Feb 172016

A curious feature of games that seem to be the least bit intelligent is that they inspire people to believe that one True Meaning™ can be found in them. It’s a little bizarre. Games, like any work of art, tend not to be about One Thing; that’s not how creation works. Any work of art contains multitudes, not only because the creators have more than one idea in their heads but also because the interpreters are of wildly divergent backgrounds. Regardless, the temptation remains, especially when one auteur is primarily (and often erroneously) identified with the work. This approach has given us the unwieldy adjective “Spielbergian”. One hopes that no such neologism evolves from the name of Jonathan Blow, who led the production of, but did not solely create, The Witness.

I am not going to lay out the True Meaning of The Witness. Even if I thought that such a wide-ranging game could be collapsed into a single idea—and let me emphasize that this would be a very foolish thought—I’m not certain that my interpretation from playing the game would comport with Blow & company’s intentions when creating it. I would, however, like to lay out what I took from the game, to crystallize my thoughts at this time (they may change later!) and expand on my review.

That said, it may be easier to start with something that I think The Witness is not about.


The Witness_20160129223629Let’s talk about this guy: science historian and futurist James Burke. Or rather, let’s talk about the words he says after the ones shown in that picture. In a few sentences he asserts that art tells us much more about an individual artist than about any universal kind of experience, that science is a way of knowing free of ideology, and that art is easier to understand than science. These propositions range from the overstated to the ludicrously false. Burke is of course correct in that many people will disagree violently with him, and the nature of the world design and the relative simplicity of obtaining the key to this recording mean that many or even most players of the game will get to see this video. As a result, this message will stand out as a likely meaning for the game.

Of course, if the superiority of science to art is the message Blow is trying to send, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, isn’t he? I mean, the assertion here is that the Michelangelos and the Beethovens are wasting their damn time. And if they were, then Blow certainly is. Look at all this damn art he’s made when he could have been working with DE Shaw on ANTON, helping SETI@Home (or Folding@Home), or tinkering with FoldIt. He could spend a lifetime improving scientific software and barely make a dent in that tangle of ossified kludges, deprecated codebases, and garbage UX. So if he’s bent his talents to art instead, that might suggest that he doesn’t entirely agree with everything Burke is saying.

Well, maybe Blow is a hypocrite. But, if we’re going to derive a theme for The Witness from the recorded materials therein, leaping from Burke’s assertions to the True Meaning of the game seems pretty ambitious. After all, those sentences occupy some 30 seconds of a game where the recorded videos alone go on for two hours. Besides these, the game is stuffed with audio logs, many of which go on forever. Few, if any, reinforce Burke’s points. Indeed, many of them focus on religion—the antithesis of Burke’s favored form of knowledge—not only in the weak deistic sense of an Einsteinian god, but also the specific, sublime God of Abrahamic thought. So we have to find a way to cram, equally, both Burke’s scientism and Nicholas of Cusa’s reaching God through a “wall of invisible vision” into the True Meaning.

Or, perhaps, we should treat these recordings as something other than explicit declarations of theme.

Let’s come at this from another direction and consider, instead, the kinds of things one does when actually playing The Witness rather than just listening to it. Some of that involves just walking around the island itself. A large portion of it is solving the game’s maze puzzles, and it’s a good idea to ask whether they support Burke or not.

The Witness_20160209205830

This sequence of puzzles, for instance, introduces an idea that areas of the grid containing different colored squares must be segregated from one another. One of the strengths of The Witness is that it introduces these ideas fairly elegantly (although some of these instruction panels seem redundant to me). There are several different variants of these puzzles, enforcing different rules that define what the “correct” route through each maze is. Some of them indicate that the path must go through certain line segments or intersections, others require the path to outline a certain shape, and so on. What these “rule” indicators have in common is that they define puzzles that can be solved by reasoning. Moreover, those solutions need nothing external to the puzzles themselves to be solved. One can work from within the system to realize them.

These are logic puzzles, defining their valid paths from fundamental rules and their combinations. As you can see here, The Witness introduces these puzzles and their “laws” through series of panels that build them up from simple demonstrations to ever more complexity. This procedure is roughly equivalent to laying out a series of experiments. Consequently these sequences form a kind of imitation of science: formulating basic physical laws from basic experiments and then applying those rules to more complicated problems.

