This is fourth in a series I am doing over cooperative experiences in gaming. For the previous post, please go here.
Not all cooperative games have to be explicitly so. Sometimes two player games arrive as one player games.
And you decide you want company.
For a long time I had tried to get my wife involved in some type of video game. A large part of it came from my belief that there is a video game for everyone, in the same way as other mediums. For every book by Jonathan Franzen, there’s a book by Tony Morrison. For every show like Breaking Bad, there’s How I Met Your Mother.
What I did not realize is that over the course of a summer several years ago, she would fall hard, as I would too, for a puzzle game that was about drawing lines.
That’s what you do in The Witness. You arrive on an island eerily similar to Myst, with weird places, biomes, contraptions that make no sense, wires strewn about, and little tablets with strange grids on them. Press a button, and the game grabs your camera to fill the tablet at full screen. Suddenly the beautiful horizon is reduced to a screen and you find yourself drawing lines.
That’s it. That’s the whole game.
There’s an entrance to the grid, and you have to get to the exit, and how you make it through these grids, placed on tablets, is the whole experience.
What you did not realize is that somehow the life you lived had such a wide variety to it that you can take any number of detours in the grid before making your way to the exit. The Witness is a game that takes your simple notions of lines and grids and continues to iterate on it by introducing new rules, new permutations to keep you stumped. Sometimes you have to make shapes with your line before you exit, sometimes your line has to find spots and avoid others. Sometimes you have to loop certain objects in order to create pairs. And sometimes you have to pay close attention not just to the line you draw, but to the material of the grid itself.
My wife is a profoundly intelligent person, and some of the difficulty of intelligent people is getting them to see the value in certain pursuits or pastimes. For many who balk at video games, they say that books can perform exactly what the game hopes to do in 1/10th of the time. I do not blame them, and for many of the story-based games on the market I would be inclined to agree with that.
On the other hand, The Witness is wicked smart.
I would not say that its smarts have to do with story though. Throughout the game you find audio recordings and video files that you can watch that all collect on the idea of perspective. The whole game is about perspective, but these explicit intentions to create a theme are hardly anything to speak about. Many of the inclusions are pretentious and gaudy. It is in the puzzles themselves, and the various rules, where perspective is “baked in” and thus much more enjoyable. After hours of playing, Claire and I would begin to see the rules in the world outside, would be able to draw the lines in just sort of a way as we could in the game, much like the famous “tetris effect.” The myriad ways you approach a puzzle by the end has you speaking a language that scares your couple-friends. We would see shapes and draw them with our fingers close to our eyes while we squinted to prevent double-vision. We lost many friends after doing that too much…
I know it must seem like a recipe for disaster. Logistical problem solving among people who love each other can sometimes run rampant on a romance. Grocery lists, picking up prescriptions, practice for the kids, paying bills and doing taxes. How is this any different? All of a sudden those meditations in an emergency become something more like “meditations in a complacency.” I always think of the dead suburban couple as past the threshold when I remember that line from Updike in “Gesturing” which goes, “The time had gone by where it would have been convenient to love each other.”
The Witness has some 529 puzzles in all, though none of them quite beg to be completed. Again, the puzzles sit there stoically, and while you could commit yourself to solving the island section by section, most of its geography is open to you very soon after the beginning tutorial region, and you are free to move about as you please. Yet my wife and I very much felt like getting regions completed was a large accomplishment, and when we worked on the puzzles, we were also working on our relationship.
How do you deal with a puzzle you have been staring at for hours? What happens when you have an argument over something as trivial as a line puzzle? The Witness teaches you not only how to understand the rules game, but also how to understand yourself. Perspective is not just for the puzzles, you are a concomitant self. I have mentioned this plenty already, but David Whyte’s concept of the “conversational nature of reality” is useful here. You really are not simply yourself by yourself. You are made up just as much as the group around you as you think you are a whole individual. My wife and I learned that perhaps to be human is to take into perspective that we have bodies, and that sometimes playing for hours and not eating anything leads to low blood sugar and arguments. Sometimes we were successful because we recognized each other’s strengths (Claire likes the shape puzzles, I liked the color ones). And by the time we got to the end, we were not so much satisfied that it was the ending as that we had made the journey through hundreds of puzzles without killing each other.
That is the beautiful part about experiences like The Witness. It is that it widens your definition of what your person is in your life. Too often, life tricks us into thinking that the people in our life have been understood, as if their capacity to surprise is largely over. This could not be farther from the truth.
Time always makes strangers of us.
Who you are when sleep arrives is already different from the moment of wakefulness. The time for a stable and immutable self is over. Claire was a person who had decided not to play video games. But The Witness was a lesson in alterity. Maybe there is some universe where every game ever made had the commitment to its premise that The Witness does, where its chief goal is quality, rather than entertainment (though you can have this as a side effect). Claire bought into this alternative universe, and we are changed because of it.
Most surprising is how The Witness, with its calm island and its many stoic puzzles, convinces you of the changing rules and realizations of the self. It is a game that has more changing inside of you than in the world. There are no ways to level up or gain experience explicitly. That is all done in your head. When you’re done with The Witness some 30 or more hours later, you are a changed person. Changed from the sense of accomplishment at gaining spatial skills. Changed when you realize the close ties between the abstraction of the puzzles in our culture and the concreteness of the world they represent. Changed in the perspective you have either alone or with a partner or friend to play The Witness with. Sure, you could play The Witness on your own, but I would also encourage you to put to the test the relationships you have in your life by playing the game with them. When you play as a cooperative experience, what you’re doing is signing a contract, agreeing to open yourself up to change.
While someone else bears witness.