THE WITNESS Review: Beautiful, Perplexing, and Not for Everyone

The Witness, from Jonathan Blow and his small team at Thekla Inc., is a game that somewhat inarguably holds the potential to be boasted as the epitome of adventure and exploration, puzzle-based-games creation, allowing player interaction and understanding to drive the experience without the typical crutches that often bog down most games.

Seldom is the risk taken to offer players complete freedom to explore, to experiment, and to learn without friction. Rarely does a game have the tenacity to establish a relationship with the player that says, “I know that you are an intelligent and thoughtful human being capable of exploration, discovery, and most importantly, understanding.” Without resorting to the use of tutorials for every mundane task, but instead allowing the natural process of experimentation and learning, The Witness nudges the play experience in a way that feels natural and allows the player to revel in every achieved step forward.

Jonathan Blow’s seven years of development have culminated in a clever and challenging experience that allows the player to set their own pace. From the start and before being released into the world, the game establishes a back-and-forth; a means of communication without the use of a tutorial. Through trial and error, the puzzling of a few easily reached solutions will unfold. Something is learned. The player is released from the confines of the games beginning and sent out into the sprawling landscape that unfolds before them. The Witness has given the first nudge and expects the inquisitive nature, innate to all humans, to control the rest.

The Witness revels in moments like these. As new mechanics are introduced and series of puzzles are solved, the reward is often merely a fleeting feeling of accomplishment. It’s a moment intrinsic to progression, no direct reward, no prize, but instead an understanding of that which was previously not understood. That is to say: The Witness will never hand directly reward or level up the character and there are certainly no enhancements to be gained. Instead, the takeaway from completing a series of challenges is the feeling of accomplishment, and occasionally an incredible view.

The setting, and the choice of how it was represented, is another point in The Witness worthy of note. The visual design is vibrant, invoking wonder and curiosity through the use of a densely developed landscape of evolving biomes that seem to stack atop each other. Stumbling through the lush and dense world, color constantly engulfs you as the shift is made from the oversaturated orange-reds of an autumn forest and into the harsh, sun-bleached sands of the desert. Eventually, topping the island’s mountain peak to obtain a view of the sprawling landscape holds the potential to invoke the same feeling of wonder that a child would feel exploring the woods behind their house for the first time. It’s a new frontier. Its mysteries are there, untouched, and waiting to be solved.

Fortunately, for those who get ‘The Witness fever’ there is a boat-load of content for such a tiny little island. One thing, and perhaps the most ‘video-game’ thing, is the inclusion of voice memos scattered around the island. These recordings provide a philosophical standpoint established through various quotes from thinkers and writers. To some, this will provide the significance of it all; providing the depth and meaning behind the, otherwise narratively empty, play experience. For some others, the points will feel pretentious and empty; conflating a breadth of views in an attempt at expressing some divine plot. For most though, this will feel vague, unnecessary, even a little condescending. Fortunately for the latter, this is a small portion of the game, and one that is easy to ignore.

Whether you choose to seek out this philosophy or ignore it, the core game holds potential to provide hours and hours, of play that will have you busting out pen and paper to scribble poorly drawn renditions of the latest puzzle that’s vexing you. By the way, pen and paper, screenshot and Photoshop, whatever means necessary — drawing is almost a necessity. It is one unintended result of brilliant puzzle design that makes the game even more enjoyable. Looking back at a notebook of scribbled solutions is a post-game treat that will grace my journal until the end of its days.

Speaking of post-game, The Witness packs quite a post-game punch. As the central game draws to a head, it’s fairly apparent that there are aspects that have gone untouched. There’s more out there. Reminiscent of Fez and its obscure post game content that literally carried players from 100% completion up to a final 400% — The Witness continues to revel in its cryptic mystery well after the formal ending. A new level of wonder and intrigue is exposed and, with eyes freshly opened, it is possible to walk the island again but for the first time discovering secrets that have been hidden in plain sight, all along.

While it stands without question that The Witness is profoundly creative, there are two sides to every coin. It is not a game that will appeal to everyone. At no point in The Witness does its heavy handed philosophical commentary or incredibly intelligent means of conveying thought to the player create something that transcends puzzle-game mechanics. Reductive and gross as this view may sound, the game is actually a series of line puzzles. There, I said it.

This is not to reduce the entire game to such a view, but rather to say that The Witness is created for a certain group of people. Despite the game’s incredible intelligence and restraint, there are some who will pick up the title, play for one sitting, hit their mental limit, and dismiss the game as too hard, too boring, or just not fun. For this group of consumers, the naturally occurring rewarding of the players sense of curiosity will simply not be enough to encourage them to come back. This is an unfortunate truth for any who blindly purchase the title, unknowing of what’s in store, but this is only a miniscule negative point to be made. To discredit the work put into The Witness on these grounds would be similar to criticizing a painted masterpiece due to the disliking of the choice of canvas. If you don’t dig puzzles, The Witness is not for you. Surprise.

The Witness is a thoughtful game that experiments with the way we think and forces us to challenge that very notion. While the mind-crushing puzzles and vague philosophical ramblings may not be for everyone, those to which the game resonates will become amazed as they see themselves learning and progressing without the need of intrusive tutorials or cluttering heads-up-display. Whether resorting to pen and paper to draw out puzzle solutions, or inducing migraines as you attempt it all in your head, the outcome of progression and learned understanding is a reward in itself. The Witness manages to find a balance between brilliant puzzle creation and game design that holds faith in its audience, simultaneously challenging them but trusting in their ability to learn and prevail.


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