The Witness is a puzzle game for the PlayStation 4 and PC. I start this review in that frank manner, because frankly, knowing too much about Jonathan Blow’s newest title is doing a disservice to yourself. This wonderful title, eight years in the making, has confounded, infuriated, and captivated the staffers of Gaming Trend to no end. To capture our raw feelings, we decided to avoid the common review format, and instead share an exchange of letters between lead editor Eric Van Allen and lead news editor Kenneth Shepard. This, in our opinion, best captures the raw feelings and concepts of The Witness, without bogging it down in arbitrary checklists and rigid expectations.
You’re right about one thing, the game feels very focused and deliberate. It’s the advantage of having this enclosed space to walk around, and limiting freedoms in order to make sure the player is seeing exactly what you want at any given moment. The Witness is something that is filling every inch of a very specific page, and it means it’s compact and structured in a way that few games ever are. It’s something like Journey or Gone Home in that way.
But even so, it’s hard to appreciate much of that mystique when the game seems altogether unwilling to meet you halfway.
There’s nothing that resembles a traditional tutorial, and I think that actually works in the game’s favor in the beginning. You’re shown the most basic of concepts and are forced to apply them to more complex puzzles, and even learning how those simpler puzzles work gives you a references point for some of the mid-tier ones you’ll come across. However, I found a lot of the time when I reached some puzzles I was given nothing that resembled guidance as to how they worked. Even now I still have yet to figure out what the actual solution is to certain puzzles, and can’t even find the “tutorial” panels that are meant to gradually demonstrate the rules to you.
I’ve spent the majority of The Witness either lost or mad, with only the briefest moments of glorious satisfaction in between.
I honestly feel like the whole enigmatic and nontraditional approach to storytelling and world building works against it because of this, because I’m not feeling the pull to keep trying and moving forward that a more explicit story could have. I know Ashley Johnson is supposed to be in this game, but where is she at?
I definitely agree that in some cases, solving a puzzle meant learning a rule you haven’t figured out yet, and the game could do a better job of at least implying a place to find those “tutorial” panels. There’s a boat you can find that actually summons a map of the island and lets you ride around to different ports on the island, but even finding that came about by chance. I would have liked something like that be closer to the beginning area, so it’s more likely you find it and utilize it.
It’s true that what makes The Witness great is its sense of discovery and that “aha” feeling, but when those epiphanies are as few and far between as they can be in The Witness, there’s little reason to continue playing, and breaking out a guide feels like cheating. There are other things I can be doing and other games that I can playing that don’t have that same inaccessibility.
However, I don’t think that any of these things I’m saying are, for the lack of a better term, legitimate criticism. Despite my inability to commit to chipping away at the indestructible wall that is The Witness, to say that a game that is functioning exactly as intended is worse for doing so is a bit reductive and shortsighted. The Witness isn’t for me, but it unapologetically makes its choices and sticks with them, and doesn’t care whether or not I’m along for the ride.
There’s something admirable about something that doesn’t exist to grab the widest audience, it simply is what it is.
We talk a lot about the idea of a “perfect game,” and while I don’t think a game that is altogether flawless exists, I do think there are a few games that execute upon what they set out to do perfectly. The Witness is not a game I enjoy playing, but I do believe the fact that I don’t enjoy playing it means that it did its job.
And there are going to be a lot of people who feel the same way, but I think that everyone should take a chance on the game to find out for themselves. It’s not something that everyone is going to enjoy, but it’s something that everyone should try.
Well spoken, Kenneth. I only take qualms with the idea of The Witness being impenetrable, but then again, I’m the type to beat my head against the wall and enjoy it far more than most.