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January 16, 2017
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Beyond Smart and Stupid: Walking a Line Through 'The Witness'
by Steve Bailey on 02/02/16 01:37:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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I've wanted to get annoyed at The Witness, but I can't. That's not because I'm keeping my emotions in check for the sake of delayed gratification, or any other such noble intention re: loaded tension. Trust me, I'm hardly capable. It's more that I've wanted to get annoyed at The Witness because it's not a maths textbook. I have to keep reminding myself that, above whatever else, The Witness is a game. And games are precisely the place where the idea of learning can (and should, I guess?) be meddled with, even if that meddling risks ultimately obstructing me from caring to complete them.

I was a mathematician for six years. Maths is a topic that charts the boggling history of how people like to communicate relationships between particular types of abstract valuation. There are millennia of fascinating documentations of this, wherein coherence and illustration are precious backbones, and toyish tripwires are often to be avoided as much as possible. You learn maths primarily through exploring examples and applications, and if your grasp of theory wavers, there are usually plenty more examples and applications on tap through which you can affirm your sense of understanding. So when I struggle to understand a rule in The Witness, I instinctively seek out a clearer example, in order to wring out the ambiguity. My brain tries to flick back to an earlier chapter in the maths textbook, as it were, and it's just not there.

The Witness, of course, isn't meant to be a textbook. It's a game. It's supposed to mess me around! Getting messed around is exactly why we like games: Because 'solving' feels so much more than a case of pure learning. I totally get that, and yet my insecurity over ambiguity still tries to push through when playing. This, for me, is going to be the key canvas across which I experience The Witness. It's a canvas that I'm actually pretty eager to explore, but, having said that, I'm not sure how far I'll get through The Witness.


I've often read of how smart The Witness is, and how it treats the player as someone who's smart. This does nothing for me. 'Smart' is such a dreadful word. It may have precise meaning to various individuals, but its broader social attribution is sloppy as hell, and hazardous to boot. In the past, whether I've been trying to teach maths to young children, giving tutorials to university students, or mentoring middle-aged folks attempting to conquer their lifelong fears about learning, we almost always dig down to the same root that's holding them back:

"I can't do maths, maths is for smart people, and I'm stupid."

And so we get to the heart of the matter: 'Smart' and 'stupid' make for such a perfect weasel-word marriage, that we may as well be talking about good and evil. It's a pair of words that pretend to be in opposition, but are actually in cahoots. They excuse me from ever having to bother investing myself in things, while funding my laziest judgements of other people. Smart and stupid? It's like this self-tightening knot whose strands disappear the moment you actually fight to loosen it. And you loosen it by accepting that progression is primarily a function of effort. You don't reward kids by calling them smart. You praise them for their effort, because if they fail, they know exactly how to steel themselves and try again: Get stuck in afresh, kiddo!

And I think The Witness understands this too - as do many of its players - but it's lost behind the whole 'smart' thing. Like me, you've probably seen umpteen examples of people sharing photos of the tools and techniques they've invoked in order to help them solve the game's puzzles. How they've reached outside of the game world to use pencil sketches or scraps of graph paper in order to help them progress. Is that really a badge of 'smartness'? From what I can see, it's more a function of being *engrossed*. 

As I said: I was a mathematician for six years. So I must be smart, must be good at the subject? Quite the opposite: I just really enjoyed studying it, which meant I loitered long enough in the vicinity of the topic that I unlocked some initials both before and after my name as a cool status reward (?!). But once I stopped enjoying myself - once I was no longer engrossed - I left maths behind, and went off to do something else. I walked away from that particular collection of puzzle panels, and dawdled off to an unexplored portion of the island, I guess.

(Let's not be too naive here, either: Effort alone won't get you into a position of qualification or stability or Darth Megabucks, or whatever. But it does account for a much bigger portion of achievement than is often perceived, and that's a huge problem, pretty much everywhere. But let's not get too bogged in that...)


It seems genuinely laudable that people are exploring self-reliance because of The Witness, building homegrown solutions to puzzles by shoving pencils into melons and flushing them down the toilet, or whatever. But, is it really so bad that people look online to buffer their experience? Many reviewers have implored players to avoid reading FAQs, to instead sleep on it, and such, but I wonder if the particular pressure of the review environment actually resulted in an enhanced experience, compared to my own time with the game?

