Video games as tools: the witness

Jonathan Davis

Since its abrupt release a few weeks ago, The Witness has demanded the attention of gamers around the world. To describe this game swiftly, one could compare it to any number of memorable puzzle games of yesteryear — Portal, Minesweeper, even an entry into the now defunct Myst franchise. Or one could simply invoke the name of Jonathan Blow, the eccentric independent developer credited with bringing indie development into the collective consciousness back in 2008 with his time-bending puzzle-platformer, Braid.

Despite The Witness’ similarities to other games in the puzzle genre, it defies many traditional conventions. The player wakes up alone on an island, only to find hundreds of innocuous screens littering its deserts, swamps and gardens. There’s no music, no voice urging us forward, only the rustling of leaves and chirping of birds. There are few instructions, and the player interacts with the world solely through maze-like puzzles on in-game screens. On paper, this game mechanic might sound elementary, but each puzzle teaches the player a little bit more about the next, providing no feedback other than permission to progress.

It’s enthralling. And hard.

Players are responsible for providing their own impetus and instruction in The Witness. Rules by which the player navigates puzzles are built upon, shifted and twisted, forcing players to analyze situations, create hypotheses and test them with wit or iron will. When it comes down to it, this game sounds a lot like work.

And it is work! Games are good for us, and the best ones require a lot of work — just ask any of liquidfish’s resident League of Legends or Hearthstone players. As game designer and author Jane McGonigal put it in her book, Reality is Broken,

“All good gameplay is hard work. It's hard work that we enjoy and choose for ourselves. And when we do hard work that we care about, we are priming our minds for happiness.”

The Witness Landscape
The world of The Witness is as beautiful as it is mysterious.

Games also teach us how we learn, face challenges and handle adverse situations. The Witness forced me to confront my own stubbornness more than once in the many hours I’ve spent on the island, only to come out of the experience with a bit more patience, and a better understanding of how my mind handles being told it’s not quite good enough. For now, at least. This game teaches you how to fail at something repeatedly, but keep trying, frustration be damned.

And that’s a valuable lesson, right? I’ve encountered challenges at work or in my personal life that could easily swallow a day, if not a week. If doing something as simple as playing a video game on a Saturday morning for an hour or four could influence your entire approach to solving a problem, why wouldn’t you pursue that?

A beautiful thing about The Witness, aside from the striking and simplistic art direction by Luis Antonio, is how it demands you to troubleshoot each puzzle one concept at a time. Designs are iterative, and what starts as a simple line can and will transform into a labyrinth. Puzzles become mind-stretchingly complex over the course of the game, as more rules and symbols are introduced, and players are forced to adapt and internalize these iterations or become obsolete.

Puzzle progression of The Witness
At first, the puzzles are quite simple. As you can see, the difficulty escalates.

Iterative improvements and data analysis are part of my day-to-day job at liquidfish, and search engine optimization is as dynamic a field as they come. Search algorithms shift, and new guidelines and updates to practices occur frequently, sometimes daily. A strategy that could result in success one month could lead to failure the next. Stubborn and forceful adaptation is the name of the game, and hobbies and habits can strengthen and reinforce those behaviors.

As video games demand more of players, players improve, often resulting in faster reaction times or specialized multitasking. In The Witness, these passive improvements manifest as a more poised and patient approach to stressful or especially complicated problems. Maybe I’m just getting better at puzzle-solving and pattern recognition. Regardless, I’ve found myself approaching problems differently both on and off my version of that mysterious island.

The most positive thing I can say about The Witness is that it forces one to look failure in the eye. There are areas of the game I’ve yet to wrap my head around, and puzzles I’ve all but given up on. We all know what hardship and failure look and feel like. True progress is not allowing them to shape who we are, or how we work. Each obstacle we overcome improves us as professionals, and as people, agnostic of game or hobby.