Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Tag: games

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.

Super Hexagon (or, Curse You, Kieron Gillen)

Curse you, Kieron Gillen.

It’s not enough for you to be a brilliant comics writer and games journalist. It wasn’t enough for you to pull off one of the most impressive final issues of a mainstream superhero comics run that I’ve ever read – the wonderful, meta-textual Journey Into Mystery, starring a teenage reincarnation of Thor villain and trickster god Loki. It wasn’t enough for you to instill in me an intense desire to play the boardgame Risk Legacy, despite the fact that I’m very good at buying boardgames and then never playing them.

Oh, no. You also had to get me addicted to Super Hexagon.

There I was, casually reading through your excellent review of the gaming year over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I read about the game Super Hexagon. It was probably the retro-looking graphics that appealed, and I was looking for something new and exciting to play on my iPad (having found that while indulging in my nostalgia for GTA: Vice City on the iPad was kinda fun, the iPad control system turns any car chase into virtual suicide). I looked on the App Store, and lo and behold – it was even on special offer. Only 69p. So I clicked ‘Buy’.

And that was pretty much it.

Super Hexagon is INSANE. It’s an incredibly simple game, and the look of it brings back memories of vector-graphic classic Tempest, except that your task as player is to steer a tiny triangle past the various obstacles that are speeding towards the centre of the screen. Hit one of them, and you’re dead. Simple, eh?

Er, no.

You see, Super Hexagon is fast. Seriously, headspinningly fast, and scored with a pulsing electro-dance beat just so you’re in no doubt exactly how fast it is. And it’s absurdly tricky. I’ve been playing it every day for a week, and I’ve finally got to a point where I can pretty regularly last for over 30 seconds per game – and this is on the easiest possible setting. The game begins with a notice saying ‘Headphones Recommended’, and I’m pretty sure this is so that if you’re playing it within earshot of anyone, they don’t end up driven mad by the cool female American voice intoning “Game Over” every five seconds. Because trust me – when you start playing, that’ll be about as long as you last.

It’s dizzying and thrilling in equal measure, relying on pattern recognition and very fast reflexes – you have to watch the entire screen as you play, and there are certain structures which still send me into a fatal tailspin the moment they appear. It’s the kind of game where even the slightest error will instantly kill you, but the sheer challenge of weaving through this adrenalised, perspective-shifting hailstorm of geometric shapes will keep you going. I’ve managed to last up to 45 seconds (on the very easiest setting), and I’m counting that as a major acheivement. There are other, harder levels – ‘Hexagoner’ and ‘Hexagonest’ – as well ones that you have to unlock which, frankly, I don’t even want to *think* about right now.

I’m sure I’ll recover from my addiction from this supercharged sugar rush at some point. I may even get to conquer one (or more) of the jaw-droppingly tricky levels of the game. But for now, the Super Hexagon icon sitting there on my iPad, daring me to ignore it, knowing that I’m going to fail.

Curse you, Kieron Gillen!

(I’m still gettting Young Avengers, though…)

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