When I was young, I sat with my dad and watched him play games on the PC and sometimes, when the computer was free, I played these games by myself. I loved to play the games he played – the games I watched him play – all of of them except Myst. While these games, mostly old Sierra adventure games, were colorful and full of movement and humor, Myst was muted and moody, with still images for scenes and long blocks of text that felt boring and arbitrary. To me when I was young, the world of Myst felt more dense and inaccessible than even the real world when I was eight.
That’s why seven years ago, when, indie developer Jonathan Blow of Braid fame announced his next title, The Witness, would be a puzzle game inspired by Myst, I shrugged and resumed my eager anticipation for Mass Effect 2. While Myst was a hit, that was back in ‘93 when games could be designed and produced by handful of people and most homes didn’t have a computer and even for those that did the selection of games wasn’t nearly as deep, wide or accessible as they are today. Seven years ago, puzzle games were for cell phones – games you played while you didn’t have anything better to do.
Imagine my surprise when The Witness was released a few weeks ago and, after I bought it, I spent every moment I could with my girlfriend, staring at grids and guiding a white line. With the recent release of games like Darkest Dungeon and XCOM 2, how did The Witness not only rise to the top of my playlist, but get on the list at all?
A few weeks ago, while at a gathering at my friend’s, he asked me if I’d help him out with a game he was playing. He said that he was stuck on a puzzle in The Witness and I rolled my eyes and agreed. We sat down and once he fired up the game, I was immediately taken aback by the visuals. The colors, the landscape and all of the walls and roads and foliage were chosen and placed with such intention I could only watch in awe while he navigated to an arbor of bright, green trees. He stopped at a panel with the distinct shape of a family tree in black. “This is the one I’m stuck on,” he said and I looked from the tree to the panel and back again before I asked, “Does it have something to do with the tree fruit?”
He solved the puzzle and immediately I felt the hook of The Witness sink violently into me – discovery. Long after he left to attend to other friends, I lingered, wandering an island that felt as dense and inaccessible as the real world remains now that I’m older, but with rules – fair rules – and the wonderful promise of more and more and more with time and effort.
Now, I’m older than my dad was when he played Myst on our family computer and I sat next to him, watching. I remember him leaning his chin on his hand while he studied the game’s mysteries. Now, on any given day there’s a chance my silhouette is the same as his was, but now staring at a puzzle in The Witness, hoping to find the solution, pushed on and on by an element of game design that seems to have been abandoned lately – discovery without hand-holding, of mechanics tough, but fair.
The Witness by Thekla, Inc. was released 01/28/2016 for $40 for Windows, PS4 and iOS to follow. Don’t miss it.
Written by Britt Batschke