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The Witness And The Joy Of Note-Taking

Pen and paper at the ready

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Inspired by recent experiences with The Witness’ [official site] puzzles, Robert Zak has been reminiscing about the art of note-taking while playing games. From graph paper for dungeon crawlers to suspicions and clues for Her Story [official site], many genres are represented, with only the noble pen and paper to hold them together.

Not far into my wanderings around The Witness’ vibrant, surreal island, I encounter a non-interactive diagram made up of hexagons. It brings back harrowing memories of chemistry classes and those hex-symbols denoting chemicals, or elements… or something else I never fully grasped. And just as in those chemistry classes, I don’t understand what this diagram means, exacerbating my anxiety as I leave it unsolved after 10 minutes of fruitless chin-scratching. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this high-brow puzzle stuff, I think to myself.

But an hour or so later, feeling buoyant after completing a series of early confidence-boosting squiggly puzzles, I stumble upon another hexagonal diagram that requires me to input the pattern I saw in the first one. I run back to the first diagram, try to memorise it using a photographic memory technique I only half-remember from a Derren Brown book, then carry the image in my head back to the interactive diagram. By the time I reach it however, the image had spilled out of my mind like water out of a bullet-riddled bucket (I want my money back, Derren). After a few vain attempts at inputting the pattern from my so-called memory, I realise that the game doesn’t want me to memorise the grid, but to do something I haven’t done in a very long time…

… so I reach into my drawer – the same drawer where I keep relics like blank DVDs and polypockets – take out a stack of post-its and a notepad, and begin to draw the diagram.

At first, this feels strange. My hands have been conditioned to type rather than handwrite for most of their lives and mine (we’re the same age), to the point where the muscles and bones contained therein just aren’t positioned to hold a pen anymore. But even though my grip is sweaty and fisted, I’m pressing on the paper too hard, and my tongue’s sticking out of my mouth like a focused five-year-old’s, I manage to complete my hand-drawn diagram and solve the puzzle – and it feels great.

Before long, I’m knee-deep in my Witness-related doodles, and my PC desk starts to resemble a briefing room in a US cop drama – all connecting lines, colour-coded post-its, and to a large extent complete nonsense that’ll inevitably be scribbled out. I not only jot down the things essential to my progress, but also the themes expatiated in the audio logs, legends for the symbols representing different puzzle rules, and descriptions of the statues dotted around the place, trying to understand what Mr. Blow is trying to convey. Through the act of note-taking, The Witness’ gaming space spilled out from the screen onto the desk in front of me, going into a dimension (let’s call it the Doodle Dimension) that both video games and I have neglected for years, and are only now beginning to rediscover.

Novel though the use of pen-and-paper in games seems today, it used to be a necessary evil in the 90s – more of a crucial survival tool than a fun bonus mechanic. In the absence of GameFAQs and the internet, a graph paper pad was the figurative ball of string that stopped us from being swallowed up in the labyrinths of dungeon crawlers like Ultima Underworld, Eye of the Beholder, or the Wizardry series. These dark, disorienting worlds of endless corridors, mass-copy-pasted wall textures and 10ft lines of sight would quickly reduce you to boredom and despondence unless you mapped out each block-based step you took, and created your own symbols for pressure plates, secret switches, and locked gates that you’d need to return to later. I’m pretty sure my Maths exercise book got more love from the sprawling labyrinths I drew throughout its back pages than it ever did from the long divisions and fractions up front.

Likewise, point-and-click puzzlers and adventures didn’t feel obliged to keep our eyes fixated on the screen at all times. The Witness’ own grandpa (once-removed), Myst, forced us to patiently chart its island of pre-rendered snapshots, keeping track of long chains of associative logic as later puzzles required us to call on the things we learned much earlier in the game. With the help of a notepad, we could even learn the island’s entire fictional language of D’ni. People became so engaged in solving not only Myst’s puzzles, but its entire universe, that there’s even a Pinterest page dedicated to players’ notes taken on the series – each note focusing on different aspects of the world, and each codifying things in the player’s own way, giving us little glimpses into the mental clockwork of its creators. Looking at these notes, it’s clear that for some the pen-on-paper documentation of Myst was a passion rather than a chore.

