manipulative in its conveyance of pseudo-spiritual/philosophical ideas. More on that later.
It's not easy to talk about The Witness without—to some extent—spoiling a portion of the experience. The moment you start playing, you start learning. If you know anything about it, you probably recall it as that game where you walk around a pretty island and draw lines on touchscreens to solve puzzles. And that would be an accurate description.
It all takes place on a small island, densely packed with various biomes, buildings, and landmarks. There's a town, a desert, a bamboo jungle to name just a few of the locales. There are sculptures, trees, gardens, buildings, and … touchscreen maze puzzles throughout. Each location is littered with sets of daisy-chained touch panels that, when activated and solved, typically grant access to new areas altogether.
Most of these maze puzzles take the form of a rectangular line grid, with one starting location (denoted by a circle) and one ending point. The most basic rule is that the line you draw cannot intersect itself. It must instead run its course in serpentine fashion from beginning to end. But it's usually not enough to simply draw any line from start to end. The puzzle is only solved by drawing the correct path. And that path can only be determined either by deciphering a series of symbols denoted on the screen itself or by finding other clues contained within the surrounding environment. It all depends on the particular puzzle.
What constitutes a rule or solution in one puzzle, however, may not be true in the very next iteration. It may require a new type of discovery. And that's where a lot of people probably lose patience, because the pattern of having to learn new rules and patterns never really ends.
But whereas some people encounter those obstacles and project a sense of unfairness or cruelty onto the part of Blow, I don't really see it that way myself. I never really viewed the relationship between Blow (the designer) and me (the player) as being hostile or antagonistic. The reason I say that is because I've played enough games that do feel cruel and unfair, but even then it typically has more to do with a lack of polish and attention to detail than with sinister motives on behalf of the developers. I'm thinking of games like old 2D platformers with their stubborn, weighty controls and their limited numbers of lives and continues—both of those things being products of their time. Or old point-and-click adventure games that hide their interactive components amid a clutter of pixels on the screen. They both can feel "unfair" at times, but really—I would argue—they mostly just lack a level of sophistication that justifies their difficulty, be it mental, physical, or otherwise.
Everything in The Witness exudes such a staggering level of care and intention, a stark contrast to most open-world games that feel sprawling and populated with cookie-cutter art assets and building types. The clarity of the art direction ensures that there is always enough visual information (sometimes just enough information) made available to the player. If a symbol on a panel doesn't make sense, there's a place on the island where it provides you a basic tutorial. If the puzzle's solution is based on observation, the perspective you require is always in the immediate vicinity. Even the trickiest or most eye-straining puzzle can be ironed out with a little bit of trial and error. I guess what I'm saying is The Witness is not as cruel as it seems, even if the frustration is by design.
On the contrary, my experience with playing through The Witness was one of growing trust and confidence in the game's design (and its designer). As I began to make steady progress on my to-do list of activating the 11 scattered laser beams—any seven of which are required to unlock the game's final endgame sequence—I felt a sense of momentum and empowerment foreign to so many of the triple-A games we so often refer to as "power fantasies." As challenging as the task might be, I knew in my person that I would be able to solve the puzzle eventually. And that confidence proved true.
About as soon as my wife all but swore off the game entirely, I decided to jump back in. And this time I was addicted. Having activated two of the 11 lasers during my first couple of play sessions, I spent about a weekend straight making my way through the rest of the main game. As slow and painstaking as it felt to work through the individual puzzles on the micro level, it felt like I was blazing through the game at the macro level. Another laser activated here. Another one here. Then another one. And another one.
All the while, each of those micro moments felt like a small triumph. If you had an audio recording of my entire playing experience, my most common recurring utterance would probably be: "This is impossible." Because even once you have learned the language of a new symbol type—an incredible "Eureka!" moment in its own right—it still doesn't detract from the challenge that comes with using your knowledge to solve the game's individual puzzles. It still takes an incredible amount of mental gymnastics, and at times it feels like building a bridge out of spare parts. It's like that sequence from Apollo 13 where the astronauts have to use a limited supply of junk and electric capacity to return their spaceship to planet Earth. Only in this case there's a guaranteed solution.
The best video game analog I can think of is 2010's Super Meat Boy. It's the only other game in recent memory that imparted such a similar feeling of overcoming the impossible time and again, of threading the needle through a series of increasingly labyrinthine puzzles. In Super Meat Boy, it was a feeling made manifest in a pattern of death and repetition, each failed attempt getting me steadily closer to achieving victory. The challenge in Super Meat Boy, of course, was one of reflex, timing, and physical dexterity. In The Witness, the challenge is based on logic and observation. Nonetheless, each failed attempt was like its own death, but with a penalty no harsher than the simple visual/auditory feedback that let me know I had not given the correct input. (Yes, there are a small handful of puzzles that require you to redo the previous puzzle upon failure, but these are very limited and usually meant to wean you away from your reliance on brute-force techniques.)
The reality is that, like with Super Meat Boy, there's probably a certain threshold that is going to limit a player's individual progress. It's twofold really. Some people simply don't have the patience to keep trying and failing. Other people may be at a different disadvantage. Just as Super Meat Boy's Dark World levels may as well be inaccessible to senior citizens or people with certain physical handicaps, I can only assume The Witness is not the friendliest game for people with color blindness or other visual impairments. Not to mention some people are just quicker at solving puzzles than other people. Are these things problematic? It probably depends on who you ask.
