Video Game Review: The Witness

WitnessPoster (1)The Witness first came to my attention while I was perusing a popular gaming magazine, the name of which I cannot recall, my sister had subscribed to years ago. It caught me quite by surprise because most gaming publications focus on anything but puzzle-adventure games and has ever been so since the decline of the genre in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Apart from the Portal series, Antichamber, and Fract OSC, there have been very few (good) puzzles game in the last 10 years (or more) for me to look forward. I was excited just to see one featured in a major gaming magazine and am glad to say that it was worth the several-year wait. With genuinely challenging puzzles and a beautiful environment, The Witness succeeds, but often tries too hard to sound smart.

The graphic design of The Witness has been widely praised and is, indeed, deserves it but I feel the architecture on the island serves special praise. Thekla, Inc. hired consulting architects to design the architectural elements of the island. Many game developers give little thought to architectural details and how crucial it is in creating a believable world. In games architecture is often only a superficial set-dressing, providing a semblance of time and space, but rarely achieving anything near historical accuracy or spatial sense. The Witness is one of the few games I have played that does justice to one of humanities oldest arts.

The game-play on the whole is very well organized. Unlike most other puzzle games that preference environmental or inventory puzzles, The Witness uses abstract logic puzzles. These consist of mazes that gradually increases in complexity and difficulty as the player progresses. The rules of these mazes are indicated through a variety of video and audio cues. Symbols, shadows, sounds, reflections, and, yes, even the fruit growing on the trees can provide vital clues to a puzzle’s solution. Some puzzles are quite easy, while others require more time, and some are downright difficult. Indeed, The Witness is easily the most difficult puzzle-based game I have played since Trilobyte’s The 11th Hour. However, as difficult as the puzzles can be, most of them do not feel unfair. In the cases of The Witness, a little patience can go a long way. I often found myself solving a previous frustrating puzzles after a several hour break and always felt gratified by doing so. It can be hard to find puzzle-based games that are genuinely difficult and The Witness does this very well, if at times too well.

In fact, the difficulty can be so great that I can’t help wondering if the game could have benefited from difficulty settings, thus allowing players to tailor the game-play to suit what they feel it appropriate to their skill. If they complete the game on a lower difficulty, they could always return and replay it on a higher setting. Given how many puzzles there are in the game (more than 400? or is it 600?) they could easily have sorted them into several levels of difficulty.

Despite this, however, The Witness does provide some relief by organizing the island, and its puzzles, into separate distinct areas. Completing each section activates a laser but the 11 lasers available, only 7 have to be activated to proceed to the end of the game. This allowed me to bypass an areas of puzzles that stumped me for a long time and to focus on others. Unfortunately, once you get to the find stretch of the game, this rule no longer applies and you have to solve every puzzle.

The puzzles I enjoyed the most were those that directly altered the environment. In some areas, such as the swamp, laboratory, and tree house, the puzzles moved platforms, bridges, or rooms. Most other puzzles simply unlock doors, which is a fine mechanic in and of itself, but integrating the puzzles into larger functions made solving these puzzles especially rewarding. Unfortunately, it a rare experience in The Witness.

There was one problem that occasionally got in my way, quite literally, when solving certain puzzles. The solution to some puzzle are suggested by tree branch but unless you have the camera position just right, you won’t be able to solve the puzzle. If a piece of branch extends into your path it will obstruct your line. Curiously, another puzzles use a similar element with shadows but they never obstruct the line. In another instance, a maze panel is obstructed by debris, unrelated to the solution itself, and can’t be solve unless the player is standing in just the right position. These problems form unnecessary barriers to solving puzzles and increase frustration in an undesirable way. Fortunately, these problems are minimal and don’t render the game unplayable.

The one characteristic of The Witness that makes it stand out from the rest of adventure games is its story, or lack thereof. I expected, from what little information was given during its development and prior to release, that the game would have a minimal story and would center on the experience of solving puzzles. Granted, the ah-ha! moment is there but there really is no story to speak of. I had expected, even hoped, that there would at least be something to give context to the islands existence or purpose but this is one area where The Witness is odd—not disappointing, mind you, but odd.