It’s easy to say that those were great times in hindsight, but to many of us notes were just part of the process of playing arcane PC games – keyboard, mouse, notepad. As the 90s progressed, and interactive maps, fast-travel, and condescending arrows pointing you in the exact direction you needed to go became the norm, I unquestioningly embraced the brave new world, and my gaming notepad was quickly consigned to the drawer (you know, with the blank DVDs and plastic wallets…and used batteries that I feel guilty about throwing away).

The platitude that you don’t really appreciate something until it’s gone mercifully didn’t apply here. I was too caught up in the breakneck progress of games – with their graphics, and guns, and open-worlds, and just shitloads of mindblowing bloody stuff – to notice. In fact, it’s only with the launch of Fez that the idea of note-taking re-entered my consciousness, reminding me of the things I’d been missing out on. So, to prove the platitude wrong, sometimes you only appreciate things after you lose them then get them back again…

Fez was a complex platformer of cryptic codes and a language system seemingly inspired by tetrominoes. If it felt strange writing notes for The Witness, then for Fez – after a 15-year hiatus from the practice – it was like being witness a Titan awakening from its primeval slumber to take to an ancient craft the world had forgotten long ago. But as I creaked into handwriting motion, the practice became a joy, and I like to think that the same people who made all those beautiful Myst notes found out about Fez, embraced it, and that they or their spiritual progeny are behind some of elaborate schematics uploaded to this blog dedicated to Fez notes.

Since Fez, the notepad has made regular appearances as a game mechanic. More than that, it’s even being utilised as a means of narrative immersion. The FMV investigation game Her Story engages us through an unlikely combination of bashing in search terms to uncover more video clips and jotting down theories about what really happened the day Her husband was killed; when playing, I envision myself as a jaded PI, scribbling keywords and notes while getting through a bottle of bourbon a little more briskly than I care to admit to myself; so focused that I leave the forgotten cigarette in the ashtray to steadily burn itself out, a thin rivulet of smoke snaking its way past the single dim lightbulb that illuminates my scribblings. The notepad is an essential appurtenance to this hard-boiled fantasy.

Tomb-raiding puzzle-platformer La Mulana is impossible to get through without writing down the information you discover on skeletons, the room names, and the locations of Dark Souls-like shortcuts that connect different parts of the ruins. But the process also makes the game feel that bit more mysterious, and your adventure that bit more intrepid, as the deeper you go into its daunting depths, the more you’ll have to count on your own ability to assemble information to survive.

Throwback dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock, meanwhile, is delightfully self-aware in its retro sensibilities, encouraging you to take notes on save crystal locations, treasures to return to later, and alchemy ingredients (ideally written using a quill and parchment). It even has an ‘old-school’ mode that removes the map, forcing you to resort to graph paper if you want to remind yourself of how things were ‘back in the day’.

Of course, just about all this note-scribbling business could probably be achieved by taking photos using your smartphone, or an all-too-convenient cloud-synced organiser app, but then you’d miss out on that personal, immersive touch. Quickly drawing lines between points, writing diagonal stamp-like notes encircled in red that scream LOOK AT ME, and even angrily scribbling out conjectures that you’ve since disproven to yourself – all of those things turn your pen-and-paper notepad into the most honest, accurate representation of your shifting thought processes throughout the game, and that can’t be achieved using digital means. And while taking physical notes for The Witness or Her Story taps into our codebreaking and PI fantasies, there’s no such fantasy involved in taking smartphone pics of your PC monitor. At least not to the best of my knowledge.

The notepad-as-gaming-tool is back, and based on recent form it’s here not only to stay, but to keep evolving alongside the gaming medium. So take your pick – quill and parchment, pencil-and-graph-paper, or bourbon, cigarette and leatherbound notepad – and rediscover the Doodle Dimension.

What are your greatest memories of doodling and note-taking while gaming?

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Robert Zak

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