In Pursuit of Knowledge: Jonathan Blow’s The Witness

 

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“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves like locked doors or books written in a very foreign tongue” – Rainer Maria Rilke

 

About five hours in to Jonathan Blow’s mysterious & cerebral puzzle game The Witness, I had an epiphany. I was picking my way through an abandoned town, full of wild grass and running wires, when I stumbled across a shipping container. It was situated in the centre of a crumbling building, about twenty metres or so from the shoreline of the island upon which the game takes place. On the locked door of this shipping container was a maze, much like all the puzzles that make up The Witness, which was populated by colourful symbols I had never seen before.

I spent a couple of minutes playing around with the puzzle, but eventually decided to leave it and come back later, sure that The Witness would teach me these new pieces of logic when it wanted me to open the door. Sure enough, two or three hours later, I was wandering aimlessly through a swamp when I came across a series of panels which gradually explained (without a single word) how I could trace around yellow blocks to create shapes, and thus find the solution to the maze.

Armed with this new piece of information, I returned to the mysterious shipping container. I solved the tricky puzzle on its door with a fist-pump of triumph, and the door slowly creaked open with a satisfying electrical fizz. But what was inside? Ten pieces of gold? A new shield? A DLC discount?

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No. Inside the shipping container was, of course, nothing but another puzzle. But not just another puzzle – another lesson. The panel innocuously thrown on the floor of the container was a simplified form of yet another mysterious set of symbols I’d seen elsewhere, and by solving it I moved one small step closer to understanding the endless mysteries of the island.

It was at this moment that I realized the utter brilliance of The Witness. This is a game which rewards learning with lessons, a game that is about nothing but the pure pursuit of knowledge, and uses that knowledge alone to gate the player’s progress through its twenty-plus hour runtime. There are no powerups or extra abilities in The Witness. Every bit of progress you make is as a direct result of understanding the rules and logic of the island, and your only reward for this task is the pleasure derived in doing so.

A craftily hidden puzzle on one corner of the island might, upon solving, unlock something in your brain which sends you rushing to its complete opposite end, finally understanding what that weird pyramid-shaped symbol means. And having solved that, you might gain a clue as to what that purple hexagon-shaped thing you encountered three hours ago was trying to ask of you.

The Witness’ gently unfurling structure is truly organic, able to be approached from any angle and at any time. It actively encourages you to leave puzzles you don’t understand and go exploring – the entire town, in fact, which you’ll encounter as probably the third or fourth area of the game, cannot be completed until you understand the rules of all ten other areas, but you won’t know that until you’ve spent some time playing around there.

And what a sense of freedom there is in not knowing, especially in the puzzle genre, which has been in thrall to Portal’s linear test chambers for almost a decade now. Too many devs have borrowed these closed-off, pristine white stages as a means of lazily gating the player to the next puzzle, while making no effort to hide the designer’s hand. The Witness’ crowning achievement and prime innovation is the way it makes its whole world into one enormous interconnected puzzle, then simply sets you free to roam.

And it is such a joy to roam. The Witness’ island is a gorgeous microcosm of the Earth, ranging from arid desert to autumnal woodland and marshy swamps in a dense space that can be traversed within minutes. There are bunkers, castles, temples, shipwrecks, and more secrets than I could begin to count crammed into every inch of geography. Everything in The Witness has a purpose, and one of the great joys of playing it is having your brain slowly rewired to see that purpose everywhere.

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All of this conditioning and learning comes to a head in The Mountain, the game’s final area, which is so challenging it becomes as much about the desperation of unknowing as it is about the cerebral thrill of discovery and understanding. These last puzzles will force you to confront seeming impossibility in order to overcome it – an idea expressed with consummate elegance by an audiolog near the beginning of the area. For anyone who was tempted to commit the ultimate puzzle game sin at this stage and refer to a walkthrough, Blow imparts these words of wisdom:

“Therefore I thank you, my God – because you make it clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me…if, therefore, impossibility is a necessity in your sight, oh Lord, there is nothing your sight does not see” – Nicholas of Cusa, 1453

And sure enough, these brain-melting final puzzles become the most transcendent in the entire game, a gauntlet that push your acquired knowledge and wits to the absolute limit, but feel truly enlightening to solve. The game’s penultimate puzzle had me cutting out and drawing over multiple post-it notes to figure an answer, and when I finally solved it I felt such a flash of elation that I jumped out of my chair.

