Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist and Proofreader

My Game of 2016: The Witness

I haven’t blogged for a while, and I’ve got no inclination to add to the endless selection of ‘2016 was awful’ posts. There were distinct ups and downs to 2016, but I want to talk about my favourite game of 2016, one that I’ve recently returned to playing.

2016 was, for me, an amazing year of games. On my first year of owning a PS4, I lucked into some very impressive games, some of which I played for over 100 hours, which is something I wasn’t expecting at all (my biggest gameplay total before was on the Mass Effect games, where I usually completed them after about 30 hours).

There was the open-world awesomeness of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, where narrative weirdness was through the roof and the endless possibilities and freedom for stealth were breath-taking. There was Uncharted 4, which matched bombastic blockbuster-style action with some surprisingly nuanced emotional storytelling, showing that there’s still new territory for big budget games to explore. And there was Bloodborne, a magnificent, terrifying ride through a world of Victorian Gothic horror that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and which pulverised my nerves in a way that had me utterly addicted. I’d never played any of the Dark Souls series (of which Bloodborne is a ‘sister project’), and I’ve never felt anything quite like the thrilling joy and achievement of actually beating certain bosses in Bloodborne (Yes, Blood-Starved Beast, I’m looking at you.)

But my favourite game of 2016? It’s The Witness, all the way.

The Witness is a puzzle game that’s very heavily influenced by the old-school computer puzzler Myst. Like Myst, you’re on a mysterious island and have to figure out a series of puzzles. Unlike Myst, the puzzles here aren’t bewilderingly presented, confusing and a bit boring. And most definitely unlike Myst, the island you’re exploring here is HUGE, and crammed to bursting with puzzles.

The basic principle of The Witness is that you trace a path on a maze, and this unlocks a new, slightly more difficult maze. The game takes this very simple mechanic – drawing mazes is literally the only way you can interact with anything in the game – and spins it out in so many directions it’s almost boggling. There’s barely any sense of repetition – the island is divided up into different areas, and each ‘zone’ mixes things up with a different variant, a different rule, a new twist that makes you look at the mazes in a different way.

It’s a simple gameplay loop, but my goodness it’s addictive. At first, there’s the joy of exploration – being able to see a new area beyond a gateway, and knowing that if you could just figure out what these odd symbols mean on this one particular panel, you’d be able to find out what’s going on over there. And then, once the game fully has its hooks into you, it’s gradually learning a different language, figuring out the relationship between one set of symbols, and knowing all along that there is a solution. The game almost always plays fair – there’s always a way of figuring it out, meaning that looking up a guide for the answers is pretty much defeating the point of the game. (Honesty time – there was one point where I succumbed, and there’s one type of puzzle I wouldn’t even have known about if I hadn’t glanced at a couple of guides. But other than that, I stuck to not looking, and I’m glad I did).

The game is fully open world, not locking you into any specific area, and you’re encouraged to simply go and wander if you can’t figure out a particular puzzle. Certain puzzles don’t make sense until you’ve solved a completely different area of the island anyway, and it’s also a beautiful environment to explore, helped by the fact that there’s no music and (aside from the rather pretentious audio logs scattered across the island, mostly quoting famous scientists or philosophers) no dialogue. Only mazes.

Probably the thing that I like most about The Witness is that it’s a game that I’ve properly ended up playing with my fiancé. Emma isn’t a regular game player in any way, and many of the games I play don’t click with her at all – but we’ve played massive sections of The Witness cooperatively, and it’s made it a wonderful experience, figuring out the mysteries and puzzles of the island together. It’s felt like being on an adventure, exploring the island, and I know I wouldn’t have found The Witness anywhere near as satisfying if it had been a more solitary experience. (And, to be honest, I’d probably have gotten a lot more stuck – Em is very good at spotting things and figuring out puzzles).

The Witness isn’t for everyone. The vague, underlying narrative that’s hinted at doesn’t really work that well (although it’s so vague it might as well not be there at all). It’s definitely a pretentious game at times. And yet, no game in 2016 gave me quite as much joy, and no game saw me scribbling down so many diagrams and mazes, leaving one of my notebooks looking like I’d been trying to catch a serial killer. If you have any interest whatsoever in puzzle games, The Witness is an absolute classic.

The island is waiting for you. Go explore.

The Further Adventures of a Narrowboater

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So: two years ago, my girlfriend and I decided that we wanted to move onto a narrowboat. You can read the full explanation of why we’re doing it here, and we’re currently deep into the complicated process of fitting out a new narrowboat ‘sailaway’ shell that we bought in January. We’ve also been documenting our whole narrowboat adventure on YouTube for almost a year now – rather amazingly, our channel Narrowboat Zero Gravity has now got well over 1300 subscribers (which is a heck of a lot more people than I ever expected), and we’ve just uploaded the latest episode of our series ‘The Fit-Out’, in which we talk through our planned layout for the boat:

It’s been a fun (if occasionally tricky) process getting back into video editing – I feel like we’ve gotten better over the last few months at constructing videos. Balancing life, work on the boat, freelance proofreading and video editing isn’t always easy, but it’s been nice relearning some of my filmmaking instincts that I haven’t really used since I left University, and we’re planning on carrying on with these videos for the forseeable future…

I Was A Teenage Ernest Borgnine

I have very little sense of personal embarrassment. I’ve done a whole selection of odd things in public – sometimes for a joke, sometimes because I was bored – so when my friend Tristan asked me back in the early 1990s if I’d spend a couple of afternoons running around the Cornish countryside dressed as ‘Marty’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’ star Ernest Borgnine, how could I say no?