If that were everything, then I guess we’d have to say the game agrees with Burke. It’s not, though.

The Witness_20160209210055The Witness is full of puzzles that don’t really respond to logic. Consider this puzzle, found in the desert. From the correct viewpoint, the path one needs to draw in this puzzle is totally clear. From most other positions, the puzzle is unsolvable. There’s no “rule” here from which to reason, and the only hint that anything will work this way is found on a piece of art on the path between the game’s starting point and this location. One must either intuit or simply realize that the right angle of light will reveal the solution.

Of course, once one knows the “trick” one can try to reason out where to stand or how to change the environment to get the necessary reflection. The crucial moment that allows the puzzle to be solved, however, is the epiphany that the reflection of light matters. Mazes of this kind cannot be solved from within; one must break out of the system to get to its truth. The Witness has all sorts of puzzles that depend on realizing that cues in the environment either indicate the solution to a puzzle, or even constitute a kind of puzzle in their own right. It is a game full of little revelations.

This doesn’t seem so friendly to Burke’s assertions, but The Witness actually goes a bit further. In its Bunker area, The Witness returns to the idea of segregating different colored blotches with the maze path. Having reintroduced this idea, it then twists it by posing puzzles that can only be solved by looking at them through panels of colored glass. That is, the logic depends on one’s perspective. One could take this as a rejection of Burke’s view that scientific knowledge is unaffected by ideology.

For a further rebuttal, we can also consider the second video in The Witness, consisting primarily of a lecture by Richard Feynman in which he asserts that there is a hierarchy of concepts ranging from very elementary things like fundamental physical laws to complex and layered ideas like hope and beauty. Contra Burke, he goes on to claim that trying to understand the whole hierarchy by working only from one end or the other is a mistake. And this idea comports more clearly with the actual experience of playing The Witness, a game in which one cannot embrace the whole complexity of the world without, every once in a while, abandoning reason.


Well, perhaps that’s a better answer than some of the others. The truth is, I don’t think Feynman’s lecture encapsulates the game’s True Meaning much better than Burke does. I don’t think these found materials ever explicitly state a core meaning for the game at all, though many point towards it.

That’s at odds with a long-standing habit of games, which is to reveal elaborate backstories through audio logs or environmental storytelling. The expectation, cultivated by games like BioShock, Gone Home, and Portal, is that materials in the game will explain what’s going on. The Witness openly tweaks this expectation in some late-game areas that evoke Portal’s architectural style, but never follows through with the expected reveal. Peeking behind the walls of the island reveals nothing but more puzzles. A few audio logs here and there, as well as the “secret ending” after the credits, suggest that the game is a kind of programmed dream, but even they never explicitly lay out why the island was made or what it is for.

The Witness_20160206221012Of course none of this has stopped the expected explosion of fan theories, but I think The Witness indicates that a minute examination of its materials won’t tell anyone its point. That seems to come through in the video of Gangaji telling people to “stop looking for what you want”. It’s reinforced by the little peninsula that’s home to this statue of a man reaching for something he doesn’t realize he already has.

That’s a curious little area, in that it’s completely dead. I don’t just mean the vegetation, mind you: this is one of the only places on the island that has no panel puzzles nor environmental tracing. It’s as if this little tableau has opened up a void around itself, and it seems like a warning. Reaching for a material answer is the surest way to miss the point.

The goal, then may not be to see into the island, to understand what it’s supposed to do or how it’s intended to work. Instead, the aim may be to see through it.

Because, it’s not really trying that hard, is it? I mean, the island is lovely, but it barely even pretends that it’s a real place. In under a minute or so one can walk from a grove of fruit-laden trees through a desert into an autumnal forest, then across a meadow into a jungle with a bamboo stand. Along the way the player can gaze at a village that appears to have been erected by somebody who saw a photo of a town once, but doesn’t have a firm grasp of what buildings typically contain or what they might possibly be used for. The island is a posed paradise, an almost obvious fake, but not, as opposed to Portal, an obviously artificial construct with a “real” world behind it. There is no central computer or door out; the only thing behind the island’s façade is the other side of the façade.

Because the island contains no real answer to its own mysteries, seeking meaning in it is pointless. Through contemplation of the island’s meaning, however, one can perhaps come to an understanding that has value.