Throughout the game the player may encounter audio recordings on small electronic recorders, scattered throughout the island’s variation locations. Each of the recordings are direct questions from a variety of real sources and not fictional. These quotes are interesting in and of themselves, and compliment the game’s awe-inspiring scenery but they are very difficult to find within the game. I knew for some time there would be recordings in the game, because it was explicitly stated in interviews, but I never noticed them until I got to the secret ending. Afterwards, I went back to find some of them, though I confess I did not feel motivated enough to do a thorough search after completing the game. The recording devices are just too small to easily notice and there is nothing to draw your attention to them. One is even hidden between a post. Even in a beautifully minimalistic world it’s easy to neglect a small detail such as this and I feel that this is a problem they could have easily avoided.

In addition to these audio recordings, there is an underground theater when the player can video a small collection of videos and, much like the audio recordings, these clips are not original material but taken from other sources. It’s a curious choice and one I think does not work. Some of the videos are quite long and are just indirectly related to the gameplay as they audio recording but unlike the audio recordings, which you can listen to as you continue to play, you must sit (or stand, really) and watch them. Compared to the audio recordings, they are at least easier to find, but the sitting and watching is somewhat unpleasant because the content of these videos are not crucial to the game. Even the audio reducing seems unnecessary. After all, I got through the game without even noticing them! If indeed the game is about discovery and the ah-ha! moment of puzzle solving, then these audio and video clips create a sort of intrusion into the player’s subjective experience of the game. Instead of forming our own impressions, we are exposed to a series of thematic primers. This would not have been bad, and might even have worked, if there were a more conventional story to provide context to the island and purpose to these recordings but without this the recordings just seem unnecessary.

The two endings are just as problematic. One will send you back to the very beginning, resetting every puzzle, and the other (secret) ending shows a long, drawn-out video of the creator waking up from a virtual reality headset and stumbling around. These endings make the completion of the game feel final but I found them very unsatisfying. Again, they might have worked if the game had a more conventional story but because it doesn’t these sequences feel rather superfluous. Personally, I would prefer the game to have no ending. That way the focus would be entirely placed on the puzzles and the environment.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed the game immensely. It is one of the most challenging and visually stunning puzzle games I have ever played but it’s lack of story remains a strong weakness of The Witness, which is only emphasized by the unnecessary audio and video quotations. The Witness certainly isn’t for everyone and I can easily understand why some people absolutely hate it but it made this puzzle-gamer very happy and I think it will please other puzzle-loving gamers as well, provided of course that they don’t expect a story to go with their puzzles.

Book Review: Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe

25143464The works of Ann Radcliffe are of an immense importance to me, for reasons too numerous to name here, and it was with great excitement that I received the news that Valacourt books was publishing a new edition of a rare volume–Lusignan, Or The Abbaye of La Trappe. It was published anonymously in 1801 and has been highly praised by Montague Summers, whose opinion on the gothic I have often put much faith in, and in recent years it has been argued that it could even have been written by Radcliffe herself.

To be fair, there is nothing to really connect Radcliffe with Lusignan and since we do not have any evidence to suggest an author, we may never know with any certainty that she didn’t write it. It’s certainly tempting to think that Radcliffe preferred to published anonymously after the reputation of the gothic had fallen and to protect herself from the harsh, political scrutiny her works were beginning to receive. Indeed, Lusignan does bear some resemblance to Radcliffe’s work, in both style and theme, but it’s superficial at best.
The protagonists talk of virtue, retire to convents, and muse about the scenery but these instances are often short and lack depth. Suspense is rarely sustain for longer than a few pages and the eerie effects the authors employs are poorly executed and confusing. Even at her worst, Radcliffe wrote better than this.

What ultimately convinced me that Radcliffe did not write Lusignan was the sexist tone of the narrator. There are several instances in which the narrator makes misogynistic remarks about women characters.

One passage from Lusignan reads,

Emily had been nurtured in the bosom of virtue, which strengthened her mind, and rendered it capable of exertion, but could not subjugate a keen sensibility, too often fatal to female happiness. (pg. 29)

and another,

He found in her a fund of good sense and information very rare in the sex, and which soon induced him to abandon the trifling observations he had been used to detail to every woman he met, and turn the conversation to subjects less general, but infinitely more interesting to a cultivated mind. (pg. 138)

While it was common for Radcliffe to employ misogynist men as antagonists, her narrators never demean women. As I have argued in a previous post, Radcliffe’s works have a definite feminist tone that is expressed both through the characterization of her female protagonists and the dialogue. In fact, the second passage quoted above directly mirrors something Signor Montoni says to Emily St. Aubert, in an attempt to gain control over her property.

