Gaming: The Witness - Review

Justin reviews the excellence that is The Witness. 

A very basic puzzle. 
The long awaited title from the designer of Braid, one of the games that launched the indie game revolution that has affected the landscape of modern video games as a whole, finally arrives after 8 years of development. And boy, was it worth the wait. I don't want to sit here and wax poetic about Lead Designer Jonathan Blow, but if his prowess as a game designer and programmer weren’t already apparent from Braid, it should be from The Witness. He is quoted as saying he wanted to make something that was a modern day nod to the CD-ROM classic Myst, and it does so in spades.

The Witness drops you onto a beautiful and mysterious island, gives you only two button prompts, then leaves you to your own devices. There is no hand-holding, there is no tutorial, and there is no narration. You are left to walk around and interact with the world in whatever way you see fit. The main way you will be interacting with the environment, and the game as a whole, is in a series of maze-like line puzzles. They start out simple, closer to a traditional paper maze than anything else, with place to start out and an end point. Then as the game progresses, they change and get more interesting over time. Seems simple right? Well, it is, and it's supposed to be, but the way the progression works is one of the many things that make the game so brilliant.

Even dozens of hours and hundreds of puzzles into the game, you are still completing line puzzles to move forward. On paper this seems disappointing, and begs a lot of questions. If this is just hundreds of puzzles, why make the game on this island? How can you make this simple concept stretch for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours? Well I can tell you this: it does it brilliantly through the concept of iteration and variation. In a lot of ways, The Witness feels like the Enigma Variations of video games: It starts off with the simple concept of  a straight line puzzle, and iterates the on the theme by adding what are essential different rules to the puzzle. There could be objects on the lines, shapes or icons on the puzzle windows, or even interactions with the environment that all affect the outcome of the puzzle. It’s the process of learning these rules, and the ‘ah ha!’ moments associated with their completion that creates the experiences that make the game so great.

An early puzzle that shows your
complicated future. 
The Witness, more than any game I have played in the past, was a journey of self-discovery. The lack of a tutorial or level structure gives the player freedom to approach any puzzle they can find. I know its cliché, but the truth is, the only thing hindering your progress is your own mind! To give at least some sense of direction to the listless player, the island is divided into different areas that you can tell apart by their representation of Earth’s different biomes. Each of these meticulously constructed areas have their own series of puzzles, and a theme that unites them together. Each of these variations can seem daunting at first, and while there is no proper tutorial, The Witness features small bits linear progression within each area that does an excellent job of teaching the player about the new ideas. It’s this progression of discovering the ‘secrets’ of the puzzles that creates those aforementioned ‘ah ha!’ moments that are by far the most satisfying part of the game. When you figure out a new puzzle mechanic and tear through a group of puzzles you feel like a genius; like you are on top of the world. It was this feeling that kept me playing for hours on end and drove me to keep coming back to the game every single day. And it was the absence of this feeling, often for long stretches when encountering extremely challenging puzzles or no clear direction on where to go next, that contributed to the small number of frustrations I had with The Witness.

I am speaking highly of The Witness, but that does not mean it doesn’t have its flaws. The structure of the game can lead to unappealing pacing issues. The profound sense of accomplishment felt when completing an area or figuring out the solution to a puzzle is often undermined by the overwhelming feeling that your only reward was earning the opportunity to do countless more puzzles. It sometimes feels daunting how much there is to do, especially when the game is so light on providing the player direction or narrative. While I don’t think it’s required for every game, I enjoy narrative in games. For some games it really is the main drive behind my desire to complete them, but in The Witness I didn’t find anything even close to a proper narrative until after I had already ‘finished’ the game. I realize that this game was not designed to be for everyone, and Blow has spoken publicly about the importance of not ‘filing down the edges’ of his games for fear of removing what makes them personal. But that being said, I know that more people would be able to have a great experience with this game if there was even just a touch of a narrative hook that would keep players wanted to dig more to learn about the island and its origins. Maybe that’s not what the designers’ want, who’s to say? But I know that if I made a game as brilliant and beautiful I would want as many people to play it as possible.

The puzzles themselves were less of a frustrating point, but not free from flaws either. I loved the concept of its thematic variations on the basic line puzzle, but sometimes after having the ‘eureka moment’ you are only left with what is simply a challenge of execution. Execution challenges are great, it's because of this concept we have things like the speed-running community, and highly challenging games like Super Meat Boy. But in a game that feels like it's about discovery and perspective, the concept of my discovery and exploration coming to a crashing halt from an execution challenge was disheartening. I appreciate that I was always able to wander off to find other puzzles to do, but sometimes when you are progressing in an area you just want to finish it. Never was this issue more apparent than in the final few areas of the game. I won’t go into details, but there is an end to the game, and in the final hours of the game the new elements mostly dry up, and it made for a disappointing climax to an otherwise fantastic experience.

The use of light and color is amazing. 
It is fairly clear that the game has something to say. The closest the game has to a ‘collectible’ is a series of audio recordings you find throughout your experience on the island. These messages are from a wide variety of orators and writers alike: from religious figures and politicians, to scientists and astronauts. They speak of the challenges of humanity through parables and concepts like faith and international relations. Things like this are open to interpretation, but to me these quotes work in tandem with the visual metaphor of the puzzles, the problem solving process, and the environment to try and speak about the importance of perspective and the scientific method to humanity. Like somehow if we all took a look at the world from a different angle and broke down its problems like you were solving a puzzle, we could fix it. Similarly to Braid, this game has had some accusations about being pretentious, but I think it is just saying what it is trying to say. The game has no epilogue, no hard explanation of its ethos, so my interpretation could be far from the author's intent, but the fact that conversations can be had about them is awesome for the medium of games as a whole.  I have so much more to say about it, I want to cite examples and make arguments about what I think it is trying to say, but this is not the realm to do so without spoiling the potential experience of future players.

I know there is more fun and insight to be had with The Witness that I have not yet discovered. There are still hundreds of puzzles and dozens of secrets I have yet to touch. Playing what I played piqued my curiosity in a way not many games have in the past, especially given I am not traditionally a completionist when it comes to video games. There is more to the origins of the island that has yet to unfold, and I am excited to return to exploring the beautiful vistas, and experience all the mysteries that The Witness has to offer.

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Developer: Thekla Inc
Publisher: Thekla Inc
Platforms: Playstation 4, PC, iPad
Release Date: January 26th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PS4


-Justin Wicker