The Witness

Introduction

In 2008, an up-and-coming game designer by the name of Jonathan Blow released his debut title, Braid. It received massive amounts of critical acclaim for its inventive platforming mechanics, subversive storytelling, and eye-catching art style. Along with Cave Story released four years earlier, Mr. Blow’s title helped the independent game movement gain steam, inspiring many artists to follow in his footsteps for years to come. Shortly after his first game debuted, Mr. Blow began working on various prototypes for possible builds. One concept in particular stuck out to him as particularly viable, though challenging considering it would require developing a 3D game engine to properly implement. Realizing the slightest mistake could compromise his progress, he began working on a new game in earnest in late 2008.

By 2009, this project had a name: The Witness. In contrast to Braid wherein he completed most of the programming himself, Mr. Blow created a team known as Thekla, Inc. to help bring his vision into reality. Making the game proved to be long and arduous due to a number of factors ranging from Mr. Blow’s wishing to expand the scope to opting against any time and cost-saving solutions. At no point did he allow the gameplay itself to be diminished in any way, nor did he permit the use of a premade engine to expedite the process, as he wanted to have total control over every conceivable element. To fund this project, he used revenues from sales of Braid, though it was exhausted by February of 2015. Undeterred, he sought additional capital, and by the time the project reached completion, estimations suggested it cost just under six million dollars to make.

The Witness was finally finished and released in 2016 whereupon it received nearly unanimous critical praise. The gaming press was quick to cite Mr. Blow’s sophomore effort as yet another triumph for the venerable 2010s indie scene. Considering the creative new directions contemporary artists explored through their work, how does Mr. Blow’s The Witness fare in the face of such tough competition?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, there will be unmarked spoilers throughout this review.

When you start The Witness, you find yourself in a dimly lit, cylindrical corridor.

On the far wall is a device that resembles a video monitor displaying a line with a circular point on one end. When you focus on the panel, the rounded edge on the other side will begin flashing. By touching the circle and drawing a line to the rounded edge, the door will open. The next room contains a panel similar to the one before, only the line turns a corner. Once you have made it through, you will be taken outside. After opening the structure’s main gate, you’ll find yourself on a mysterious island. You’re left to discover the rest on your own.

This entails a majority of the experience. The Witness is a first-person adventure game with a heavy emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving. There is no combat, nor do any NPCs exist to interact with; you’re completely on your own to explore the island with no exposition provided about where you are or what you’re supposed to be doing. Scattered throughout the island are panels similar to the ones found in the starting area. By solving them, more puzzles and sometimes entire areas open up. Most of the time, solving a puzzle will cause a wire to light up. By following it to the other end, you can repeat the process until something different happens.

All of the puzzles have the same basic goal of connecting a circle to a rounded edge. While this may sound overly simple on the surface, a majority of them feature multiple paths, yet it quickly becomes apparent that only one will work. There are a few select puzzles that have multiple solutions, but they’re far and few in between.

You might be questioning how one could discover the true path if there are so many to choose from, and to answer that, you need to examine the panel closely. In the above screenshot, there are five hexagons within the circuit, and you must draw a line that passes through them all. Sometimes, a pattern resembling a Tetris piece is visible, and you must draw a line in a shape that encompasses it. Other panels require you to separate differently colored squares. What you need to do might not even be hinted at on the panel itself, prompting you to check your surroundings for a clue. Occasionally, the solution isn’t possible unless you literally approach the problem from a different angle.

As was the case with Braid, Mr. Blow wanted to demonstrate video games as an art form. I was often reminded of the classic 1993 adventure title Myst when playing The Witness. It’s no coincidence, as this game pays homage to it not only with the analogous premise of setting the player loose in a beautiful void, but also in how it explores the idea of an interactive work communicating complex ideas to the player without the use of dialogue. When entering a new area, the game never outright spells out the rules by which it plays. You’re instead typically given a simple version of a puzzle, and it’s from there you can extrapolate on your own how they’re meant to be solved. It’s an interesting approach – one that treats its audience with a lot of respect. Considering the 2010s AAA propensity to inform fans of mechanics they’ve already utilized, this was a nice change of pace.

