Some time ago, I wrote about feeling a need to challenge myself in new ways. It wasn’t just a matter of trying activities that were new and difficult, because it’s easy enough to do a new thing once and award yourself a gold star for being open-minded.
The point of the exercise was to stick with it, to confront my status as an absolute beginner, to repeatedly bungle simple tasks and be unable to produce anything of value… and to be okay with it. To be okay with sucking at something, possibly for a really long time, and maybe, eventually, to get comfortable with that idea.
I chose three activities for myself under these auspices last year: software development, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and electronic music. Looking back, I’d say that my record is decidedly mixed, because it’s hard to be bad at something and to know it. But that’s a subject for another post.
I’m reminded of all this because I’ve been playing a pair of video games that have turned me into a hapless newbie, while somehow causing me to love every minute of it. I think that is true virtuosity in game design.
I listened to a gaming podcast recently where panelists were discussing XCOM 2 in dismissive, almost petulant tones. One guy complained that the sequel was a giant step back from the first game in practically every way. He felt that the game threw too much information and too many choices at the player, such that he had no idea what was important and what he could safely ignore. There was no clear path to success. No matter what he did things were spinning out of his control, and he hated it. He pined for the relative simplicity and linearity of the first game.
I wanted to yell CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE HIT UPON THE POINT OF THIS GAME in my imaginary depiction of this guy’s face. Which which would have been weird, because I was walking down Ventura Boulevard by myself. Nevertheless, I was as angry at this dude as he was at XCOM 2.
The single most important thing about XCOM 2 is that you have already lost at the outset of the game. The first thing you learn after coming out of cold storage is that your resounding victory at the end of the first game was temporary. The aliens came back, defeated your forces, and have been running the planet for 20 years. Earth isn’t yours any more.
Losers don’t get a clear path to victory, bro. Paths to victory are for winners only. You aren’t defending what you already have because you don’t have anything: zero information, few resources, little manpower, and practically no hope. You are clawing your way out of the grave. You are on the Long March.
Believe me when I say that the game made me feel this on a visceral level. For most of the 40ish hours of the single-player campaign (and this was on the normal difficulty setting, mind you), the game kept me suspended right on the edge of losing. That is an extremely tough balance to strike game design-wise.
On the management level, I had to learn the hard way which opportunities were worth pursuing and which were expensive wastes of time, and there were lots and lots of the latter. At no point did I have enough time or money to build everything I needed to build. In combat, my soldiers were killed wholesale — even my very best guys, who in the first game effectively became invincible after a while.
Some players might consider this state of affairs unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unfair. I thought it was awesome because every single choice mattered. I was the one deciphering how to survive, delay, and eventually thrive, so when I finally got the ship turned around and pointed in the right direction, it felt like a real accomplishment. I did the work, I beat the aliens, and now I want to play again on an even more masochistic difficulty level.
Meanwhile, I haven’t beaten The Witness yet. I’m honestly not sure I ever will, at least not on my own. But I am sure as hell going to keep trying.
Although it isn’t run by a sinister alien administration, it’s clear that the humans in this game’s world also lost control. The island on which you find yourself is filled with statues of people in every conceivable pose and situation, as if they were caught in a nuclear blast that turned them to stone instead of vaporizing them. Some of these stone people seem to be running away from something. Others are angrily confronting one another, or kicking back and relaxing, or peering intently at their stone laptops.
Other than those statues, your only companions in this game are abandoned and often crumbling buildings, plant life, exceptionally gorgeous vistas, and hundreds upon hundreds of maze boards. Your only jobs are to explore the island and complete those mazes until… something… happens. Maybe you finally learn what happened to everyone. I have no idea.
In The Witness, exploration and puzzle completion are entwined in a very interesting way. The boards are tied together in long sequences that teach you the rudiments of a visual language from first principles as you complete the puzzles. In addition to being highly complex, this language’s grammar is fragmented, such that new rules are spread all over the island in bits and pieces. Thus progressing through the game is partially a matter of holistically hunting for clues. Formerly impassable areas can click into focus once you learn something from another location.
But let me tell you, that learning is hard-won. The simplest way to describe this game is that it makes me feel like a preschooler again. As such, it invokes both child-like wonder and child-like frustration. I don’t understand anything, I don’t know how anything works, and I can’t make any progress… until, suddenly, somehow, I come to look at things in a new way.
There is no real algorithm for this. It certainly isn’t a matter of trying solutions until I randomly hit on something. Attempting to brute force these puzzles is a recipe for migraine. The best way to describe the method, to the extent there is one, is to think divergently. It’s meditative, not systematic, and that is why I think the game cultivates such a quiet and contemplative atmosphere.
This sense of a mental door opening is the currency in which the game trades. Most games only ever hit this note a single time, if at all, but The Witness invokes it repeatedly. Each time it does, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and I want another dose. But then I have to wait–sometimes staring at a particularly tough puzzle for hours in total, leaving and returning multiple times–until it comes again. I don’t want anyone to tell me the solution. That would ruin everything.
I had been stuck in this game for weeks until last night, when I suddenly made a breakthrough and ran through 20 puzzles in a row. And now I’m stuck again, but I know I can do it… maybe. From what I’ve read, I’m about halfway through.
As I get older, I find that these are increasingly the kinds of games I want to play. My time, and energy are so much more limited than they used to be, so it seems paradoxical that I would be drawn to challenges like these instead of lighter fare (although, to be fair, I still play plenty of casual games on my phone).
I think what’s happening is that I now want everything I do to move me forward in some way, even my entertainment. But I also think about “moving forward” in a different way than I used to.
Instead of being narrowly achievement-focused, moving forward can now mean learning to relax, learning humility, learning patience, learning about someone else’s point of view, learning a new skill, learning whatever, just as long as I’m learning. And I think it’s pretty cool that there are an increasing number of games out there that are trying to teach me something.