I solved a pretty major puzzle in The Witness the other night. It involved threading together four previous puzzles into one line, but I could not see those four previous solutions while completing this final mega-puzzle. My options were either a great memory feat, or a lesser (but still hefty) feat of memory backed up by some geometry gymnastics. I know that I am capable of either of those two things, but, because I'm getting old, I also know that it would take up a fair chunk of my evening, and I'd struggle to get to sleep afterward. Fuck that, this side of my late-thirties.

So, I could've drawn the solution out on a piece of paper, maybe? Instead, I used my phone, took photos of the four puzzles I'd already solved, and traced them directly from that. A crowning puzzle, completed in next to no time! Using my phone did undercut the satisfaction, but hardly obliterated it, either, because I remained engrossed throughout the whole process. It felt like fair-value exchange. Although the thing about this example is that I already knew what to do, and executing was the satisfaction. Sometimes it's difficult to separate the identification of a solution, and the implementation of it, in The Witness, and these are among some of its most vulnerable moments.

I don't think turning to an online FAQ is a failure. There are just too many contexts at work here to make such a sweeping call. Avoiding FAQs is an ideal, for which many people have little room in their lives, or specifically in their gaming habits. There's this worry that the sooner people reach for such solutions, the greater the risk of such dependency taking hold of the experience. I'd agree, and would then also have to note: It was earliest in the game that I was struggling the hardest to remain involved. Here's the thing: I bet that most people seeking solutions online to The Witness weren't looking for out-and-out puzzle solutions to copy, but were instead looking for a place to *start*.


The Witness may contain many oodles of hints and some well-stitched learning curves, but I think it could stand to be more approachable, in terms of starting points. The greatest of stumbles I've had came during the game's earliest hours, where, if it wasn't for how sumptuous the game world felt to pootle about in, I'd probably have stepped away completely. If your experience as to whether you enter a major puzzle chain depends on whether you walk left or right at the end of a path, then that's a different issue than the legibility of logic systems.

You know when you're struggling to find the start of a roll of sellotape? The Witness often feels that way, and it can be uniquely off-putting, soon fizzling into frustration, or gradually bubbling into boredom. This is the game's key currency of tension, it stubs your momentum, so that you then (hopefully) experience the joy of finding it all over again. But when the process becomes too stuttered, enthusiasm just drains, and in my case, instead of grappling with the game's design, I'm tempted instead to look for reasons to walk the hell away. It's like another version of smart vs stupid: Entitlement versus persecution.

The game's key presence and spokesperson, Jonathan Blow, has publicly castigated games that overtly coddle players. But then, he has also taken to Twitter to implore players to not use an FAQ in order to help solve the game. This is not hypocrisy, far from it, but it does illustrate that what could be viewed as coddling from one angle, is often intended just to help make a game more tangible to its intended player base. There are no easy, catch-all solutions here, I don't think, just a great big interpretive middle-ground. It's a difficult line to walk, isn't it? Well, exactly, ha ha*. That The Witness exists at all and has such commitment to its central thread makes it plenty alluring, indeed, and made me cough up my money for it day one, so it's certainly succeeded in that positioning. I am still very much in love with the promise of The Witness, it's just that I struggle to interface with it now that it's here. Folie à deux.

(*Jesus Christ, I am glad I'm not a game developer. Ten minutes into my first game, I'd be sobbing while trying to play my leg like a guitar)


Is The Witness one of the best games in a while? One of the most interesting you'll play this year? Or the emperor's new download-only darling? I have no idea! At its lowest level, it's this game where you solve puzzles, by drawing continuous lines around various lattices in order to satisfy a coded bunch of conditions. At a higher level, you, as the player, do the very same thing within the game's world, treading a non-stop line around a network of pathways, stopping at junctures to mull over the required insight as you attempt to bring the grander designs into relief. And as you keep playing, you will draw your own line between the high-level processes, and the low-level ones. And while you're doing that, I will keep reaching for ever more pompous statements about lines and stuff!

Games are meant to be glorious relationships, I guess. As the player, you make a game happen, as much as those that happen to make the game. You may not walk that line at the same time, but you do very much walk it together. Maybe focus on that and see where it leads you, instead of fretting about being smart or not, or feeling guilty for giving your playthrough a little boost by picking up some refreshing pointers from a YouTube video.

As for me, I'm just bumbling about the place, solving a panel here, noticing a curious architectural pattern there, hardly ever sure what to think, outside of writing overwrought shit like this. Last night, I stopped trying to solve any puzzles, and tried instead to photograph one of the human statues to make it look they were pulling zany vacation-memento poses up against the background details. The line that I'm walking through The Witness must look like the polygraph of a neurotic, pinballing mess. 

And that thought, unexpectedly, may be what keeps me playing it.

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