GOTY 2016: The Top 10 Games of the Year - #6

We're excited to announce the Silicon Sasquatch Top 10 Games of the Year! After months of discussion and a marathon five-hour meeting, we've finally narrowed down the ten games that we feel best represent the best and most important that 2016 had to offer.

We'll be counting down through our Top 10 list all week, so stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter to make sure you don't miss a thing!

#6 | The Witness

Thekla, Inc. | January 26th, 2016 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Here we are at the end of the year, midway through our Top 10 Games of 2016 feature. Weeks ago, the team and I were facing a conundrum: where do we put The Witness — a game that didn’t appeal to any of our other writers, but quite literally changed my life? I guess the sixth slot will do. 

Frankly, I’m not sure the number even matters. Maybe The Witness isn’t a game for everyone, no matter how badly I want to proselytize to every person I meet about the challenging, affirming experience I had playing it. But after 50 hours of active play and many, many more of quiet, isolated contemplation on what I’d experienced, I’ve never felt more strongly in my eight years of running this blog that a game deserved recognition here.

Describing the experience of playing through The Witness is, I’d imagine, a lot like trying to explain a nuanced journey of personal faith. Or maybe it’s like delineating the precise motor functions of riding a bike across a diverse set of terrain, or describing what colors look like to a sightless person, or teaching multivariable calculus to a preschooler. You can skirt around the periphery of the thing — what it absolutely is and is not, what it’s adjacent to — but the core of the thing lies at a deeper, personal level. These aren’t just matters of study; they’re instinctual, deeply personal. They’re inextricably tied both to the heart and to the mind, but the relationship between the two isn’t clear. And that’s a crucial theme of the game.

I’ve never felt more strongly in my eight years of running this blog that a game deserved recognition here.

On the surface, The Witness is a game where you walk around an unpopulated island solving line puzzles. There are no written instructions anywhere in the game; it’s a strictly autodidactic experience. And like Jonathan Blow’s Braid before it, The Witness is not a game that holds your hand or caters to “experienced” game-players. Everyone enters this world ignorant, alone, and unequipped for the challenges it contains. But we all have the one tool needed to not only survive but to master the game: our intellect. Through observation, trial-and-error, and — if you’re like me — more than a little metaphorical bashing of one’s head against a wall, you will conquer every challenge and solve every obscure riddle the game puts before you. 

And by solving each puzzle, the game is guiding you through the process of teaching yourself a new language — a common tongue for parsing the game’s riddles. Simple patterns give way to more complex ones, and divergent styles of puzzle overlap with other genres in surprising, even mischievous ways. The game wants to have a conversation with you, and it's a rich one, but you first need to learn how to listen.

As you solve more puzzles, you begin to recognize patterns and commonalities — like phrases and sentence structures. As you play more, the game layers these puzzle types in more complex and surprising ways, but there’s a deep, joyous satisfaction in realizing the knowledge you’ve acquired that allows you to tackle these challenges that seemed impossible not so long ago. By the time you finish the game, you possess the ability to walk up to any puzzle in the game and solve it in a matter of moments. The keys exist in your mind, and you forged them on your own. The sense of accomplishment that comes from this process is a profound thing, and it’s hard for me to describe how much it meant to me. If you've ever taught yourself something — an instrument, a craft, a foreign language — you'll recognize the feeling.

The Witness is not a puzzle game any more than writing beautiful software is a logic test or painting an intricate portrait could be called a repetitive physical task. It’s a game that only works by getting inside your own head, by considering the long and winding history of human discovery and reasoning, by examining the fraught but deeply connected relationship that science and faith have shared throughout our species’ existence. It is, quite simply, a game about learning. And like any good student, you need to show up with an open mind, a curious heart, and a desire to discover what’s possible. For your patience and trust in the game, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that defies description.  — Nick Cummings