Fez and The Witness. One received as a work of genius and the other an exercise in pretension.
That’s not really accurate. The Witness received many rave reviews but the Internet being the Internet, you could throw a rock and hit someone writing about how Jon Blow was “laughing” at the player or showing off how much “smarter” he is than all of us.
Fez never received such criticism. Not even when its hardest puzzle took a full week of internet time to solve and the answer is so convoluted that you need to know several different programming languages to figure it out, let alone understand it.
So why all the love for Fez and all the distain for The Witness?
I’ll say straight up that I loved Fez. I found it charming, mysterious, challenging and rewarding — up to a point. The final, optional puzzles were so difficult, and obtuse really, that I knew I wasn’t going to find the answer and did what I really hate to do in a puzzle game: I looked up the solution online. The answer, it turned out, isn’t really supported by the game, its puzzles or its mechanics at all. It that a good puzzle, then?
The Witness, on the other hand, is carefully crafted to create a sort of meditation space but for those who want to dig deeper and learn what the game is really “about,” it twists and turns and contradicts itself over and over and over until many players grew frustrated and just assumed that Jon Blow bungled the message.
The guy spent seven years and most of his fortune creating this game. I doubt it’s anything less than exactly what he intended.
There’s an old story about these monks who went to the Buddha and asked, how could they be enlightened like him? He simply pointed at the moon. Instead of looking at the moon, though, the monks looked at his finger, thinking it held the answers.
Here’s two books that get me thinking of these games. Fez is like Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. It starts by explaining super string theory in real simple terms that anyone can follow. Later chapters get harder and harder for a civilian like me to understand and then there’s a point where you just can’t follow what’s being explained anymore without a degree in physics.
The Witness is like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which Jon Blow called out himself as a game he made for fans of this book. It’s huge, sprawling, goes in a million directions at any point, and is ultimately so grand, so unknowable, that you have to look beyond what’s just on the page and wonder what the whole thing is really about. It can’t all be explosion-induced erections and kazoos, can it?
What The Witness wants to convey is essentially the same. It’s a message that can’t just be given to the player. Even the hidden ending that shows you Thekla, Inc.’s studios and Jon Blow hooked up to a crazy VR get-up provides way more questions than answers. Yet, despite The Witness telling you indirectly that its answers don’t lie within the game, all the clues are contained in the game. There just won’t be a collectible doo-dad or victory screen once you reach the answer.
You have to figure it out for yourself. Realize it. Internalize it.
Perhaps that’s why Fez didn’t frustrate players as much as The Witness’. It confirmed all that hard work with a reward and an uptick on the completion percentage.
Jon Blow simply pointed to the moon and trusted us to see it.
It’s dangerous to go alone, so why not follow me?