February 2, 2016

The Witness (2016)

developed by Thekla (San Francisco, CA)
designed by Jonathan Blow

Occasionally I do still play computer games when they’re new. Not often, but occasionally.

This entry is here to mark that I played this one, which was very good. As with Portal 2, telling you much about it would be to its detriment. It’s a game designed to be inhabited and gradually discovered, and there’s no value in pre-empting any of that. The ideal way to experience it, I think, would be to encounter it with absolutely no foreknowledge — not even having seen, say, the trailer above. That’s how I first encountered Myst in 1993, on one of the demonstration computers at Learningsmith: completely fresh. The impact of that encounter is still vivid. The Witness is founded in that shared cultural memory, I suppose. But it’s not a nostalgia piece at all.

Games are places, and games that deliberately act like places tend to be the most rewarding. This game acts very conscientiously like a place, attending with great care to the things that matter about places: light, sound, texture.

What goes on in the place is always secondary, and despite being stuff I spent nearly 30 hours doing, it’s secondary here too. But again, it’s conscientious, and that’s what really counts. Knowing that everything around you is the product of care and taste is a tremendously luxurious experience, such that “luxurious” is hardly the word. Games like this transform ordinary architectural experience into something supernaturally enveloping, something that coats the whole sensorium, like a heavy fall of snow.

There are reservations to be had, I suppose, around the edges of this game, where its “ideas” and “premise” live, but I feel no need to withhold any degree of approval. This is a generous and thoughtful game and those are overwhelmingly sympathetic qualities. I’m willing to ride along with its eccentricities.

For the time being I’m a little sad that 1) I zoomed through the whole thing while I was sick, and now I’ve more or less exhausted the game but I’m still sick; and 2) I currently associate the beautiful environment of this game with being sick, which is a shame.

But I’m sure there will be time to revise that association. I have every expectation of watching other people play this, and/or returning and playing through it again some day.

Is it for everyone? Is it for you? I would say it’s for everyone to start. Only some will finish. That’s fine. I never finished games when I was a kid, when they meant most to me.

While we’re on the subject, I should acknowledge that I’ve played a couple of other games, in the past couple months, that weren’t actually off my backlog.

• On December 8, I played Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist. Which is more like a skit in the guise of a game than a real game. But an amusing and well-delivered skit. I was charmed. This was free and lasted 15 minutes, so hardly an offense against my backlog.

• The next day, inspired by the fact that I had so enjoyed a short free game on a whim, I looked around to see what other games were free on Steam, and ended up playing through You Have to Win the Game, a nostalgia-styled platform game in a similar vein to VVVVVV. Another hit! Well thought out, just the right length, not an offense against my time or intelligence. 2 hours and 0$ well spent.

• Then a couple weeks later, on December 21, I returned to the same source. Let’s see what else is free on Steam! The Plan seems to be free and basically well-liked; let’s play this! Oops. The Plan was stupid faux-art with no content or point of view. 10 minutes ill spent.

• And finally, on January 11, somehow suckered by online hype and my own weird late-night mood, I put down a small amount of actual money to buy and play the ostensible game of the moment, Pony Island, which purports to be a weird indie sardonic fourth-wall-breaking mindbender. This was also a bust. Maybe not a total bust, but close. This is just the 2016 “Made with Unity” version of the same old dinky Commodore 64 “fourth-wall-breaking” gags of 30 years ago. It felt chintzy and amateurish, and I felt like I’d been had. Lesson: reviewer enthusiasm and “buzz,” in the internet era, are not good reasons to buy anything. You’d think I’d have learned that by now.

Now I have that good thorough feeling again.

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