6 February 2016

Mid-Thoughts: The Witness... and the language of games

People are strange, when you're a stranger...

I've been intrigued by The Witness ever since it was first demoed several years ago. The art style really grabbed my attention (though in the intervening years this has become less unique with several titles using similar visual styles) and the fact that the game would be another thought-piece reflecting on "something" as well as a logic game had my attention.

As usual - thar be spoilers!

I never really clicked with Braid. Somehow I missed the hype and the game's mechanics didn't resonate with me so I never played much of it. Similarly, I was later attracted to another game with platforming and logic elements, Fez, and although I loved that I mostly just bounced off of it (need to go back and play out again some day!). Needless to say that I didn't appreciate Phil Fish's attitude and rhetoric surrounding the game and the public's reaction to it and him and that also soured me on playing it because, in the background, there was this little experience-altering thought in my head that was dissecting the game as I played it.

Jonathan Blow is also a polarising person. He appears to be an auteur and so I understand this is a side-effect of having deeply held convictions that you wish to share and/or propagate in the world. I respect his clarity on topics, even though I might deeply disagree with him but I think that sort of control, leadership and vision is required in order to make the sorts of games that can really say something to their consumers.

Saying all that, I really am loving The Witness and I love the messages it's trying to give to its audience.

A beautiful world with a lot hidden in plain sight...

I have a long history of bouncing off or leaving puzzle and logic games gathering dust on shelves but this time I'm trying to be different. That's because I think The Witness is not only something special, it's also done something that no other game I've played has: it treats me as if I've never played a game before.

That's not to say that it treats me like a simpleton. It doesn't. What it does do is take the time to patiently teach me the particular parts of gaming language that it utilises. This isn't a simple tutorial, okay - there's a very brief tutorial in the first two minutes of the game telling you how to move and interact with the puzzles, but the rest of the game relies on the game mechanics themselves to teach the player how to utilise those mechanics in ever more complicated situations.

It's something that the majority of other games do not do and it's something that a great majority of players will never notice because the games they play will also be games that they've grown up playing and so will already be familiar with the gaming language involved. Let me put from the another way around: If you've ever played a first person shooter and tried to work out which button is for crouch, only to discover there is no crouch then you've experienced the dissonance of a game lacking the language the genre usually uses to talk to you with.

Conversely, people who are not gamers or game very infrequently are not adept in this language - they do not know what to expect or what may be expected of them. A player confident in the language will know that they are required to press a button but one not confident will be stumped for an indeterminate period of time without a prompt. This breaks flow, makes the player feel stupid and may ultimately make them stop playing the game if too much frustration builds up. All because a simple button press that was expected them to take less than a second to process and maybe a second to execute was required by the game.

Speaking of being stumped. One puzzle type stumped me in The Witness: the tetris blocks. I don't know how it's been for other people but for me this puzzle type was easily the most poorly implemented in the game. I'm sure it clicked for some people right away and they'll probably be scratching their heads at my confusion so let me explain.

There are three reasons why I think this puzzle type was poorly explained and introduced:

1) The introductory puzzles were too simple.
2) The introductory puzzles were placed across from the more difficult puzzles by an incredibly slow-moving bridge.
3) Though they look like tetris blocks, they do not fully behave like tetris blocks

I think those first two reasons are pretty self-explanatory. In no other puzzle type were the initial puzzles so far removed (time-wise) from the immediately following puzzles. Nor was the complexity of those following puzzles so increased.

All these puzzles are quite simple and show only 'normal' tetris-type behaviour of sitting atop each other.

The introductory puzzles are very simple and do not convey the most important rule of the blocks (that's something that I had to look up online) which is that the shapes do not always have to exist in the space their block indicator is in... this is an example of where my learned gaming language skills held me back. I assumed that, looking like tetris blocks, they had to sit on top of each other. So, even though the introductory puzzles showed me that the blocks can be in different places, they only showed this in the context of being on top of each other - a standard tetris trope.

The puzzle on the left exhibits a solution that is presented in the introductory puzzles but the second puzzle changes how the player must solve it by showing that all pieces can be out of their place but not on top of each other. This is not shown in the introductory puzzles and really threw me off until I 'got it'.

In my opinion, there should have been at least one 3x1 L-shaped block in the introductory puzzles posted above instead of using the square-shapes in the last five in a 4x4 grid... they should also have put in a broken space to 'force' (or encourage might be a better word!) the player to use a non-conventional solution to the two blocks fitting into the solution.

Now I've looked up the logic of the block puzzles I'm making headway in the game again but without that 'help' I feel I would have been stuck for a lot longer and possibly dropped the game. However, even though I'm making progress again - I feel like a cheat for looking for help online which has diminished my enjoyment of solving the puzzles. I didn't work out the rule and now I feel like I don't deserve to work out the solutions of the puzzles.

Saying all of this, it's the only bump I've experienced in an otherwise stellar title. I sincerely recommend this game to anyone who's into puzzle games and even those who aren't and don't mind the slower pace of the game.

Do I think I'll ever get to 100% completion in The Witness? Probably not, hence why this is a 'mid-thoughts' but I'm damn well going to try!

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