Much like his debut effort, it’s clear he and his team put a lot of effort into the aesthetics. It’s not just that the game is pretty to look at, but the setting itself conveys a story without resorting to dialogue. It’s very esoteric, and one could spend the entire experience unaware that a plot even exists. Keeping in mind the mainstream approach of attempting to turn games into films, often to an ill effect, The Witness more closely captures the kind of storytelling that complements the medium.

Unfortunately, as many good things I can say about The Witness, the gameplay lacks polish. For starters, there is no portable map. To be fair, the game world isn’t particularly large, but there were a few instances in which I entered a region only to fruitlessly search for the first panel before getting lost in the visually indistinct scenery for several minutes.

Some panels disable themselves upon getting them wrong, forcing you to solve the previous one a second time. Theoretically, this was meant to discourage the audience from brute forcing the puzzles. In practice, all this does is come across as an unnecessary punishment for the normal players while realistically doing nothing to stop the disinterested ones from trying everything. The solution to the previous puzzle is seldom erased, so it doesn’t prevent brute forcing as much as it delays it slightly. All of this ignores that most of the mazes have so many possible paths, honestly trying to figure out the answers takes far less time.

When activating certain mechanisms, expect them to move very slowly. On the coasts, there’s a boat that can transport you to other harbors around the island, but it travels at such a glacial pace, it’s arguably faster just to run from one end of the island to another. Had it not been for one otherwise inaccessible area, there would be little reason to use it. Similarly, there’s also one puzzle that, like the others in the area, rely on light for you to deduce the solution. You go about this by looking at the reflection of the panel in the water. It’s not so bad at first, but then you must drain or fill the pool in order to get the proper perspective. One in particular can’t be observed until the water is at the halfway point. You can’t pause the water when its filling or draining, so you only get a brief moment to see it. If you don’t get it, you must change the level again. Unless you end up taking screenshots, this is an unbelievably frustrating task. It makes sense why the water would move as slowly as it does, as otherwise the puzzle solutions would be nearly impossible to see, but they could have done away with it completely and the experience wouldn’t have been any worse off.

I think this alludes to a persistent problem prevalent throughout the entire game; it’s a hodgepodge of good ideas interlaced with several appalling ones. This is to say, the designers seemed to have trouble differentiating genuine challenge from annoyance. One puzzle involves distinguishing a bird chirping in different tones from a plethora of other discordant sound effects. It would bad enough as background noise, but actively paying attention to it gets grating instantaneously. Sadly this wasn’t the worst example; there is a series of puzzles nearing the end of the game that really stood out as the apex of abysmal design in which the panels rapidly flash various colors. At best, this succeeds at hurting the player’s eyes. At worst, it could be dangerous for anyone who suffers from epilepsy.

The biggest problem I have with The Witness is that it’s more monotonous than anything. Mr. Blow and his team deserve credit for coming up with such a creative concept, but all they effectively did was design over six-hundred variants of one puzzle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on a single good idea; Valve more than proved this true with their innovative, well-written Portal series. The key is that they were exactly as long as they needed to be and didn’t resort to filler. Meanwhile, with The Witness, Mr. Blow proudly estimated that players would take more than eighty hours to solve all of the puzzles. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of a concept however good before tedium starts to set in. If there was a clear story, it would properly motivate players to make it through the less-than-stellar portions, but as it stands, the only thing keeping them going would be the gameplay itself. Puzzle enthusiasts wouldn’t have a problem with this, but those seeking a more balanced, varied experience are inevitably going to run out of patience.

Now that I’ve expressed my thoughts about the gameplay, you might be wondering what I think of the narrative framework surrounding it. Even as Mr. Blow’s first game, Braid, caught the attention of many critics, some of them felt it was overly pretentious – a sentiment which in turn extended to the creator himself. There are limitations to using one’s work to analyze the author’s intents and personality, yet I can say with absolute certainty The Witness does little to convince me the self-indulgent nature of Braid was an isolated incident.

To wit, there is a windmill which houses a theater that shows six different video clips depending on how you solve the appropriate puzzle. Among them are an excerpt from the BBC documentary series, Connections, an old video lecture, and the ending of Nostalgia, an art film by Andrei Tarkovsky. The content certainly makes for interesting conversation pieces when viewed in full, but in the context of The Witness, they don’t serve much of a purpose other than to inform players that the author is a high-minded individual who likely watched them at some point. Completing a bonus level unlocks the final puzzle for this room, whereupon you’re treated to an hour-long lecture about batteries, Shakespeare and the concept of awe. Obnoxiously, listening to the monologue is part of a hidden puzzle required for one-hundred percent completion.

