I haven’t blogged for a while, and I’ve got no inclination to add to the endless selection of ‘2016 was awful’ posts. There were distinct ups and downs to 2016, but I want to talk about my favourite game of 2016, one that I’ve recently returned to playing.
2016 was, for me, an amazing year of games. On my first year of owning a PS4, I lucked into some very impressive games, some of which I played for over 100 hours, which is something I wasn’t expecting at all (my biggest gameplay total before was on the Mass Effect games, where I usually completed them after about 30 hours).
There was the open-world awesomeness of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, where narrative weirdness was through the roof and the endless possibilities and freedom for stealth were breath-taking. There was Uncharted 4, which matched bombastic blockbuster-style action with some surprisingly nuanced emotional storytelling, showing that there’s still new territory for big budget games to explore. And there was Bloodborne, a magnificent, terrifying ride through a world of Victorian Gothic horror that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and which pulverised my nerves in a way that had me utterly addicted. I’d never played any of the Dark Souls series (of which Bloodborne is a ‘sister project’), and I’ve never felt anything quite like the thrilling joy and achievement of actually beating certain bosses in Bloodborne (Yes, Blood-Starved Beast, I’m looking at you.)
But my favourite game of 2016? It’s The Witness, all the way.
The Witness is a puzzle game that’s very heavily influenced by the old-school computer puzzler Myst. Like Myst, you’re on a mysterious island and have to figure out a series of puzzles. Unlike Myst, the puzzles here aren’t bewilderingly presented, confusing and a bit boring. And most definitely unlike Myst, the island you’re exploring here is HUGE, and crammed to bursting with puzzles.
The basic principle of The Witness is that you trace a path on a maze, and this unlocks a new, slightly more difficult maze. The game takes this very simple mechanic – drawing mazes is literally the only way you can interact with anything in the game – and spins it out in so many directions it’s almost boggling. There’s barely any sense of repetition – the island is divided up into different areas, and each ‘zone’ mixes things up with a different variant, a different rule, a new twist that makes you look at the mazes in a different way.
It’s a simple gameplay loop, but my goodness it’s addictive. At first, there’s the joy of exploration – being able to see a new area beyond a gateway, and knowing that if you could just figure out what these odd symbols mean on this one particular panel, you’d be able to find out what’s going on over there. And then, once the game fully has its hooks into you, it’s gradually learning a different language, figuring out the relationship between one set of symbols, and knowing all along that there is a solution. The game almost always plays fair – there’s always a way of figuring it out, meaning that looking up a guide for the answers is pretty much defeating the point of the game. (Honesty time – there was one point where I succumbed, and there’s one type of puzzle I wouldn’t even have known about if I hadn’t glanced at a couple of guides. But other than that, I stuck to not looking, and I’m glad I did).
The game is fully open world, not locking you into any specific area, and you’re encouraged to simply go and wander if you can’t figure out a particular puzzle. Certain puzzles don’t make sense until you’ve solved a completely different area of the island anyway, and it’s also a beautiful environment to explore, helped by the fact that there’s no music and (aside from the rather pretentious audio logs scattered across the island, mostly quoting famous scientists or philosophers) no dialogue. Only mazes.
Probably the thing that I like most about The Witness is that it’s a game that I’ve properly ended up playing with my fiancé. Emma isn’t a regular game player in any way, and many of the games I play don’t click with her at all – but we’ve played massive sections of The Witness cooperatively, and it’s made it a wonderful experience, figuring out the mysteries and puzzles of the island together. It’s felt like being on an adventure, exploring the island, and I know I wouldn’t have found The Witness anywhere near as satisfying if it had been a more solitary experience. (And, to be honest, I’d probably have gotten a lot more stuck – Em is very good at spotting things and figuring out puzzles).
The Witness isn’t for everyone. The vague, underlying narrative that’s hinted at doesn’t really work that well (although it’s so vague it might as well not be there at all). It’s definitely a pretentious game at times. And yet, no game in 2016 gave me quite as much joy, and no game saw me scribbling down so many diagrams and mazes, leaving one of my notebooks looking like I’d been trying to catch a serial killer. If you have any interest whatsoever in puzzle games, The Witness is an absolute classic.
The island is waiting for you. Go explore.