This intention would be reminiscent of the zen koan, which I mention not out of the blue but because zen and its koans are referenced in the game through audio logs. The questions or anecdotes presented in koans are intended to be understood in themselves, but in some traditions they are also valued as conduits to a deeper understanding of the world. In one log, the sciences and zen are contrasted as the apex Western and Eastern philosophies of seeing the world. So here we are coming back to that second kind of puzzles I mentioned. On the one hand, we have the imitation science present in the process of solving the logical puzzles. On the other hand, we have an imitation zen expressed in the revelations that illuminate the solutions of the epiphanic puzzles. Slap them together, and boom, you’ve got The Witness.

Here is a well-known zen koan from Hakuin Ekaku: You know the sound of two hands clapping. Tell me, what is the sound of one hand?

Two and one. A common (though far from the only) theme of koans is nonduality, but it is not only the province of zen. Consider Nicholas of Cusa’s “wall of invisible vision” or Feynman’s hierarchy of concepts linking hope to the Pauli principle. Their topics—the true nature of God and the true nature of physical law—could not be more different, but both point to a transcendental union of perceived opposites. Nonduality also gets an extended hearing in Rupert Spira’s talk describing the self as the “open, empty, luminous presence of awareness”.

A videogame, especially a puzzler, is a good vehicle for this idea. After all, a videogame is a process. It is tempting to say that it is an electronic process occurring in a computer, and from this idea we see a duality, where there is a game that is played and a player that is playing. The reality, however, is that the game is not happening without a player. There may be art and there may be puzzles and there may be a capacity for movement but these representations have meaning only when interpreted by a mind. A videogame is, to some extent, a thought its player is having, and thoughts, in a concrete, physical sense, are indivisible from the medium in which they are occurring. Thus the player, who is the witness to the island and all its art, is also The Witness.

Now maybe you don’t accept any of this. I’m certainly not a huge fan of some of it. Nicholas of Cusa seems to me to be scrawling contradictions on parchment to evade the impossibility of the actual divine, and I don’t have high regard for Spira’s mastication of Kant’s dessicated corpus, however thoroughly he washes it down with appropriated Buddhist teachings. The question at hand is not whether this is philosophically THE TRVTH, but whether it is something that coherently emerges from the game.

So we can’t just look at audio logs and videos, we have to look at the game’s apparent dichotomies. Consider, for instance, the apparent disconnect between the island and the puzzles that are on it. This is a distinction that falls apart once one finds and starts tracing the environmental paths listed on the obelisks. At that point the island is puzzles. This doesn’t address the key question implied by the recorded materials about zen and science. Does The Witness itself ever transcend the gulf between its two kinds of puzzles?

The Witness_20160209211256To be honest, I’m not so sure that it does. I’ve mentioned the puzzles in the bunker where the player has to adopt the correct perspective in order to solve a logic puzzle, and that’s not the only place where that appears. The puzzle that opens up the endgame forces the player to adjust eir perspective repeatedly in order to solve a logic puzzle multiple different ways while drawing lines around some sculptures (art!) standing on the grid. A little deeper into the endgame The Witness offers up a few last puzzles in this vein. In this one, for instance, an epiphanic perspective puzzle is combined with a logical segregation puzzle.

These, however, are combinations, superpositions. They indicate that logic and epiphany can work together, but this is a trivial point to anyone who has heard of Kekulé’s snake or reasoned through the lower-level meanings of a koan. The revelatory aspect of perspective puzzles has here been simply transmuted into a component of the logic. At best, this is still two hands clapping.

The subsequent endgame puzzles go ever further off this track. They use various visual tricks to obscure the logic of puzzles, but don’t meaningfully move in the direction of epiphany. The final puzzles could justifiably leave one with the feeling that the chasm between puzzle styles is real, that this duality cannot be transcended. Worse, the fact that the player is outside the system, which is the key to the revelatory puzzles, is in this area transformed into the chief handicap.

There is one place where things go differently. If a player activates all eleven lasers e can access an underground area where the below grid puzzle (and some others like it) can be found. By now, a player knows that the tilted symbols mean that a 3×1 grid must be segregated but that it can be oriented in any direction. What’s especially interesting here is that the central pole also has this property. By changing perspective to any of the cardinal dimensions the player excludes the same space as a tilted 3×1 symbol demands. The external, revelatory solution imposed by the post is the same as the internal, “scientific” demand of the symbol, and so the logical and epiphanic solution modes are not merely combined but collapsed into a singular thing.


