The Witness Review
The Witness is an amazing game that I hope I never have to play again in my life. It is a title of true mystery, an experience of genuine curiosity, a game of demanding intellect.
I cannot think of another game that has pulled on both ends so much. This game provided some of my favorite moments I’ve ever had during play but if The Witness were a person, I’d punch it right in its smug, self satisfied little jaw. I have spent hours and hours with this game, testing my wits and dancing to its tune. The prospect of returning to it and unearthing its further secrets is so deliciously tantalizing that I need to keep reminding myself that this game is the devil.
An island and puzzles. That is the core of The Witness. I know this doesn’t help clarify anything but neither does the game. You are dropped in with nothing and stumble, childlike, into a vibrant and beautiful world.
Crumbling castle walls, rolling waves of most amber grain, and deep, wonderful shaded woods all call to you and whisper secrets of a history you barely grasp. Every step forward is barred by a new brainteaser. Want to see what is at the top of the hill or at the peak of the mountain? You will have to earn it.
Earn is a good word for The Witness’ design ethos. So much of its wonderful island is gated and walled off by puzzles. You don’t do something as pedestrian as merely go somewhere in The Witness, you wrestle for the right to further delve into the game space through conquest of its puzzles.
As a philosophy, this is not a good thing. The Witness is so vainglorious and so high on its own considerable intellect that it all but spews contempt at the player. You are not worthy of this island. You are not worthy of the wonders that it offers. The first night I played this game, I had to stop. It was too cold, too lonely, and too completely oppressive.
But what the hell is The Witness, really? At its core, designer Jonathan Blow traded in Braid’s alterations on the simple platformer and applied odd affectations to another well known staple of play: the maze.
You will find your way from one pathway of a puzzle to the end, sometimes knowing why and other times having no idea. This is a game that is both intuitive and bizarrely esoteric in the solutions you will find. You will go on a streak of puzzle solving before hitting a wall and having to look back to see what new ruleset was introduced halfway down the line. What begins as simple maze navigation grows into arcane ritual tracing, each new puzzle feeling like some deeply intricate alchemist’s experiment full of intersecting rules and strict demands.
I haven’t busted out a pen and a paper for a long time, but The Witness had me tracing dozens and dozens of mazes, mapping out various routes when I could not figure out the right path. It’s not essential but a pad of grid paper helped me out here. If that’s not your thing, this is not going to be your game. If you have difficulty with spatial puzzles or have an issue with pattern recognition, this is not going to be your game. But then again, this game also does not care for you.
At certain points, you can almost feel how impressed with itself The Witness is. Like a giggling child sitting right over your shoulder, The Witness perches itself to watch and judge everything that you do.
Sometimes, it outright punishes you. Frankly, I think most people will overlook the unfairness because of the game’s hype. In one egregious example, I found myself facing a series of puzzles leading me up a hill, the logic behind their solutions still unclear to me. As I leapfrogged from node to node, failing at one would mean I needed to head back to the last and redo it. This was similar to another section, but at least there was a discernible method to the madness. There, the purpose was clear. In this case, I was merely caught in the worst kind of brute forcing process. Because, again, this game hates you. It hates every single one of you.
The Witness’ island is a dizzying and sublime display. It some ways, it feels like a lovingly crafted clay model. Braid’s impressionism was softer and inviting but always felt a little shy. The Witness’ bold pastel models exude a confidence that can be pretty damn alluring. If there is anything that made the agonizing moments worth it, it was the island itself. Eventually, the loneliness isn’t so bad. You are left in a state of quiet and relaxing contemplation that only shatters from time to time as traces of other people leak into the game space.
At its best, The Witness manages to channel the inquisitive spaces of of Myst or, probably more accurately, the bizarre landmarks of King’s Quest VI’s Emerald Isles. It offers a world of truly intoxicating exploration and, when you’re in the proverbial zone, puzzle solving offers some truly inventive solutions. I don’t say that lightly either. The “Aha!” moments will bring a wide smile to your face.
At its worst, The Witness takes some of the most aggravating puzzle and adventure game tropes and leaves them at your doorstep, puts a gun to your head, tells you to have fun, and then yells at you when you’re “not doing it right”.
As I walk away from this game, I know it will garner plenty of rightly earned praise. Yet, I also hope that people see the game’s insidious side. That they do not merely praise its smarts, but also demand that it learn some manners. This game is a terrible contradiction. That should be its legacy, I think. Down the line, we should remember The Witness as a game that was incredibly rewarding. But only if you play by its very strict rules.
Heather Alexandra is a ZAM contributor whose work has also been featured at Paste Magazine, Kotaku, Unwinnable Weekly, and more. She can be found on Twitter at @transgamerthink or at her personal blog, TransGamer Thoughts. Heather reminds you that it is crucial to both open the door and get on the floor before you attempt to do the dinosaur.