I am not in the habit of flattering, and you will, therefore, receive, as sincere, the praise I bestow, when I say, that you possess an understanding superior to that of your sex; and that you have none of those contemptible foibles, that frequently mark the female character—such as avarice and the love of power, which latter makes women delight to contradict and to tease, when they cannot conquer. (pg. 380)

I was very eager to believe that Radcliffe could have written Lusignan but, considering the blatantly sexist tone of the prose, I find it hard to believe that she could have. It’s a dramatic shift in tone, wholly discordant with her previous works. Frankly, I’m surprised that I seem to be the only one to notice this.

I’m not one to quit a book halfway but I found Lusignan to be so unbearable to read I simply had to put it down and remedy my disappointment by instead reading Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance, which proved to be not only of superior quality to Lusignan but a highly inventive and entertaining novel in and of itself. Plus, we know Radcliffe wrote it.

Playing The Sims 4

I have never really played much attention to The Sims games, even though I enjoyed plays the demo for The Sims 2 many years ago and liked concept very much. For whatever reason, it never caught caught my interest enough to inspire m to play it. That is, until EA Games expanded gender customization in The Sims 4 last month.

As an androgynous, genderqueer man, I really appreciate this. I have heard people speak dismissively of this update, arguing that it is nothing special because the same versatility could have been accomplished through modding. I don’ t know if that is true, although I do understand that modding can be tricky and complicated, but the fact that EA Games chose to standardize this versatility is a clear and wonderful acknowledgement of gender-fluid people.

With that said, I was surprised to find that some full-body clothing (such as the female lingerie and bathing suits) are still female only.

Depsite this, however, the expansion is a major reason why I got the game, although the sale price I paid–which was dropped by 60%–made it all the more worthwhile.

After about a month of playing The Sims 4, I find myself really enjoying the game-play overall but most all the architectural design. In some ways, the possibilities are limited. There are no conical roofs, landings for stairs, or enough size variety of windows styles. Nevertheless, I have been capable of creating some lovely houses, mostly in the styles of popular early twentieth-century movements, with what the game gives me and a little modding.

Here are a few of the houses I have created so far and I have made all three available the community gallery, along with a few others as well. My username is dgahl.

A Fragment

The fine box, all gilt and varnished redwood, defies my pleasure
by instantaneously turning to stone;
weighing heavily in my hands, it pulls me ever deeper into the ocean.
In panic, I try to remove my hands
and save myself from certain death
but I cannot resist its magnetic pull
as it compels me inextricably into unfathomable depth.

Cause and Consequence

A relationship never ends on formal terms alone.

With false fortitude, I listened politely as he eagerly recited
the various praises and fine attributes of his new lover
and secretly felt an intense, sickening sensation,
in the pit of my stomach,
far worse than any other pain I incurred on his behalf.
For fear of exciting his resentment, I forbore all protestations
and suffered the final injury he would ever inflict upon me.

In a moment of jealous rage!,
I drove the knife as deeply as its short length could allow
and brought forth from the wound a steady stream of warmest blood.
Despite the horror of my actions, I felt neither pain nor distress,
and was gladdened to be sequestered within the sacred confines
of a psychiatric ward—
though it hardly felt like a home, the absence of my former lover
and his dominating presence brought great, unparalleled relief.

Old lovers simply do not make good friends.

An Ordinary Terror and the Cost of Curiosity

Superstition becomes, of its own source,
a conviction of the greatest import,
impelling us to forbearance and caution
but, with little reason to restrain the extent of its effects,
it fully prohibits those inclinations so necessary
for the fulfillment of a happy life.
The world and its many tragedies,
portrayed with even greater intensity by the all-pervading media,
justified my seclusion, and was only further reinforced
by my lack of means,
by which entertainment is so commonly sought.
As dearly as I have desired to remove myself
to the world without these walls,
to enjoy its pleasures and see its wonders,
anxiety disinclined me from idly neglecting my fears.
They held onto me as surely as gravity maintains the planets
in their orbit
but they, like these fears, are not eternal
and only seem, by those unseen forces kept,
preserved in their usual course for all futurity.

Alas, for all the world is in decay
and the sun burns more brightly every day.

