“I’m so much smarter than you,” Jon Blow whispers in you ear as you play The Witness. Creepy? Yes. True? Nah. The game can be difficult enough to make you turn off your console and go do something productive, but the argument that Blow uses The Witness to make you feel intellectually inferior is depressingly cynical.
Many refuse to separate acts of human error (Blow’s direct responses to “misinterpretations” of Braid or whatever comment he made on Twitter) from the actual work. Part of the problem is that Jonathan Blow is making games for an audience that does not often play games. He’s making game for those interested in aesthetic form (how the medium an artist works in is used to communicate its conceit), like a high level novelist or arthouse director.
Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t holding your hand the whole way through to make sure you understood every paragraph. It’s exploring things it thinks are interesting, and if you can keep up, great. If you can’t, you can come back to it in a few years and see it from a different perspective. Games don’t seem to have that at all – and that’s part of what makes art deep and interesting. That’s what really interests me. – Jon Blow in the Guardian
While this quote seems to put emphasis on the creator’s vision, there’s an implied respect for the audience. That the player can handle what The Witness throws at her. 7 years of development seems like a lot of trouble to go through to be mean spirited. Maybe Blow can be a bit trolly, but mostly I felt like he was demanding I pay attention in a way not wholly unlike Souls games.
The Witness wants to challenge us as the sometimes frustrating but important literary critic Harold Bloom described difficult literature:
You have to labor with immense intensity in order to keep up. – Harold Bloom in The Paris Review
The Witness without guides fits that very description. And Blow seems to believe that players can handle it and those who can’t right away can with time.
Does The Witness’ harsh difficulty make it a better game than the modern gaming tradition Blow explicitly argues against? Obviously debatable, but I’ll leave you with Bloom’s argument in favor of arduous literature:
to answer the question “more, equal to, or less than?” In the end, the answer to that question is the persuasive force enabling a reader to say, I will sacrifice an easier pleasure for something that takes me beyond myself.