It’s commendable Mr. Blow wanted to educate his audience, but scientific studies conducted in the 2010s reveal that lectures pale in comparison to active learning methods. As a counterexample to illustrate my point, Kotaro Uchikoshi with his excellent Zero Escape trilogy taught his audience about scientific concepts and thought experiments by having them influence the plot in some way. Players are able to walk away from his games memorizing these complex, metaphysical theories because they have a context they can use to easily recall them. With Mr. Blow’s approach, I ended up forgetting the points he and the presenters were trying to make the second the clips ended.

The standard ending also does little to assuage any perceived pretentiousness on Mr. Blow’s part. It’s almost the stereotypical late-2000s indie technique of throwing random ideas from reputable sources at the wall in the hopes that a deeper meaning arises from it. I would have assumed it was a parody if I didn’t know who created it. Once you’ve solved the final puzzle, you’re whisked away in a machine that gradually falls apart as various people read excerpts from the Diamond Sutra, an influential text in Mahayana Buddhism. They list the ways in which one can contemplate one’s own existence in the world only. These are thought-provoking mantras, yet they’re not presented in a way that makes the viewer want to actively use them to shape their own experiences. Instead, they’re thrown at the player as they passively observe. To put it another way, Mr. Blow and the AAA industry he rebelled against weren’t so different at the end of the day. They both resorted to methods in which the interactive element that defines the medium is abandoned.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Puzzles are pretty creative
  • Beautiful art style
  • Multiple endings
Cons:

  • Has trouble distinguishing between challenge and annoyance
  • No map
  • Monotonous gameplay
  • Air of pretentiousness to it

Keeping in mind that at least one publication referred to Mr. Blow as “the kind of righteous rebel video games need,” playing The Witness reveals something of a contradiction. This is because rather than feeling like an avant-garde statement that tests the boundaries of the medium, it comes across as a relic from the late-2000s indie scene. During that time, many creators seemed to pursue this nebulous high art standard with the goal of elevating the medium. They were noble intentions to be sure, but it’s as though Mr. Blow ignored the direction in which the scene was actually heading during the making of this game. By 2016, Undertale and Papers, Please had been released. Although they’re often mentioned when enthusiasts try to argue for the cultural validity of their hobby alongside the works of Mr. Blow, I believe them to be antithetical to his ethos. This is because both of those games proved one could leave a profound, artistic impact without casting away what made the medium so appealing in the first place.

When playing The Witness, I couldn’t help but feel as though he went about developing it under the impression that video games in their then-current form were not a true art form, and thus it was his mission to save them from a perceived downward, anti-intellectual spiral. I don’t quite believe these were his intentions, but the dogmatic opinions he expressed in interviews and on social media make this interpretation difficult to dismiss. He criticized big-name AAA developers for failing to conceive narratives in which the gameplay is weaved into the story. This is a legitimate issue, but I feel his solution would only solve the problem by replacing it with a new, arguably worse one. Even if I do hold a modicum of respect for the many independent artists who blazed a trail in the 2000s, there were a few trends from that era I was not sorry to see go away. Once this pretentious air left the scene, the biggest obstacle holding it back from achieving greatness was eliminated.

After having said all of that, whether or not you’ll get anything out of this experience boils down to a simple question: do you like puzzle games? If so, there’s little doubt you will enjoy The Witness provided you aren’t colorblind, hearing impaired, or suffer from epilepsy, though I’d personally rather advocate the Professor Layton series because the average installment boasts more variety. If you don’t like puzzle games, feel free to skip this one, as there is little chance it would change your mind. Should you decide to try it, know that your viewpoints will determine whether it’s a masterpiece or a self-indulgent mess.

Final Score: 5/10

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

Introduction

In 1996, Nintendo launched the Nintendo 64, the successor to their 16-bit Super Famicom. Boasting a superior processing power, it proved instrumental in ushering in a new era of 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 in particular serving as a pioneering title. One year before its release, Nintendo announced a peripheral to their new console: the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was conceived to compete with the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, contemporary consoles which favored the CD-ROM and its large storage capacity over Nintendo’s far more limiting cartridges. Among other things, it would feature a real-time clock, rewritable data storage, and the ability to connect to the internet.

