The Witness is one of the most infuriating, annoying and frustrating games I have ever had the misfortune to play. It’s unforgiving, obtuse and cruel. And it makes me feel really stupid.
The Witness is also one of the most challenging, rewarding and satisfying games I have ever had the good fortune to play. It’s complex, enigmatic and enlightening. And it makes me feel really smart.
And that’s why The Witness is my game of the year.
The Witness is pure, distilled gameplay. Yes, there’s a narrative of sorts, or at least an underlying thematic thread to follow. There’s also a beautiful world to explore, and one that has the continual ability to surprise and beguile in its clever construction, but at its core The Witness is a match between the player and an unseen opponent. Unseen but not unknown.
The Witness doesn’t have an on-screen antagonist, but we know the score, we know who we’re up against. We know that each puzzle and conundrum we encounter bears his mark. The Witness, more than anything else, is a match between the player and designer Jonathan Blow.
Like him or loath him, Jonathan Blow is an intellect, a master game designer. He’s so good at what he does, it’s frankly annoying.
The urge to solve every puzzle in The Witness doesn’t just come from a desire to see what comes next, it comes from the desire to beat him. Or at least to prove that you are his equal.
Most of us are not, of course. (Who is?) Solutions elude you, sometimes for days at a time, until an epiphany hits. Did I have to cheat to complete the game? A little, yes. I had to. It turns out I was I’m no match for Blow’s more abstract creations. Nonetheless, the intricate world Blow presides over, and the numerous puzzles within it, confounds and delights in equal measure.
The conceit for each set of puzzles acts as a personal difficulty setting. If you’re ever curious as to how your brain works, spend some time talking about The Witness with another player. It lays the workings of your mind bare. One player’s walk in the park is another player’s torture. But this dialogue, this sharing of the pain, makes The Witness’s solitary experience strangely collaborative. It’s like therapy.
The Witness challenges the way you think and look and perceive and hear and imagine the world. It takes something as simple as a line tracing puzzle and makes it encompass every sense and every avenue of thought your brain is capable of. The fact that it can do this without ever telling the player what to do makes the game even more remarkable. The rules are unknown but the solution is always available, either in plain sight, or through deduction and reasoning. You just have to think about it, consider the options and test your theories. Its clarity and density is mind boggling.
Even when your brain is frazzled and you pull away from a set of line puzzles, the world around you just forms part of another, larger enigma. There’s no escape in The Witness and the comparison to Patrick McGoohan’s seminal TV series, The Prisoner, is both unavoidable and entirely apt.
I truly don’t know if I enjoyed The Witness. I don’t know if I played it, experienced it, or maybe just suffered it, but it tested and rewarded me in way that only something labeled a ‘video game’ ever could. No other piece of art in the last twelve months has managed to be quite so simultaneously painful and fulfilling. Ultimately, Blow won but no other experience this year made me want to fight so hard.
So no other game can be my Game of the Year.