We live in an age of instant gratification. Amazon can get you that waffle iron you’ve been thinking about scooping up in a moment’s notice with Amazon Now. You can watch that blockbuster that won’t be coming out on Blu-Ray for months on your smart TV with On Demand programming. Any song you want to hear, at any time, can be streamed in high quality through YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, or various other streaming services. Our games, too, we expect to enjoy on our own terms. Challenging bosses, tough platforming sequences, and tricky puzzles are often met with paper-thin resolve, and if we can’t find a solution in a single sitting, a few taps on our smartphones will summon the guide or FAQ that we need to progress.
The most popular games in recent generations are tailored to those who enjoy a constant sense of gratification, usually by combining easy, objective-based gameplay with gratuitous rewards systems and shallow narratives that speed along with little to no mystique and a lot of cinematic flare. It’s rare that a game actually makes you think, and rarer still for a game to present a genuinely edifying challenge. As much as I love Call of Duty and Fallout, they don’t exactly strike me as truly challenging, perception-altering games. I’ve only played one game in recent history that truly exhausted my intellect in a good way, and that’s The Witness.
Throughout my time playing The Witness , which I still haven’t beaten, I’ve been forced over and over again to put the controller down and walk away, sometimes for days at a time. This isn’t unusual for me, as I tend to enjoy really difficult games. I remember squeezing my Xbox controller with rage at multiple points in Ninja Gaiden ; cursing From Software for creating bosses I thought I’d never beat in Dark Souls ; cussing under my breath and trying to make sense of the punishing difficulty of Sound Shapes’ death mode (WTF were they thinking making the node placement random?).
Walking away from The Witness wasn’t like walking away from any of those games, though. Time spent away from this mind-bending masterpiece is just as much a part of the experience as your time spent directly engaged with it. Jonathan Blow and his team have created something so unique in The Witness in that the game almost requires that you assimilate the grit and intelligence that went into making it in order to beat it. It’s like this process of telepathic osmosis takes place between more intelligent beings and yourself as you sleep, and when you wake up, where once you saw unintelligible shapes or dots on a puzzle panel and arbitrary oddities about the island, you now see guidance – clues; rules; keys.
The Witness will seduce you and invite you to take part in its mystery. It will make you feel brilliant, and it will make a fool out of you. It will whisper “Come hither,” and then shrug you off if you’re not ready, and I promise: you’re not ready. But if you’re willing – if you’re patient – there is a great treasure here waiting for you. I’m not referring to an end-game twist, because I haven’t reached that point yet. I’m referring instead to the near-ineffable sense of glee and wonder that comes from proving to yourself that you’re smart enough to lift veil after veil. You – yes you – are smart enough to play and enjoy The Witness , but you have to be willing to walk away when you’re lost.
Go explore other parts of the island; you might just solve a panel that will make a puzzle you’ve been stuck on elsewhere seem perfectly logical. Take a few days off and read a book, and you’ll find that a solution will greet you at the start of a new chapter when you were least expecting it. Clear your mind at night and lay in meditation, and you’ll hear the gentle hum of a puzzle panel – or is that just the heat coming on? The game is haunting; it plants seeds in your mind that take time to grow, bud, and blossom. Once you begin this journey you’ll be compelled to finish it, and every step you take toward that goal feels like such an accomplishment. The challenges and rewards here are matchless, and I have no doubt that The Witness will go down as a timeless work of interactive art. Please don’t miss out on it.