One of the proposed titles for this system was a new chapter in the highly regarded Dragon Quest series. After achieving success with its two Super Famicom installments, releasing the next one on the 64DD would guarantee the sale of millions of units. However, technical issues plagued the 64DD’s development, and it was consequently delayed numerous times. Once its original planned launch in 1996 failed to come to pass, Heartbeat, the company in charge of the game’s creation announced the project would move to the PlayStation. This situation had a precedent, as Nintendo’s insistence on using cartridges cost them much of their third-party support, and series such as Final Fantasy would see their sequels jump to Sony’s console.

Unfortunately for Yuji Horii and Heartbeat, the problems had only just begun. The series’ immense popularity was such that as soon as Heartbeat declared their game would be on the PlayStation, Sony’s stock prices rose significantly in Japan along with Enix’s. Naturally, this placed the team under an immense amount of pressure. How could they possibly live up to the immeasurable hype? Because the staff only consisted of thirty-five people, work on the game was extended several times. It was finally released in 2000 under the name Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden. By that time, Sony had launched the PlayStation 2 months prior. This in no way deterred the fans, as it quickly became the best-selling PlayStation game in Japan that year.

Historically, the series didn’t meet with anywhere near the level of success in its native homeland, but Paul Handelman, who was the president of Enix America at the time, expressed confidence in the game, commenting that “…at the end of the day, compelling gameplay is what it’s all about, and Dragon [Quest] VII provides just that.” As the previous two installments didn’t see a release overseas by that point, those who enjoyed the series were doubtlessly confused when this new entry was unveiled as Dragon Warrior VII. Despite having to translate a monumental amount of text, the translators soldiered on, and it saw its North American release in 2001. By this point, Microsoft had entered the console market with their Xbox console, the PlayStation 2 had been out for a year, and the Nintendo GameCube was a month way from its debut. Does Dragon Quest VII manage to end gaming’s fifth console generation on a high note?

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Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

Introduction

In 1988, Enix and Chunsoft had a hit on their hands in the form of Dragon Quest III. Naturally because of this, the public wanted a sequel, and the creators obliged, releasing Dragon Quest IV: The Guided Ones in 1990. Enix, having learned their lesson from last time, wisely decided to release it on a Sunday. There was an urban legend that the Japanese government intervened by forbidding the creators from ever releasing any future Dragon Quest installments on a school day, but in reality, Enix themselves made the choice.

To place Dragon Quest IV in context, Nintendo was working on a successor to the Famicom, the platform on which the previous installments saw their initial release. NEC Home Electronics had launched the PC Engine to compete with them a few years prior while Sega followed suit with the Mega Drive a year later, a console boasting more processing power than their competitors at the time. When the Super Famicom was released later in 1990, it marked the end of an era. Does Dragon Quest IV manage stand as one of the Famicom’s final hurrahs before a new wave of consoles ushered in a new generation?

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King’s Knight

Introduction

In September of 1983, a company in Yokohama named Square was founded by Masafumi Miyamoto shortly after graduating from one of Japan’s most prestigious universities: Waseda. Originally, it was a computer game software division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by Mr. Miyamoto’s father. During this time when the medium was still budding, many projects were conceived and developed by a single person. Mr. Miyamoto challenged this, believing graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together on a common project could produce something far greater than the sum of their parts.

Square’s first title, The Death Trap, was created by a part-time employee named Hironobu Sakaguchi and sold enough in 1984 to pave the way for a sequel the very next year. After a series of modest successes, Square decided to branch out into the West. Six years after the company’s founding, the official North American subsidiary, Squaresoft, was established in Redmond, Washington. The American gaming scene had been revitalized thanks to Nintendo’s NES console after a particularly brutal crash in 1983, so this was Square’s chance to capitalize on this new, rapidly growing market. The first title they chose to localize was their debut as an independent company: the 1986 game, King’s Knight.

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Takeshi’s Challenge

takeshis-challenge

Introduction

In the seventies, two friends, Takeshi Kitano and Nirō Kaneko (also known as Kiyoshi Kaneko), formed a comedy duo known as Two Beat. Taking on the stage names Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi, their manzai routines, a sketch which involves back-and-forth banter between a funny man (boke) and a straight man (tsukkomi), became a massive success when they performed on television for the first time in 1976. Mr. Kitano’s risqué material was the true source of their popularity. As far as he was concerned, there were no unacceptable targets, as the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, children, and women among others found themselves the punch line of his humor. Despite being one of the most successful acts of its kind during the late seventies and early eighties, Mr. Kitano decided to go solo, dissolving the duo.