I can’t deny, though, that this puzzle, however completely it matches my understanding of the game, is tucked away in an optional area many (or most!) players of the game will never reach. Although The Witness gestures towards the unification of its two modes in some key places, the final steps of the main game reinstate and even emphasize the duality. So this turn in the mountain became one of my great disappointments in the game.  The mazes there felt like they were animated by a spirit of smirking trickery, awkward and even uncomfortable to look at, and contradicting the direction the game seemed to be building in. Despite this, I think The Witness largely points in the direction I have outlined above.

Perhaps that tells you more about me than it does about any larger truth.

Jan 282016

Status: Gold in every Grand Prix through 150cc

Most Intriguing Idea: This far in, there’s not much intrigue left.

Best Design Decision: Changes to the blue shell

Worst Design Decision: Character select screen


Mario Kart 8 isn’t a game I would be likely to buy, but it came with my WiiU so I played it anyway. And look, at this point Mario Kart is pretty much a known quantity. It’s a kart racer that’s built on two main principles:

A) People who are good at Mario Kart will do well.

B) People who are not good at Mario Kart will still do well, because the game will help them.

With these principles in mind one could pick out all sorts of flaws: some powerups aren’t very helpful (most notably the bob-omb, squid, and boomerang), stats are highly dependent on character selection but can’t be seen on the character select screen, vehicles steer terribly at low speeds so running into a wall is fatal, the coin system magnifies the negative effect of adverse events, etc. In general, despite the coins, 8 seems worse at pulling players forward from the back of the pack than previous entries I’ve played, but slightly less punishing for front-runners.

One thing I like (and it may have been introduced in 7, which I did not play) is a change to the blue shell. Previously the shell was a tool for attacking the race leader, and as such it was inconsistent with both of the above principles. It punished players who were doing well already (A), but because it only affected a single other racer (and could only be obtained while rather far back in the pack) it didn’t much help players who weren’t doing well (B). Now, it slides along the track and will spin out any other racer it strikes while it seeks out the leader. As long as it hits a fair few, it’s less punishing for the leader (as spinning out other drivers reduces the chance they’ll catch him), while offering a little more aid to the back-of-the-pack driver (since it makes more racers vulnerable).

Broadly I think this is a fairly weak entry for the series. It has too many different items, of which too few are really useful or interesting, and its manipulations of gravity and transitions between driving, flying, and underwater racing are mostly noise rather than compelling new experiences. I got the feeling flash was prioritized over fun, which is a depressing direction for Nintendo to be going.

Verdict: Cautiously Recommended

Syndicate, and the Future of the Creed

 Critique, Open World Action Games  Comments Off on Syndicate, and the Future of the Creed
Jan 042016

A rumor is now circulating that Ubisoft will, after holding to an annual release schedule for several years now, not release a new flagship Assassin’s Creed game in 2016, giving its next game extra time to possibly rebuild the series from the ground up. If true, I can only commend the decision. The series has been coping with exhaustion for some time, as its most recent entry makes clear. Still, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is… not bad. Which, coming after the flaming fiasco of Unity, is a welcome turn for the better. Unfortunately, despite being fun most of the time, Syndicate is also not very good. Some of the reasons for that are bound to this particular game, and others are the result of broader failings in the series that need to be corrected.

Syndicate’s dual protagonist setup with Jacob and Evie Frye mostly feels superfluous, and really the only interesting thing about them is that they make the tension between “Assassin Lore” and “Other Stuff” that’s been a serious problem in the gameplay since AC: Revelations into part of the game’s narrative.

The story they’re involved in is scattershot. Side characters lurch into it without good cause and then fade out of it unmemorably. Although characters insist that the Templars have so great a hold on London that the Assassins fear to make any move against them, rolling up their empire doesn’t feel like much of a challenge at any point. The Big Bad, Crawford Starrick, lacks both historical heft and practical menace. He spends the game sitting uselessly behind his desk as his lieutenants, most of whom appear for only a mission or two, fall or turn against him. Aside from an intelligence-insulting reversal atop St. Paul’s, the Fryes never even suffer a notable setback in their quest to clear the city of Templars. Perhaps because of this, they don’t noticeably evolve as characters either. The whole thing stumbles to a close with a laughably silly plot by Starrick and an irritating boss battle, having never seriously grappled with the era’s contradictions (seriously, Queen Victoria should have been the game’s villain) or even outlining what the hell Starrick thought he was actually going to accomplish with his various machinations.

