In writing about The Witness it’s hard to avoid the elephant in the room (or in this case, on the island): namely, how difficult the game is, both in the classic hard-to-solve sense and in how much it asks of players conceptually. There’s no question the game’s hundreds of puzzles are exceedingly difficult, and require an iron stoicism to complete without rage-Googling. But the second layer of difficulty runs deeper, and is more open to debate: assuming one plays the game “right”, i.e. avoids any and all online discussions of the game (and only requires assistance from one’s spouse or partner on—I don’t know, let’s say 10-20% of the puzzles), and somehow, through perseverance, luck, page after page of maniacal scribbling, and the aforementioned pre-internet Genuine Human Interaction factor, manages to complete the game—is it worth it?
Even the game’s positive reviews, such as those from Polygon and Ars Technica, hint at the bitter-pill nature of such an unrelentingly difficult experience, while the outright negative ones hammer away at the game’s perceived pretension or sterility. After completing the game, I still wasn’t sure which side I came down on in the “is it worth it” debate. Perhaps the sheer mental workout the game offers (best illustrated by the notebook page below) is worth the dozens of hours, many of them spent in frustration and failure, it requires. If the best argument for such an unforgivingly stringent mental workout is the “jogging argument” (i.e. if nothing else, it feels good when you finally get to stop), the experience seems best suited for masochists, and would probably best be replaced with an actual physical workout.
In the weeks after finishing the game, however, something interesting started happening: while I was still internally debating the game’s merit, I found myself in scenes that felt uncannily Witness-esque. Some of this may have been the real-world hangover that follows any extended foray into a game—an urge to shoot down security cameras after too much Goldeneye or Portal, say, or any attempt to view the world normally after too much Grand Theft Auto. I came across a building in Berlin that looked like it contained at least a few Witness-style puzzles, and felt compelled to first approach, then circle it to take in the full perspective, tracing in my mind where an illuminated dot could start and end.
It wasn’t just the game’s puzzles that had crept into my real-world vision, however: it was also its broader aesthetics, particularly those involving the interplay of manmade objects and the natural world. Several months after finishing the game, I took a trip to Japan, where I continued to encounter scenes that felt pulled directly from the game.
The Monastery, The Witness.
Monastery, Miyajima Island, Japan.
Bamboo Forest, The Witness.
Bamboo Grove, Kyoto.
While riding the ten-story escalator in Kyoto Station, I watched a real-life light projector, barely noticeable at ground level, loom larger and larger as I approached, then grow smaller and smaller as I continued to ascend.
Perhaps the game’s strange tenacity in the real world comes from a sort of retinal burn: The Witness requires not just observation, but repeated, intense, and prolonged observation of tableaus that themselves contain little-to-no movement. It requires circling, approaching, and moving away from objects to find the best perspective, meaning it exercises the same parts of the brain in the digital realm as taking photographs does in the real world. Many games have stuck with me well after I’ve stopped playing them, but none have insinuated themselves as deeply into my perception of the real world. For a game that often felt like Purgatory or worse, its tendency to reappear in real-world settings gives it an unexpectedly charming afterlife.