If I get stuck in a game, I look up a play guide. It’s just who I am, who I’ve always been, and mostly I have no shame about it. I firmly believe that my general lack of skill, coordination, and patience should form no barrier in my progress through digital worlds.

I’m used to furrowing brows with this attitude. I can appreciate why. A game is won by succeeding in a series of objectives and something is lost when that success isn’t truly earned. It’s an empty win. But there are reasons I do it, reasons I tell myself are valid. Mostly it’s because I don’t have limitless hours to bang my head against brick walls. I’ve cheated to overcome shitty design that fails to direct the player properly. Often it’s just because the game is stupid-hard or frustrating and I’m done with feeling inadequate, or because I want to experience every last detail of a game I’ve really enjoyed. Still, games are the only medium where content is withheld until you’ve proven yourself worthy of accessing it. Sure, there are books that exceed my literary comprehension, or esoteric films that I don’t get, but I’m still able to access them in their entirety. Games gate-keep their content and competency is the cost of admission.

When The Witness came out I was determined to beat it without the aid of the internet. Why did I feel the need to do this with this particular game? Probably because Jonathan Blow would strongly disapprove, and I fear his judgement. But mostly it was because I thought of The Witness as a smart game for smart people and I wanted to feel like a smart person. Someone a bit cleverer than I am, someone who gets it. I wanted to prove to myself that my frontal lobe is capable of overcoming challenges beyond calculating correct bus fare. My true potential would be revealed to my several PlayStation network acquaintances and I would be revered. I vowed to best this game honestly and slay this logic-dragon. No matter how many dreary nights it took, I would persevere.

floor

I faced a formidable challenge. The Witness is a puzzle game in the most literal sense. On a pristine island we find hundreds of touch screen terminals which contain puzzles to be solved. They’re line puzzles, to put it simply. We must correctly weave a luminous line around a grid to its exit. Various symbols are introduced, each with their own unique rule sets. Sometimes environmental elements and the player’s perspective comes into play, but it always comes back to this simple but infinitely complex task. And it gets bloody hard.

It went so well for a while. I was making progress and solving puzzles with ease. I was well on my way to achieving the smug sense of self-satisfaction I so craved. But then I got stuck, really stuck. I’d reached an absolute roadblock. It was during one of the many instances in The Witness where the difficulty spikes severely between puzzles. It was like being asked two plus two as a warm up for an advanced calculus exam. I tried for what seemed like forever on the same puzzle. I grew impatient. “This is literally impossible,” I kept muttering to myself, the blatant falsehood of my statement somehow comforting to me. The Witness trusts in the player’s intelligence and ability to figure out problems, but I was starting to feel like that trust was sorely misplaced me. I caved in and googled the solution. I could feel Jonathan Blow’s scowl of disapproval burning into the back of my neck. “I worked on this for seven years and you just give up after twenty minutes?” I imagine him saying, disgusted. The dream was over, and I failed because I couldn’t draw a fucking line.

reach

I immediately regretted it. Once I saw the solution, it seemed so obvious. How could I have missed that? It felt like the only possible solution I hadn’t tried. In ten more minutes or five more attempts, I would have worked it out and felt the swell of accomplishment and pride as I had so many times before. Instead I felt like a fraud. The pop of the accompanying achievement a tawdry bauble of my deception. My achievements in The Witness are forever tainted with digital lies. I swore to never to do it again. I told myself it wasn’t too late, I could ignore this single indiscretion and arise victorious and mostly clean. Until I did it again. And again. Then a couple more times. Maybe about ten in total. Probably fifteen if we’re talking hard figures. With each progression hindrance my patience waned and the time I would allow to pass before caving in shortened. I was stuck on this ride, but with a pocket full of free tickets, I kept on going.

I could never say that I did it, that I finished The Witness unassisted. And I felt as fake as the vacant plastic island I inhabited.

It’s like your fifth grade teacher always said: “the only person you’re cheating is yourself”. It’s a clichéd sentiment that is ultimately true. I robbed myself of the satisfaction of completing The Witness myself. As hostile and confounding as it can be, the solutions are always there in front of you if you take the time to look. There’s always a way to overcome any obstacle. It wasn’t even my sluggish brain holding me back because I was clearing some tough puzzles that made me feel like a genius. As someone who routinely struggles with the finer nuances of push/pull doors, I was pretty happy with how far I managed to get before I cracked. It was my lack of patience and self discipline that let me down, and the ever present temptation that the answer is just a few clicks away. If you were stuck in a game before the internet, if it wasn’t in Nintendo Power you were screwed. Guides are so accessible now that it’s hard for me to ignore.

I’m impatient, easily frustrated, and have horrendous spatial awareness. None of these qualities are desirable when playing The Witness. I would have relished writing a self-righteous declaration about how I, alone, overcame this insurmountable challenge and that I’m just a little bit superior because of it, but it turns out I’m not that kind of player. I may never be. From the first instance I cheated, I felt like a poorly behaved house guest who’d been politely asked to leave. I shouldn’t have been surprised. As stunning and clever as The Witness is, it’s also cold and uncompromising, and I’m probably not the kind of player that’s welcome on its island in the first place.

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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  • Louis

    After seeing how painfully pretentious the game’s endings are, both the normal ending and the secret one you can get at the start of the game, I find myself completely at peace with my cheating. Really, it’s incredible.

    • Simon Rankin

      I must admit I found the normal ending strangely uplifting. When it came to the second, well, I couldn’t even be bothered cheating my way through to get that one.