The present-day story continues to be a disaster. Here it is reduced to cutscenes in which the player occasionally watches characters, who either don’t have a personality or who got one six games ago and haven’t changed or even elaborated it much since, fail to accomplish much of anything. The player-character doesn’t even get a name. I suspect this is because of a desire to make the character “you”, which is the worst conceit yet in a series practically defined by narrative befuddlements. Speaking of which, what did the WWI episode have to do with anything?

Syndicate’s complement to the battle between Templars and Assassins is a gang-takeover mechanic in which the Fryes complete missions like assassinating a particular Templar or freeing all the children in a sweatshop so that their gang of people dressed in green can take over part of London from a gang of identical people dressed in red. Very Christmas-y. It all comes off like a riff on Saints Row, without any of the personality, humor, or zaniness that animates those games and the gangs within them. I actually found this set of missions to be the most entertaining (and in some cases, the most challenging) part of the game, but it peaks far below its influences. And, of course, this side of the game doesn’t seem to speak to the narrative at all (though it occasionally gates it).

Syndicate, of course, conforms to Ubisoft’s current doctrine of producing an array of side activities ranging in their design quality from awful to mediocre, then filling a beautiful virtual world with so many of them that their sheer volume brute-forces the game to a Metascore of 80. So we have a dumptruck’s worth of collectibles strewn randomly around the world: flowers and glitches and posters and bad beers and chests containing pointless resources to fund an execrable upgrade system.

The game offers more involved diversions as well. There are repetitive brawling sequences, light stealth/theft sequences, and surprisingly little in the way of assassination. Then there are the carriage races, which have such awful AI and loathsomely unsubtle rubber-banding they should be taught in school. In one race all my competitors took a wrong turn and fell so far behind they were completely off my minimap. I lost that race when they all reappeared behind me, one nosed me into an obstacle to pass, then continued to ride so fast I couldn’t catch up to him or even seemingly keep pace.

Of course, that’s what one must expect when the game’s integral chases are scripted every bit as ruthlessly. That assassins have superhuman conditioning and reflexes up until the very moment they must chase or fight someone has long been an irritation of the series, but being forced to run along after some top-hatted doofus while dodging both scripted and emergent bullshit really rubbed in how much this has begun to grate.

Certain things about the core gameplay have gotten better—this is the first game in the series where I never once ran up a wall while trying to go around a corner—but characters continue to stop moving inexplicably while climbing or free-running. Some of this is cured by the zipline, which was a necessary tool to compensate for the broad avenues the game needed to accommodate carriages. However, that tool badly oversimplified stealth despite its awful aiming system. The combat has gotten worse in every game since Ezio bowed out, and that doesn’t change here. The Fryes have KEWL FINISHERS that go on for hours but the actual process of fighting is so dull I actually fell asleep once while doing the brawling activity.

I could continue in this vein for a while. Assassin’s Creed has a near-infinite series of nits to pick, from the details of its platforming to its apparent inability to conceive of anything important happening outside of Europe’s sphere of influence. But I think one can boil things down to two key problems.

The first is a lack of substance. Assassin’s Creed has always had plenty of flash, but it also once sent its protagonists on journeys of self-discovery and embarked on serious contemplations about whether their actions and philosophies were actually right. Even Desmond, whom nobody maligned more than me, went from a useless whiner to a character I could at least respect, if never really like. Now, whether in the present or the past, none of what’s going on seems to mean anything, least of all to the characters involved. Historical figures, previously integral characters important to the story, have mostly been reduced to “I’ve heard of that guy” cameos. What once all hung together and meant something is now scattershot and disconnected, just as the games’ activities, once almost entirely focused on the core narrative, have devolved into an deluge of extraneous crap.