Time leaves its inevitable mark upon the languorous mind,
extending and contracting itself to the inconvenience of the
suffering kind,
and compels to frenzied activity the spirit of foolish spontaneity,
such that one gladly undertakes ventures one would have once
declined.

Into the world I ventured fast, never fretting
what course I was setting,
and found myself, without wit
to guide me safely through it.
Not before long, as the sun’s dissipating light
dispelled and obscured my sight,
I came to a wood surrounded clearing
well without any person’s hearing
and stood awhile in silence, gazing ’round with awe
at everything I saw.

Then, as I looked at the scenery around
I heard a most disquieting sound,
like the rapturous gnawing of some beast
upon its victim feast.
From where I stood
among the many trees of the wood
I could not determine with certainty
the location of this entity
and remained for a while petrified;
yet, just as the sound feverishly intensified,
it then came to an ominous, abrupt end,
and I then saw that which such sounds portend—
bearing its teeth, colored with crimson,
the wolf revealed its maw most fearsome!

Quickly, I ran off into the wood, hoping to lose the wolf
amongst the labyrinth of trees,
but alas!, as I soon realized, it followed without faltering,
guided perhaps by those acute senses,
well-attuned by their nature,
to hunt their prey unto their victim’s unfortunate fate.
In a mere moment’s time I saw a crevice dug into the ground,
and hid myself below the rim, hoping that I had done so in time
to secure myself from its detection.

Dreading that the wolf might venture nearer to my hiding place,
I pushed my body more tightly into the crevice
and away from the outer rim.
It drew nearer yet did not seem to suspect my presence there,
for it neither growled menacingly nor discovered me,
and eventually, though not swiftly, departed from that spot
to the surrounding woods.
When all was quiet and I recovered my senses,
I warily raised my head just slightly above the rim
to determine its whereabouts
but whatever way I looked there appeared no frightful beast
to excite my fears,
so I left that place, fleeing back in the direction of my home,
and never again dared to venture out
on the whim of some desperate curiosity.

The Counsel of Despair

It’s easy enough to be alive, for it takes little effort on my part
to pump the bellows full of air and keep Life’s fire alight,
but whatever purpose this process might ultimately serve
is, as far as I know, impossible to justify.
In moments of despair all the world does seem to shrink,
any power over my life feels
as though it has been robbed from me,
and I no longer feel the pull of meaningful pursuits.

The world beyond these walls does not interest me,
for I see nothing in it but an agonizing enterprise.
As I move towards the object of my interest
my movements become slow,
as though the air were as thick as water,
and the terrible monster,
whose voracious appetite compels it to pursue me,
comes ever nearer
yet neither succeeds nor abates.
It is impossible for me to stop and give up to the powers that be,
for there is nothing there but death and decay,
yet I am not entirely unaware that my path
has become stereotyped;
like all nightmares the fiercest monster
is merely monotony.

The dogma of doubt dictates uncertain regulations
while despair certifies the uselessness of action
and negates the significance of life.
In fits of rage I shrug off the outside world
and defy the promises it offers,
denying the notion of ever being well again.
It’s hard enough to move when both desire and necessity
fail to motivate me, yet for every reason I have to live
I have an equally compelling reason to die.
I stand before the altar of Life, prepared to revive my resolve
through its resources,
but just as I place my offering bowl on the counter top
my limbs cease to obey my will.
I stand like a statue with a death-like paralysis,
unable to perform even the most basic task of feeding myself.

The very mechanisms of my defense monopolize my actions,
culling conscious control in favor of fear and dread
of things that may or may not come to be.
In compulsive fretting I feel “It” constricting,
pulling me inward towards myself
and away from the dangerous world
but within me there are only self-inflicting wounds,
familiarly striped and applied with feverish vigor.

In life I fear that which I have often seen in my sleep—
the expedient decay of my body.
Teeth rot and fall out; baldness spreads swiftly and inextricably
across my scalp;
and, with terror and morbid curiosity,
I open up my abdominal cavity
as though the skin were as soft as clay,
and watch my vital organs slip out.
There must be more to this entity, my intuition says,
than mere organismic order and instinctual instruction—
but as in dreams, so too in life,
I fearfully find nothing but flesh and bone.

Without our sacred values we crumble to our knees:
Eating is reduced to a mere routine
to stave off the ache of hunger,
beauty becomes a vacant facade to hide the structures of decay,
and life itself, despite all the good it purportedly entails,
becomes a purposeless passing from one day to the next.