Spoiler Warning for Myst, which seriously you guys came out in 1993
Over the past two years the Faction of Gaming Culture that Shall Not Be Named has been clamoring for an end to the supposedly corrupting and corroding influence of politics in video games. Specifically, they complain that “political correctness” is oppressing game developers, stifling creativity in the name of inserting feminism and other social justice issues where they don’t belong: in our escapist entertainments. They also argue against certain kinds of criticism that uses video games as a jumping off point to examine the broader culture. Instead, they advocate for “objectivity” in reviews.
But the question remains: how can a critic remove themselves entirely from an account of their personal experience of the game? What exactly would a truly “objective” video game review actually look like?
It the tongue-in-cheek entries over at Objective Reviews are any indication, the answer seems to be: pretty sterile and useful only in a particularly narrow way. Objective Reviews can give readers a description of things like technical specs and basic summaries of a game’s mechanics and can even alert us to things like game-breaking bugs or Early Access shenanigans.
But is this all that we want out of games criticism? Or, to put it another way, is this what we believe every game review must be like? Can’t these so-called objective reviews share the stage with other kinds of games writing like industry think pieces and new games journalism and reviews that connect games up to education in the hard sciences and the humanities?
Which in turn begs the question: what would a game that is completely devoid of politics look like?
Enter: The Witness.
The Witness drops players onto a beautiful deserted island strewn with puzzles. Solving the puzzles grants one access to additional areas, opening up more ground for exploration.
If that sounds familiar to you, then perhaps you played the smash hit 1993 PC puzzle/exploration game Myst, another game that took place on an island and required players to solve puzzles to enable travel to new locations.
However, despite its mostly quiet, contemplative tone, Myst was chock full of political intrigue. As you explored the island, you pieced together the story of what happened to its inhabitants before you arrived, including the struggle for power between two brothers whose brutal reign ripped their world apart.
Where there are power struggles, there are politics. And where there are people, there is at least the possibility of a power struggle.
But in The Witness there are no people other than you, the player. The game is a near-perfect ludic escape, a practically impermeable Magic Circle containing nothing but puzzles. There is no story, no characters, and no interpersonal conflicts. There is only zen-like abstraction, a series of challenges undertaken merely to experience a pleasurable struggle followed by the elation of success.
And this is a wonderful thing! Playing The Witness is extremely relaxing, like doing yoga or completing a daily crossword. When I stepped away from the game, I found myself daydreaming about its puzzles, seeing them in everyday objects and behind my eyelids when I laid down to sleep. And the island is colorful and mysterious and gorgeous, a place I intend to visit again and again. It is a lonely place, but again, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it feels good to retreat to a space where you can be alone, especially a space as lovely as the island. Sometimes it feels good to become so completely absorbed in something that all of your awareness of your day to day life falls by the wayside.
But again I ask: is this the only purpose we want our games to have? Can’t excellent games like The Witness stand alongside other kinds of experiences like geopolitical simulators and explorations of mental illness and PTSD and games about love and family and friendship and sexuality and a million other things?
I loved The Witness. But it would be a shame if every game were just as single-minded in its pursuit of distraction.