Even those who would reject the idea that videogames are an “art form” could agree that games can exhibit certain traditional aesthetic values. One prominent one is elegance. If we look toward traditional, analogue games, it seems inarguable to me that Go is elegant, and that Chess is elegant. Over the course of centuries, the tumbler of human culture has worn them down to their most perfect, least messy forms. (And they often come in supremely visually pleasing packages, to boot.) Looking to the history of videogames, it seems uncontroversial to propose that Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) and Breakout (Atari, 1972) also exhibit this serene mixture of simplicity and grace.
Of course, videogames can also be bloated and unrefined. On the audiovisual level, the public imagination has long associated the medium all that is cacophonous and retina-searing: a ceaseless stream of crude stimulation optimized for goldfish-like attention spans. A peek at the output of PlatinumGames or Treasure over the past decade demonstrates that this conception is not entirely unearned. On the design side of things, games often come packaged with an inordinate amount of mechanical cruft. To boot up a contemporary Ubisoft game is to be assaulted by map icons, as the core activities of the game are augmented with collectibles and minigames and side-challenges and online player “invasions” and microtransactions and and and and and and and and and….
Sometimes, though, you can point to a game and say, “this is exactly what it needs to be, and no more.” Sometime a game stands as a perfectly-cut gem of craft, with every element contributing to an overall sense of balance. Its user interface is a triumph of usability, compact and graceful. Its color scheme is tamped-down and meaningful. Its sound design is minimal and expertly-deployed. It is thematically tight: if there is a narrative involved, it is a lean and coherent one. It is, overall, soothing in its form, even if it might simultaneously be stressful in its challenge.
The first five games of this list all chase this sort of technical perfection. Some are small, and some are large, but they all are careful not to hit one unnecessary note.
This past March, at SCMS, I walked out on a paper being delivered by Oscar Moralde on The Witness (Thekla, Inc, 2016). I did so not out of disinterest. (I’ve enjoyed Moralde’s papers in the past.) Nor did I do so out of rudeness. Rather, I did it because of spoilers. Moralde was kind enough to warn ahead of time that his paper would spoil a small portion of the joy of teasing out the behaviors of The Witness’ world, and advised those who hadn’t played it to leave, lest they deny themselves a rich intellectual—and some would even say emotional—experience of personal discovery. And, in my eternal shame, as of March of 2017, I still had not played The Witness. Even though it had been sitting right there in my Steam library for months. (Ashlyn Sparrow and Whitney Pow can attest to the truth of this story.)
Moralde’s paper was a wake-up call to me that I needed to get better about my gaming backlog, if for none other than purely academic reasons. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up on things in real-time since that moment. (I played Tacoma, already!) I offer this story, though, not (strictly) as a chance to to advertise my newfound dedication to keeping up with recent releases, but also as a warning. Basically, the heads-up Moralde offered in front of his talk also applies here. The pleasures of The Witness are the pleasures of discovering puzzle mechanics, and you will deny yourself a small portion of those if you watch this new video essay I’ve whipped together.
That said, if you don’t mind spoiling such things, or if you’ve played The Witness already, go ahead and dash right in. This video is considerably shorter and more focused than my previous experiments in the “Let’s Study” format. It focuses on the pedagogical aspects of the game’s puzzle design, in particular its fondness for safe failure. Whether it’s encouraging assumptions about its mechanics that quickly get proved wrong, or setting up perceptual bad habits only to nip them in the bud, Jonathan Blow’s puzzle design in the best portions of The Witness front-load failure, so as to hammer home lessons. I hope you enjoy my short tour through this technique!
As before, a full transcript of my narration is below the fold. (I’d love to eventually add these as subtitles to the YouTube upload for accessibility reasons, but that is beyond my abilities, at the moment.)