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There are very few games with the power to instil this emotion, but The Witness achieves it. Jonathan Blow has created a game that constantly forces the player to re-evaluate what they are capable of, to undertake sublimely daunting leaps of logic, and to luxuriate in the complete satisfaction of natural human curiosity. Only the most masterful game designers can teach without words, but Blow has complete trust in and respect for the player’s ability to learn, and it is this that sets his game apart.

Cerebral as philosophy, meticulous as science, but so wildly creative it could be nothing but a work of art – The Witness is the greatest puzzle game of them all, and perhaps the most intelligent video game I have ever played. It is the sort of game that seeps deeply into your psyche, and will have you mentally tracing circle mazes in satellite dishes, roundabouts and road signs. A game that you will not be able to stop thinking about, long after having put it down.

And as for that gorgeous, mysterious ending sequence? Well, whatever interpretation you take from it will be the right one. If there is one lesson The Witness teaches above all else, it is this: the pursuit of knowledge is, in the end, not about the answer, but about learning to ask the right questions.

GAME REVIEW: Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016)

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It isn’t uncommon in the world of video games for the second entry in a franchise to be its best. When a developer has time to iterate upon a new and exciting idea, but before the inspiration becomes a formula – that’s where the best results are often found. We saw it time and time again last generation: Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Dark Souls, Mass Effect 2…

Dishonored, on the other hand, felt like it arrived fully formed. Its emergent blend of stealth, FPS and Deus-Ex style sim gameplay was inspired, letting the player loose in a series of branching levels which could be tackled from any conceivable angle. It was my favourite game of 2012, and I would have been perfectly content with a sequel that just gave me more of it.

Which is, on a first impression, what I thought I was getting from Dishonored 2. The setup to Arkane’s sequel is very similar to that of the original and struck me as a bit unimaginative, while it’s opening levels felt like more of the same – not that that was necessarily a bad thing. That was, however, until I reached the Clockwork Mansion in Dishonored 2’s fourth mission.

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The house belongs to inventor and technician Kirin Jindosh, and at the touch of a button will completely reform itself into a new layout. Huge cogs and wheels will pull the floor from beneath your feet, or strip out a wall and turn it into the ceiling. As the level is transforming around you, you can use your Farreach or Blink powers to slip between the cracks, and thus see it from the inside out, rather like the trick Valve pulled in the second half of Portal.

It’s an inspired piece of level design, and indicative of what makes Dishonored 2 such a fantastic sequel. It chooses to leave the excellent framework of the first game largely intact, and opts against stuffing in more gameplay gimmicks or hours of playtime. Instead, it focuses on increasingly daring and creative individual moments, expanding sideways with some truly unforgettable missions.

The sixth mission, for example, finds the player in the Dust District, and tasks them with breaking into the manor of a gentleman named Aramis Stilton. The door to Stilton’s mansion is locked, and to open it you have three options. Either of two warring factions in the area will provide you with the door code if you kill the opposition leader. Or, you can sit down and solve an absolutely fiendish logic puzzle called the Jindosh Riddle, which will provide you with the door code and let you skip the entire stage.

Again – what an utterly brilliant, brave idea that is. The perfect expression of the game’s ‘play your way’ philosophy, letting you choose to tackle the level with brainpower, stealth or just pure aggression. It took me over an hour to solve the Jindosh Riddle (which is procedurally generated, by the way, so can’t be easily cheated using the internet), but when I finally did, it provided one of the game’s most satisfying moments.

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There are others moments just as brilliant which I don’t want to spoil in this review, including the seventh mission which is possibly the best of them all. Suffice it to say that Dishonored 2 never wants for inspired set pieces and labyrinthine playgrounds to set the player loose in.

I have to say, though, that I did find the new powers for Emily (one of two playable characters) a bit lacking compared to those of the first game. Farreach and Domino are the exception, the former feeling like a more visceral version of Dishonored’s Blink, and the latter allowing you to chain two or more enemies together so they share the same fate. This one will truly push your capacity for creatively murdering people.

But then there is Dark Vision, which is a fairly bog-standard ‘stealth vision’ like those found in most modern stealth games, as well as Mesmerize and Doppelganger, both of which serve a fairly similar decoy purpose. Shadow Walk is fun, allowing you to temporarily become a ghostly shadow-creature which guards struggle to see, but many of these powers feel lacking in the ways they can combine with each other, which is what made those like Possession from Dishonored so special.

The art direction of Dishonored 2, however, is consistently brilliant. Characters, environments, weapons and powers all look and feel incredible, with some particularly gorgeous views and interiors to be found towards the end of the game. The attention to detail in the character design, too, makes the people you’re tasked with assassinating much more real, and much more fun to hunt.