In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., taking the entire world by storm and forever changing how artists went about creating 2D platformers. Mr. Kitano observed the game’s overwhelming popularity and decided to create a live-action version – the result being Takeshi’s Castle in 1986. Each show involved anywhere between 100 and 142 contestants undergoing a series of grueling physical challenges with the goal of reaching Mr. Kitano in his castle. This proved to be easier said than done, for the difficulty in accomplishing this task was such that only nine people ever won. It was a beloved show in its native homeland, and it would become a cult classic when it began broadcasting overseas, reaching an unexpected level of popularity in Spain.

In the same year Takeshi’s Castle debuted, Taito Corporation, the company behind the 1978 arcade sensation, Space Invaders, planned an adaption for Nintendo’s Famicom console. When he learned of this, Mr. Kitano himself contacted the designers about ideas for an entirely original game. Inserting his trademark brand of black comedy, the fruit of this endeavor was released in December of that year under the name Takeshi’s Challenge. Other video games bearing the name of a celebrity had been developed prior to this one, but Mr. Kitano was the first to actively contribute to the development process. Partly because of his fame, Takeshi’s Challenge ended up moving 800,000 units, and it left a profound impact on all who played it.

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Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation

dragon-quest-3

Introduction

In the mid-eighties, unbeknownst to Western hobbyists, the Eastern scene was quickly developing an interest in RPGs thanks to the Dragon Quest series created by Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura. The first two installments were tremendous successes, selling around two million copies apiece, so when Enix announced a sequel, the anticipation was higher than ever. Dubbed Dragon Quest III: And thus into Legend…, it was released in February of 1988 – a little over a year after its predecessor’s debut.

It is almost impossible to overstate exactly how ecstatic the Japanese fans were for this new chapter. So great was its popularity that over one-million units were sold on the very first day. As its release fell on a weekday, the police ended up arresting nearly 300 students who skipped school to purchase a copy. Some of them, mostly high-school students, even dispensed with the whole notion of purchasing it legally by mugging small children on the way home from the local game store.

As was the case with the game that came before, Enix made efforts to publish Dragon Quest III in the West in 1992, hoping it would match or surpass the staggering 3.8 million copies sold in its native homeland. Called Dragon Warrior III in the official NES localization, it met with the same tepid reception of its predecessors. Western gaming fans had no idea of the sheer impact this game, which would eventually be known as Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation, left on their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

uncharted-drakes-fortune

Introduction

Much like in the fifth console generation before it, Naughty Dog had much success in the PlayStation 2 era with their Jak & Daxter trilogy of 3D platforming games. Shortly after the release of Jak 3 in 2004, Naughty Dog assembled their most technically proficient staff members and began development of a new project under the codename Big. Meanwhile, Sony was working on their newest console: the PlayStation 3. Rather than continue the Jak & Daxter series on this platform, Naughty Dog opted to create a new franchise to better suit the hardware capabilities, terming the art direction as “stylized realism”. Taking inspiration from pulp magazines and contemporary movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure, they sought to create an action adventure game with mystery themes that explore various what-if scenarios.

This project was unveiled to the public in 2006 at the annual gaming exhibition, E3, with the working title, Uncharted. When gaming fans learned of its platforming and shooter elements, they inevitably drew comparisons to Core Design’s Tomb Raider series of action-adventure games that became well-known in the original PlayStation era, eventually earning the nickname “Dude Raider” based on it having a male protagonist. The developers distinguished their game by placing a greater emphasis on a cover-based play mechanic, citing the pioneering third-person shooter, Resident Evil 4, as an influence along with other popular titles. The game saw its official release in 2007 under the name, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Critics and fans alike praised Uncharted for its stunning visuals and entertaining dialogue. As the PlayStation 3 met with a tepid response due to a lack of games, this was one of the exclusive titles that helped turn the tide in their favor along with Metal Gear Solid 4 a year later.  Doubtlessly was it impressive that managed to sell one-million copies before its platform caught on with enthusiasts. How did it accomplish such a feat?

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