But let's go back, for a moment, to that idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In certain interviews, Blow readily admits his game is lacking in the kinds of flashy rewards that typically come with a lot of other games—the music and fireworks, say, of completing a level in a mobile puzzle game. I think what he's implying is that The Witness relies on that sense of intrinsic motivation that comes with solving puzzles for its own sake.
First off, I'm not totally convinced this is entirely the case. There are environmental rewards that come with solving puzzles in The Witness. It's in the cable glowing with fluorescent light that leads to the next activated puzzle screen. It's in the rusty, mechanical stirring of a motorized bridge that springs to life, the laser device that slowly emerges from its encased metal box at the conclusion of a long series of puzzles. These are all visual/auditory rewards that the game doles out at specific moments, and to me they offer far more satisfaction than the three-star completion of a level in Angry Birds. It's as if the world itself slowly bows in recognition to your ingenuity, tantalizes you with new views and vantages to its intricate, secret spaces. So there's that. But even these moments only reinforce what's already there.
If we're being honest, the whole notion of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation might be little more than a reskinning of the nature versus nurture debate. You probably just have to accept the fact that there's no easy way to distinguish between the two. We obviously have genes that predispose us toward certain kinds of enjoyment, and there are things and systems and other humans in the world that move us to act on those predispositions.
At the very least, I do appreciate how The Witness trusts enough in the value of its puzzle solving that it isn't compelled to shoehorn in those other bells and whistles—not even a traditional narrative!—that you're likely to see in other modern games.
I'll begin the long conclusion of this essay by confessing that I have no idea how The Witness derives its name. I was so caught up (obsessed, you could say) with just "finishing" the game that I paid very little attention to the deeper layer of puzzles that littered the virtual landscape. As soon as I had activated the 11th laser beam, I made my way to the top of the mountain where the lasers all converged. In my naivety, I had hoped the work was finished. In reality, it was simply yet another case of puzzles unlocking even more puzzles.
The endgame challenges proved to be just as exasperating as anything else—arguably more so in a few spots. It was here more than anywhere else where it felt like Blow was resorting to some fairly cheap tactics to make the puzzles a bit more challenging. My head hurt when I went to bed late Sunday night, only one last series of puzzles to go (although I didn't realize it until the next day). It could just as easily have been the result of staring at a TV screen all weekend as the mental exercise I'd been engaging in, but the feeling was undeniable. I had binged on the game too hard.
Having now completed what I consider to be the main game, I can still recall at least five touchscreen puzzles I encountered that have yet to be solved. Those are tangible items I could add to my completion checklist if I so choose to pursue more within the game. Then there's a whole load of puzzles of another sort altogether that I know are out there as well. After jumping online and reading more about the game, I see hints of a post-endgame puzzle series referred to as "The Challenge." Maybe it's the puzzle equivalent to Super Meat Boy's Dark World levels, or the anti-cube puzzles in Fez. Yes, it's all intriguing, but I don't think I'll be ready to dive back in for a while.
The thing is, I'm sure there's even more to this game than meets the eye. Exploring that layer of meaning, however, is just as optional as anything else in the game. I described earlier how my wife got turned off by the aforementioned audio and video clips. I told her it was possible to completely ignore that stuff and still enjoy the game. It was true for me. Maybe it's not the case for her.
I have a feeling there is some deeper narrative at the heart of The Witness and that there are hints to be found within the environment, maybe within the puzzles I've yet to solve. I'm not convinced it's worth my time to try and investigate. At the end of the day, my suspicion is that Jonathan Blow is still a more capable game designer than storyteller.
Are the intellectual musings found in the audio and video clips reflective of a worldview that Blow is espousing to the player, or are they rather the imagined philosophies of a fictional character? Just who is the architect of this strange, sterile island anyway? Is it all a simulation?
Part of the reason why I don't concern myself too deeply with these questions is that there's a perfectly satisfying real-world explanation for all of that. There is an architect of the island, and it is Jonathan Blow himself, along with his team of engineers, artists, architects, and designers. The experience was made for us. The same goes for every mysterious video game world in existence, from the multidimensional universe of Fez to the sinister and ridiculous puzzle mansions of Resident Evil. It's one of the beauties of video games—that these fantastically envisioned places can become tangible experiences at all! And if you think of The Witness as one elaborate, virtual installation piece (and there's really no good reason not to), it should only heighten your appreciation of the game's artistic merit.
Regardless of whatever narrative or philosophical meaning can be construed from the world of The Witness, the mere puzzle-solving experience does make it worth the time investment. For people like me who don't have much of an outlet in their daily lives for certain types of left-brain activity—processes that rely more heavily on logic, mathematics, and linear thinking—there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in playing The Witness. At the same time, there is plenty in the game that depends just as much on one's right-brain faculties, those more associated with intuition, holistic thinking, and nonverbal cues.
If anything, this seems to speak to one of the game's central tenets. If there are deep answers to be found in the universe in which we reside, we can't simply depend on one methodology alone. Our existence is informed by the tension and trajectory of facts and intuitions alike. We ignore one or the other at our own peril—or at least our own ignorance.
It's hard to say what the general consensus of The Witness will be in 10 or 30 years' time. There's little doubt there will be a lot more games competing for our attention, fighting for their inclusion in the proverbial canon. But I wouldn't be surprised if this is a game whose value appreciates over time.