All in all, Dishonored 2 is a fantastic sequel. It expands upon the original game not in size or scope but in pure cunning and creativity, like a true assassin. Though not without a few flaws, the game is elevated to classic status by some truly unforgettable missions and an unwavering confidence throughout. Whether or not we’ll see a third game in the series remains to be seen, but Dishonored 2 would be a fantastic way to bow out if it does prove to be the end.

9.1/10

GAME REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000)

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Sometimes, creative restrictions can lead to the most elegant solutions. Case in point: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Shigeru Miyamoto set Nintendo EAD the unenviable task of following up Ocarina of Time, still widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, within the space of just one year.

To achieve this impossible task, the team employed some of the most efficient and creative recycling game design has ever seen. Bosses and incidental characters from Ocarina were reimagined and fleshed out with idiosyncratic personalities. Items and powers were subtly changed. But most brilliantly of all, the game’s central time-rewind mechanic allowed the development team to re-use many aspects of the world, creating a huge amount of gameplay depth across a small physical space.

It’s a stroke of genius. The giant, grinning Moon is on a collision course with the game world of Termina, and after three in-game days will make impact, destroying everything in sight and causing the game to end. The player is armed with the ability at any point to rewind back to the start of the three day cycle, but there’s a catch: all non-essential items and events in the world are reset back to how they were at the very beginning.

Making forward progress, then, is about unlocking items, powers and ocarina songs which are permanently written to your inventory, and can be subsequently used to skip everything up until the point at which you acquired them. After descending into the Pirate’s Fortress to acquire the hookshot, for example, you can then grapple right across the whole area without having to traverse through it.

The structure of Majora’s Mask is elliptical, constantly looping back upon itself in delightfully clever ways, and inching forwards a tiny bit closer to the end goal with each time cycle. It strikes me as a precursor to the kind of ideas that fuel roguelikes such as Spelunky, where the inevitability of death constantly forces the player to learn and grow their understanding of the game until they are able to complete it in a single run.

The unique structure of Majora’s Mask also gives it an incredible sense of urgency which few other games can match. Nothing is quite as nerve-wracking as approaching the final boss battle of a dungeon with only a matter of minutes to spare, praying you can kill it before time resets and forces you to trudge all the way through the dungeon to meet it again.

It’s not hard to see how the impending doom of Majora’s development deadline manifested itself in the game’s central time-limit mechanic, and the constant threat of a repeated apocalypse. There are few dev studios out there who could be so daringly creative and cunning as to take a nightmarishly logistical, real-world game-development problem and transform it into the central mechanic of the game itself. Utterly, utterly brilliant.

And while we’re on the subject of nightmares, we have to mention the uniquely dark, unsettling tone of Majora’s Mask, which is still the weirdest Zelda game ever made. Characters and questlines are rife with melancholy, bereavement and guilt. The wonderful soundtrack becomes more and more warped as each time cycle approaches its end, and then there is that unignorable, evil grinning moon face.

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This focus on tone and character, on smaller interactions and stories, bleeds into the gameplay as well. Majora puts a heavy emphasis on side content with only four bespoke dungeons, but all of its side quests are folded into the larger structure of the game with incredible elegance. Some unfurl gently across the span of the entire game, while others which begin as innocuously simple tasks sprawl into world-spanning questlines which require the use of all your accrued knowledge and powers.

The dungeons themselves are perhaps the only point where Majora falls a bit short of other Zelda games. The first two are effective without bringing anything particularly memorable to the table, while the third is a clever spin (literally) on Ocarina’s majestic Water Temple, centred around the flow of water through spinning wheels. The game’s only classic dungeon is its last, the Stone Tower Temple, which deliriously flips upside down at the halfway point, and asks you to traverse it again with the sky beneath your feet.

Moments such as this look fantastic on the New 3DS XL’s huge screen, which is the version of the game I played. It’s nice, also, to finally play a game that makes use of the little camera nubbin above the Y button, and the new head tracking means you can actually go 3D without getting a headache. The concession in Majora 3DS of time-slowing and fast-forwarding songs, however, says a lot about the ever-reducing levels of patience modern devs expect from their audience, and slightly  cheapens the sense of urgency found within the original.

But these are minor quibbles. Majora’s Mask is a truly otherworldly feat of economy and creativity, and one that stands alone in the series. By stripping away large swathes of Zelda mythology, Majora ended up a stranger, more personal, and more alluring adventure. Its practical construction conceals a sprawling, 40-hour epic that matches Ocarina in depth, if not in width. And its influence is still being felt today, even seventeen years later.

9.7/10