It’s time to stop playing and process all of this. After I put down the controller, Blow gave me a flythrough of other parts of the island and showed me how the mechanics build on each other in increasing complexity. You’ll get different colored tracing lines, mirror image puzzles and still-water reflections of far-off formations that give clues as to what to do.
There seem to be some constants. Frustration, recursion, return to scanning the environment and finally solution: These are all part of the recipe for epiphany that Blow hopes players will take away from The Witness. It’s an ambitious goal: to codify in game design language the steps of understanding. It’ll be the same game and same puzzles for each player but the variability of the individual will yield unique experiences. The Witness literally showed me how my brain sees things and learns things.
Talking with Blow after the play session, I tell him that The Witness reminds me of the 1960s TV show The Prisoner, which subverted the tropes of the espionage action genre to become a cult hit. Patrick McGoohan’s classic kept viewers guessing and engaged at the same time. Blow says that the show was a slight influence but both his game and that show offer lots of interpretative freedom—but not a lot of guidance. He cites the iconic ’90s puzzle game Myst as a direct influence, with regard to the sense of mystery it drew players in with.
While The Witness left me with lots of questions, I do know one thing for sure about it: All the memory retention and pattern recognition exercise gestures are a deeper truth of how we move through the world and what we choose to see and not to see, especially with regard to how parts of our lives interconnect. Jonathan Blow is making a fable about perception; one that’s going to change how you look at video games all over again.