The hardest puzzle in “The Witness” is describing it to other people

(This story is also available to read on my own blog:

The Witness is Jonathan Blow’s 2016 magnum opus, a puzzle game that should be dissected in art and game design classes for years to come. But because it is ostensibly about discovering what it is about, you can imagine how hard it is to recommend it to other people.

— Man, you gotta play this game, it’s my favorite.
— What is it about?
— Well… The game is about figuring out what the game is about.
— Huh.

In The Witness, you complete line puzzles over and over in much the same way as meditation practitioner seeks illumination by breathing in and out. When people say “The Witness is boring, it’s just line puzzles”, I imagine them saying “meditation is pointless, it’s just breathing”.

Everybody knows there’s a lot more below that.

Many of the puzzles in The Witness are what could be described as “hard”, but I wouldn’t say that’s an entirely accurate assessment. After all, speaking a difficult word isn’t particularly “hard” after you’ve attained some level of proficiency of the underlying language through gradual exposition and the natural learning that comes with it.

The only hard problem about The Witness is the issue of how to describe it to people in a way that promotes interest and doesn’t spoil what it is about.

Because on the surface it’s a simple game about simple puzzles set in a non-threatening, colorful island. But once you dig a centimeter below, it’s anything but. And I can’t tell you what it is, because the whole point of the thing is you, the player, figuring it out using your own brain.

The island is not exactly an island, except it is. The line tracing puzzles are much more than mere line tracing puzzles, even though they’re also never more than that. There’s nothing else in the game other than an island and line tracing puzzles, but oh, oh, there’s so much more in there.

Some people play The Witness and what they take away is a simple puzzle-solving, brain-teasing experience. Others see something much more significant — maybe even… transformative? I would confidently say I’m a better person, in measurable ways, in ways that have nothing to do with video game prowess, for having played The Witness. Other people might come away from the game in frustration, or in disbelief, or in awe, or even in disgust. And all of these experiences are equally valid.

Prajñāpāramitā means “perfection of wisdom” in Sanskrit. Some people also believe in “mindfulness”, a sort of pop-science concept that basically means cultivating a mind that is unattached to distraction and able to pay attention — to itself included. Some schools of Zen meditation stress the idea of becoming aware of one’s own capacity for awareness.

To these people, I can say The Witness is playable Prajñāpāramitā.

It’s mindfulness given form through lines and circles.

It’s around 50 hours worth of a form of meditative practice no usual Lama would direct you to.

Depending on how you play, you may reach a point where The Witness will look at you gently, recite a few lines of the Diamond Sutra in soothing tones from professionally trained voice actors, and take you back to what you will probably recognize as the beginning of the game. I initially perceived this moment as one of the most aggressive things a game has ever done to me, but it wasn’t more aggressive than Mr. Miyagi ever was. I still had something to learn, something I hadn’t learned yet.

Looking backward to move forward in a new way. If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

Oh, well.

I hope you can appreciate how hard it is to describe The Witness in a way that can make people interested in experiencing it without giving away anything substantial. While the hardest puzzle in the game got me stuck for no more than a few days, different versions of this article have been brewing in my mind for the past three years — and it still feels grossly insufficient.

Some incredible titles make waves in gaming culture by being compared to the greatest games ever made, such as when a Bioshock was deemed the new Ocarina of Time (that’s gamer lingo for “a perfect, untouchable game”) in the eyes of gaming critics. The Witness didn’t make as many waves because, in my opinion, more apt points of comparison would be works like the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, or one of Beethoven’s symphonies.

It is a game accessible for anyone with a brain capable of making sense of its own experiences, and if you have a computer capable of running this 2016 game, I urge you to have the experience it brings.

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The very definition of breadth over depth.