The Witness Review
Puzzle games really do come in all shapes and sizes. They can challenge us in wildly different ways. They can mystify us one minute and leave us with a blissful feeling of relieved euphoria the next. And even if you've played lots of puzzle games over the years, chance are, you've never played anything like Jonathan Blow's The Witness. While you do wander around in first-person mode, the focus of the game is on the puzzles that pop up on little computer screens scattered around the uber-colorful environment. It's atmospheric and subtle, occasionally a little aimless and frustrating, and always ambitious. The ingeniously designed puzzles will force you to think in a myriad of different ways and before it's over, your brain will have performed some serious calisthenics. The question is, can you finish?
The brilliant colors in the game might actually be a source of eye strain, as some gamers believe. But in some ways, I wonder if that's just because we're so used to video games with darker, grittier, edgier coloring. There was a time in this industry when most games were extremely bright and colorful and in a lot of ways, The Witness feels like a throwback to the days when vivid hues dominated the interactive experience. The visuals themselves aren't especially impressive but the design and structure of this involving, mysterious world is top-notch. And of course, even though it doesn't really count toward the graphics quality, the puzzle design - though very simple - is wicked clean and slick.
As for the audio, much of the game is played in virtual silence. As you're attempting to solve a puzzle, there isn't so much as a peep; the soundtrack is nonexistent and there are few ambient or background sound effects. You might hear the hum of some piece of machinery but that's about it. This gives the game a minimalist feel and puts the emphasis squarely on the trying process of solving those puzzles. Personally, I would've liked a bit more music involvement because the game really does feel absurdly empty at times. But the inclusion of excellent voice actors, including Ashley Johnson (The Last Of Us), is a huge plus, even if the spoken parts are few and far between. As you would expect, the technical and artistic elements just aren't as important as the puzzle gameplay.
But atmosphere still plays a vital role. There is no preview, preamble, or introduction. You start the game in a long tunnel and you simply walk outside. It's a lush, sunny setting, with plenty of vegetation spread across the landscape. At first, it looks like random pieces of machinery are just scattered about; remnants of a past civilization, perhaps, and nothing connecting them but a few wires. Solving puzzles attached to these wires leads you to more panels and puzzles, and you progress by simply conquering those puzzles. This will open doors and pathways that were previously closed and allow more of the story to unfold. It's a simple setup thought not anywhere near as straightforward as you might think. And this leads me to my biggest problem with the game.
Well, actually, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I like the vagueness that comes with basically zero direction, because it really encourages you to explore and learn more about your environment. What happened here? Why are these people turned to stone? What were they trying to do? These fuel your incentive and motivation and keep you solving puzzles, if only to obtain another piece of the larger puzzle. On the flip side, a total lack of direction really does get irritating. I know there's some freedom involved, in that you can attempt different puzzles at different times, but that only exacerbates the sensation of being a little...disconnected. Occasionally, I'd just walk around, unsure of where to go next or which puzzle to attempt, and find that I was losing interest. I started not to care about the bigger picture, you know?
That being said, once you're immersed in the puzzle solving and once you fall into a decent ebb and flow, you'll be hooked. The pacing depends almost entirely on your puzzle-solving ability; if you're totally stuck on something and you see no other way of progressing, everything drags really badly. But if you're solving puzzles at a pretty rapid clip and you're discovering bigger pieces of that untold story, you're quickly invested in the experience. It's an odd seesaw, really; never have I played a game that can ricochet so rapidly between frustrated indifference and rapt absorption. That really is one of the underlying traits of this game: If you're doing well, you will love it. If you're not doing so well, your brain will start inventing reasons to stop playing. And it might be hard to go back to it, too.
Thankfully, a lot of these puzzles really did click with me. I really adore how the entire game is set up, because despite the lack of direction, you never feel completely stymied. You see a puzzle that looks like total gibberish to you, but it's because you don't know what the symbols mean yet. What you need to do is find the introductory or tutorial puzzles that will introduce you to those symbols; after that, you'll know what to do when you encounter them. For example, when you first start, you'll encounter what appears to be a steel door with a complex puzzle on it. But you have no idea what any of the symbols really mean. Then a few hours later, you will know because other puzzles in the surrounding areas have taught you, and you've got a knowledge basis for solving that steel door conundrum.
The best part is that this puzzle design is really something special. Even when you think you've seen it all, an entirely new type of puzzle is presented and you're re-immersed into the learning process. Some puzzles are directly related to other puzzles, while some have no relation whatsoever. And as each set of puzzles focuses on the same concept and gives you four or five trials, each a little harder than the last, you feel a palpable sense of mastery of that particular concept when you complete the series. There are times when you might be at a loss, and you have to sit back and think for a minute. Am I supposed to be going to the right of the black and the left of the white dots? Or am I just supposed to ‘enclose' all the white dots with this line I'm creating? You'll ask yourself many questions and as I said above, calisthenics for the brain.
I do think we should be permitted to see more of the story at shorter intervals, and there are a few puzzles that feel a trifle cheap. Making one of the lines invisible as you try to solve the puzzle is just...wrong. Even so, it's hard to find fault with a game that offers us such a significant and strangely unique challenge, with so many types of puzzles that pick at different mind muscles. The atmosphere can also be quite riveting; you just have to accept that subtlety and minimalism are factors that Blow and Co. embraced. In a lot of ways, that approach worked exceedingly well. Provided you're not easily annoyed and you're willing to invest a significant amount of time into the learning process, you should definitely enjoy this game. Just remember that patience is a virtue, in all respects.
The Witness is an excellent and unique puzzle experience that will put you to the test. Not only will it challenge you with beautifully designed puzzles but it will also task you with marshalling yourself; patience, sticktoitieveness, and a continually churning mind will be rewarded. Eventually. How fast you progress depends on your skill and willingness to adapt to new and sometimes difficult concepts. The story is indeed very interesting (it's just too bad that it's a little sparse) and the environment demands your curiosity. I wish it wasn't quite as minimalistic and subtle as it is but that's a minor complaint. At the very least, you will be treated to one of the more challenging and satisfying experiences of the generation. And yeah, it's a lot different than the satisfaction you get in nailing down an awesome KDR.
Note: I know about the complaints concerning motion sickness, but I can say that didn't happen to me. I did, however, experience more than usual eye strain, likely due to the intensity with which I stared at the screen, trying to solve puzzles.
The Good: Bright, attractive environment. Excellent voice performances. Minimalist approach allows the ingenious puzzles to shine. Puzzle design and implementation is fabulous. Pacing relies entirely on your own ability. Challenging but immensely rewarding.
The Bad: Music and effects are a little too downplayed. Story segments feel too far apart. Lack of direction can lead to frustration and indifference.
The Ugly: "Nothing ‘ugly' here unless you got so annoyed with one puzzle that you just quit playing forever."
1/28/2016 Ben Dutka