The result of those afternoons was ‘The New Airwolf – The Next Generation’, a ludicrous VHS-shot spoof of the mid-1980s action series ‘Airwolf’, which starred Jan-Michael Vincent as moody helicopter-piloting hero Stringfellow Hawke and Ernest Borgnine as his trusty sidekick, Dominic Santini. I owed Tristan for all the help he’d given me on a previous video project (our VHS-shot fantasy epic The Alchemist), so it only seemed fair, even when I ended up wearing a radioactive-yellow hat and had a sofa cushion stuffed under my clothes (to properly simulate the classic Borgnine ‘barrel-chest’ physique).

And it’s never quite gone away. The end result was gloriously shambolic but far more fun than I expected, and Tris put it up on YouTube in 2006, where it’s notched up a hilarious number of views (some of whom may have actually watched the whole thing). Then, recently Tris contacted me with the slightly boggling news that someone had done a ‘4K Restoration’ and actually edited Hi-Def versions of the original series footage we used into the video. The only downside of this version was that the sound wasn’t very good (especially in the end battle sequence, where the ludicrous gags are the point)… so I found myself constructing an all-new version by syncing up the soundtrack from Tris’s lower-quality version, for an all-new ‘Ultimate’ edit. It’s creaky and desperately silly, but I’m still oddly proud to have been part of it, and I’m glad that it’s still out there, on the Internet, playing havoc with search results and bewildering the hell out of any ‘Airwolf’ aficionados…

Taking a Break: Why I’m Not Doing Social Media

There was a window of about three years when Twitter genuinely seemed like an incredible, transformative force in my life. I’d connected with a number of people via Facebook, but that kind of thing always felt a bit ephemeral and distanced – Twitter was instantaneous, and immersive, like dunking your head in a bucket of conversation. It was addictive and compulsive, and between 2009–2012 it was wonderful. I made friends, I had unexpected conversations, and it genuinely felt like social media was making my life better.

Of course, things change. I had a rough patch in 2012, and social media played into that a little. It’s also sometimes rough when you’re trying to be a writer, and you’re following a lot of the writing/publishing world on Twitter, and every moment seems to deliver another example of someone doing better than you – getting a book deal, finishing a book, making lots of friends. Twitter started feeling more like being at a very crowded party where there’s plenty of conversations happening, but very few are actually happening to you.

Plus, the landscape of social media has changed a lot in the last few years. There are certain points where I’ll have things that I could say on social media, but I don’t because I don’t want the potential hassle. I’ve seen a lot of toxicity and weirdness, and most of the time I’ve ended up thinking that I simply don’t want it – I’d far rather be a little quieter and less controversial, and not be shouting my every opinion from the rooftops.

I trimmed down the list of people that I followed. Then I trimmed it some more. There were still points where it would make me unhappy – whether it was clicking on a depressing article being circulated on Facebook, or witnessing whatever outrage was being complained about on Twitter. And then, about two months ago, I reached a point where I said, “I’m taking a break.” I wasn’t going to make a big thing. I was just taking a break from Twitter and Facebook, and seeing how long I wanted to stay away.

It’s two months, and I’m not heading back yet. I’ve occasionally had a very quick check-in, especially over the last week – it’s rather like peering through a door at a room that you know is haunted by violent poltergeists – and I haven’t seen anything that’s made me want to go back. Especially in the wake of the EU Referendum, social media is just somewhere I don’t want to be right now. And that’s okay.

To the few genuine friends/acquaintances I’ve made on Twitter and Facebook – it’s nothing personal. This is just something I’ve got to do for my mental well-being. I’ll probably be back on them eventually – but right now, I’ve got enough to worry about in the world. Staying away from Twitter and Facebook is making my mental headspace just a little bit clearer, and making me happier. And right now, that’s all that matters.

Shiny and New (The Website Rises Again)

Greetings from the wilds of Nottingham!

There’s been radio silence for a while, but I’ve now finally managed to give my website a thorough overhaul, so it’s time to do a very quick blog and welcome you to the all-new, shinier version of saxonbullock.com. I’ll be posting over the next week to highlight some of the new stuff I’ve put on the site, and I’ll also be talking a little about what I’ve been up to in the long period that this blog has been inactive. The short version: WRITING WORKING NARROWBOAT FINISHING UNIVERSITY AAAAARRRGGGHHHH. The longer version isn’t quite so intense, but a lot has happened over the last year or so.

I am going to try and update this blog a little more frequently now, especially since I’m no longer as active on social media as I once was (and this is something I’ll be talking about soon).  Any posts that happen here will be pretty short  – I don’t have the energy to pull off 4,000 word treatises on analyses of Doctor Who at the drop of a hat like I once had – but hopefully they’ll be enjoyable ones, as well.

Thanks for dropping by. Look after yourselves. And hope to see you again soon.

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