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The Witness (PC) artwork

The Witness (PC) review

"I Love it; I Absolutely Hate it"

The easiest way to tackle a problem is more often to explain it as simple as possible, and the most succinct and fair way I could ever express the appeal of The Witness is to ask yourself: "What/Who are you witnessing?"

When I look at an artsy game that knows it will appear provocative, or here in The Witness of being so pretentious it deflates any meanings made by others, I often ask why a developer would go to such lengths, either by gameplay or by story, to make something so unclear. The only answer I can accept is it's about introspection, not of a revelation inflated by the ego of the creator(s) but about the player's own understanding.

In short, to play The Witness is to witness how far you can manage the intangible hamster-wheel in your head spinning before you bail out with an answer or you give up to spin the wheel some other day. If you don't mind the struggle, then The Witness can truly be an enlightening experience it wants you to believe it is.

"How Do You Know What I Know You Know, You Know?"

In order to discuss what works and what doesn't work for puzzles, I have to talk about WHAT skills the puzzles test, not HOW they test your skills to their limits. I would compare this section to describe the themes of a book rather than spoiling the plot, so the experience itself is not tarnished and you can understand what I mean.

For the Witness, there are three core tasks you perform:

1) Metacognition ("How do you know what you know?")
2) Spatial Awareness ("Frame-of-Reference")
3) Apophenia ("The Tetris Effect")

As someone who learned about childhood cognitive development, I think the term metacognition, "to think beyond your own thinking process," is the simplest way to describe The Witness's biggest selling point. In order to get anywhere in the game you have to think about the hows and whys you reached an answer, and once you check your assumptions to be correct you have mastered the lesson.

In terms of gaming, imagine a Metroidvania where you are given all the abilities from the start but you're never told how to use them (i.e. Toki Tori 2). There are no arbitrary requirements like getting the Super Bomb; the challenge is not having the answer to the problem, but figuring out how the tool works as well as when and where it is to be used. That process is how the Witness works, and like any proper Metroidvania game you can sequence break it if you understand the rules.

Unlike the unfair Myst comparison which operates by fiddling with various puzzles with little, if any, instruction, ALL puzzles in The Witness operate under the one explicit rule in an open environment: You draw a line from a circle to an exit-way.

To keep this idea from stagnating, the puzzles add new modifiers that either change how you read a screen or they incorporate an awareness of your surroundings for clues. This idea holds true not only for the environment itself but also the screens you work with, drawing your attention to more than into a flat-screen.

As for the open-world design of the puzzles, it is effective and not confusing because every location on the island tests one major skill, which is indicated on the boat's map, and the optional challenges (and the town) are there to persuade you to go explore elsewhere. The result naturally rewards the repetition of learning the codes/rules by clearing up misconceptions and the interconnected nature of all the puzzles sharing the same core gameplay helps you find connections.

This interconnected awareness on a simple idea is what many would probably describe as "The Tetris Effect" (another example is the Number 23 movie). You see the repeating patterns, the rules and the answers everywhere by the mere repetition of a simple task like drawing lines, which instills a schizophrenic view of the false appearance of meaning that only a video-game could make you believe is real.

When all of these tasks blend so effortlessly together, the sense of reward you find makes the struggle worth the time, and in that regard The Witness succeeds at conveying ALL rules with zero written or verbal communication in a short amount of time.

95% of the Time Right Isn't Good Enough

However, and this is a black mark on an otherwise flawless puzzle game, there are challenges that go too far to be reasonable for all players. You may be thinking I pulled a random number from nowhere, but out of 532 screen puzzles I required help for 31 either by a hint from a guide (or an answer) when I understood the rules or by having the right "frame-of-reference" to do the puzzle.

The latter problem is best explained by the controls; you are locked on your screen to do a puzzle. If you unclick it to get a better position, then your solution is undone. For this issue, some may argue that I could jot them down; however, it's the pixel-perfect angles for a few problems that I could not stand. As for fixing this issue, it would be nice if the game took a page from TRI by letting you deselect the cursor and move. (Yes, it would break some puzzles but I rather not let the limitations of the controls confuse players.)

The first problem is more a subjective concern as there are some puzzles that will be impossible for people hard of hearing, colorblind, prone to seizures/epilepsy, motion-sickness and/or have poor visibility due to the game's resolution or their eyesight. The frequency of these challenges varies by locations as well as their overall difficulty, which complicates an experience that teaches solely by observation.

As a result of both issues in a game with no guidance, this 5% of uncertainty, which I feel is being generous, is too much to instill doubt in the player's ability to complete every puzzle.

This is why I think the game tests the limitations of what you know by testing all learning styles, rather than focusing solely on one. As someone who learns best by seeing and by interacting, I struggled where a more abstract person would find it trivial; the result may be vice-versa, different and/or equal to another type of challenge.

I would let this problem slide if not for how the game, not the story, ends.

At the Mountains of Madness

You may be wondering if you have not played why I discredit any meaning or narrative being real. It's because, contrary to what Mr. Blow says on Steam, to 100% complete this game it does not respect your time nor is every puzzle different.

By far the most absurd optional puzzles are the two-hour long videos you have to watch, and one is over an hour long. These aren't rewards as you have to watch them to complete a puzzle, and all six videos range from Richard Feynman to a guy who can't recognize time to a privileged woman asking you to give up on ambitions. Like the puzzles themselves, it's all about perspectives and discrediting any universal meaning behind them.

On top of the 532 puzzles, there are over 140 more you will have to do which do not teach you anything new. These puzzles, in contrast to the ones that teach you something new, are busy-work for only the most ambitious of fans.

However, even if you only are interested in figuring out all the rules, the end-game content at the Mountain has the most asinine puzzles. It's a shame because between having the most frustrating puzzles there are also a few worth trying. This sudden fall of quality isn't a fair-challenge, especially when it introduces new health hazards, which will quickly erode any player-trust left. It is so sudden that it will make you wonder if the game has spiteful sentiments towards people who don't get it.

I Love it; I Absolutely Hate it

When I think about my time with The Witness, I am reminded of how much I despise Dark Souls 1 after the drop in quality after arriving at Anor Londo; do you judge the game as a whole for the moments of bliss, or the fumbling fall to the end? I can only recommend this game to those who want to witness the answer for themselves.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (June 11, 2017)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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