The second problem is rigidity, and this is something the games have never yet gotten right. In my review of Assassin’s Creed III I described this as designing like a Templar. Assassin’s Creed is at its best when it hands the player a set of tools and asks him to solve a problem, and at its worst when it seizes the reigns and says “do this this way, and no other”. I didn’t like the gang-takeover activities in Syndicate more because they were particularly well-made; I liked them because the designers got out of the way and let me complete the objectives however I liked. And, the problem with Assassin’s Creed’s free-running hasn’t been as much that it’s loose and approximate as that the mission designs consistently require specificity that its parkour can’t deliver. The series awaits a design that expresses the freedom that lies at the heart of its titular creed.

To fix these problems would require a radical revamp of both narrative and design philosophy, a dramatic paring-back of fluff and possibly a reconceptualization of the series’ core concepts. So I have no hope that it will happen. Ubisoft’s open-world design has left the intentional spareness of Far Cry 2 in the past and is so firmly committed to enormous deluges of extraneous crap that this quality has come to define “Ubisoft-ness”. In the context of that corporate culture, creating a focused, substantial game seems practically impossible. We’ll always have the memories, but Assassin’s Creed has been driven so far into the ground I’m not sure it can be dug up again.

Tales of Zestiria

 Role Playing Games, Short Take  Comments Off on Tales of Zestiria
Nov 092015

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: A Tales game where the hero isn’t a moron!

Best Design Decision: Sorey’s palette of elemental attacks.

Worst Design Decision: The water temple, which is just awful, continuing a proud tradition.


Look. Zestiria is still a Tales game, all right? Its themes are not exactly deep, its villain has stolen his motivation and possibly his jacket from Final Fantasy X’s Seymour, and the game can barely keep its lore straight. Zestiria’s main break comes in the tactical qualities of combat.

In almost every Tales game to date, it has been possible to win by just mashing the basic attack button over and over. Graces got away from this a little bit, but Zestiria really creates combat that isn’t just mashy but interesting. Attacking elemental weaknesses and avoiding resistances is more important in this game than ever, and the main character Sorey has many ways to do just that. His array of elemental attacks, and especially his ability to hot-swap element-associated partners into and out of combat and then combine with them to execute powerful combos, add layers of depth and flexibility to the system that go far beyond most other games in the series. Towards the end combat gets less interesting because enemies just have Too Many Hit Points regardless of how effectively their elemental affinities are attacked, but I thought this was the series’ most interesting combat overall.

Most of Zestiria’s other mechanical variations are duds, especially the fusion system that just doesn’t quite succeed in keeping old equipment relevant. However, I did enjoy having the ability to get some benefits from battle grade during my playthrough, rather than waiting for the second one.

I also liked this hero. Sorey is an unabashed archaeology nerd, a kind of character Tales games have mocked in the past (e.g. Raine). That’s not just something that pops up in a few skits, either. A surprising amount of Zestiria is built around the idea of exploring the world and uncovering the past. Having a hero with really defined interests beyond just punching evil has invigorated the design of Xillia and Zestiria and I hope Tales games continue in this vein going forward.

I’m also pretty well convinced that Sorey’s gay and that the game’s “official” couple is him and his bishounen friend Mikleo (an equally nerdy guy). I wish the game had leaned harder into this, but like most Tales games, Zestiria doesn’t develop its interesting ideas. In its world, for instance, the monsters the heroes are fighting are either literally invisible or look like ordinary creatures to most people. Most of Sorey’s allies are similarly invisible. Aside from a few moments here and there, though, nobody really mentions that Sorey talks to the air or seems to swing his sword at nothing. Still, just by having interesting ideas in its story Zestiria is about a mile ahead of most Tales games.

Aesthetically, the game is fine. Obviously, everyone looks like a refugee from Crunchyroll and the female characters are all dressed impractically. Zestiria also sort of maxes out the series’ creepy loli fetish and I hope every female character in the next game is over 25. Most regions feel kind of sparse, a clear result of the game’s origins on the PS3. The choice to have battles take place in the field rather than on a separate combat screen has literally no upside and plenty of downside, with the combat camera often getting stuck in a useless position even in wide-open spaces. While Sakuraba noticeably phones in a lot of the score, there are a few great pieces (my favorite being the game’s fire temple).

Despite the weakness of the game’s core plot I think there’s a lot to like in Zestiria and I would place it in the top three Tales games. Make of that what you will.

Verdict: Recommended