Graphics

This is the type of game you show your new TV off to your friends with. It looks that good.

Art Direction

Amazing art direction that makes you want to plaster your walls in fancy prints of your screenshots.

The Witness Review

Many years ago now, longer than I’d care to think about, PC gaming was lit up with excitement for an entirely different set of genres. Among these was perhaps the most unlikely called the puzzle adventure. There had been some successful titles before, but a special series called Myst revolutionized the genre and at one point was the highest selling PC franchise of all time. It sounds crazy when you consider what’s selling these days, but nevertheless, Myst enjoyed many years of success that no other puzzle adventure game since has obtained. Coincidentally, there have been a handful of puzzle adventure games that have made it to the forefront in the last couple of years. Arguably the most hyped up of all of them, however, is The Witness – the latest Jonathan Blow project that aims to recapture some of that same lightning in the bottle that the Myst franchise did many years ago.

For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Blow, he is the indie developer responsible for one of the most important indie games of all: Braid. Braid released on the Xbox 360 at a time when indie titles were just gaining traction as viable alternatives to the triple A market and was wildly successful despite it being a challenging puzzle platformer. Not only that but it also served as a catalyst in the games as art discussion which continues to this day. Needless to say, Jonathan’s next game had a lot of expectations placed on it, and he fueled that fire with his own comments over the course of The Witness’s development.

The Witness is not a Myst clone, but it is incredibly difficult to describe the game without referencing Myst at almost every corner. With that being said it is its own game but, for many of those who played Myst, it will be a constant point of reference which tends to not always play to The Witness’s favour. For starters, it is a puzzle adventure game, but that’s no crime. It also takes place on a segmented island of which you are unsure how you arrived there; you are also alone with minimal interaction with the outside world. There is a plethora of other blatant references to various Myst games, but let’s talk about what The Witness does differently.

The puzzles in The Witness are largely point A to point B maze based, with an increasingly complicated set of rules or situations in which you solve them. You will encounter environmental influences such as lighting and water, changing how a puzzle is solved or interpreted. As mentioned, the puzzles will have an evolving set of rules to be followed to completely the accordingly which many times ends up leading to multiple solutions to a puzzle. One of the themes The Witness presents is the different ways people interpret things as well as the designer/player relationship and the effect it has on game puzzle design. You will be beaten about the head with references to this theme often in off putting, pretentious ways, but we’ll get to that later.

You can move freely about the island for the most part and, should you be lucky or a genius, solve puzzles at almost any time even before you have been taught the rules or systems by earlier puzzles. Most of us normal folk will be nudged in more conventional ways to learn the ropes the way it was intended, and in this regard The Witness does a reasonable job of providing you with a linear progression of learning but there are a number of situations in which the logic laid out in front of you can be easily misinterpreted. This can lead to long periods of attempting to solve later puzzles in an incorrect manner until you eventually go back to earlier puzzles and try to sort it out again. This doesn’t always work out as planned since it can’t always be discerned which rule you’re not understanding correctly but you will eventually figure it out should you work through the frustrations. When it gets it right, The Witness’s progression of learning is a great experience, but when it doesn’t go as planned it can be difficult to take in stride.

You aren’t required to complete every puzzle in the game to technically finish it though there are multiple endings to be had including a very well hidden one. There are also a great number of hidden puzzles in the game that are cleverly done. In fact, the hidden puzzles of The Witness are coincidentally the best part of the game in my opinion, and it’s a great shame that many players are unlikely to ever even know they exist. They are easily the most creative puzzles on display, and I wish that at least a few of them were required for completion to showcase their creativity. This isn’t to say that the standard puzzles aren’t also creative in their own ways because many of them are. The issue is that they’re simply put in front of you, often in large sets just to be done one after the other in a monotonous line. This is where the Myst comparisons hurt The Witness. Where Myst has you exploring the island and solving puzzles in an organic manner, The Witness ends up playing more like a giant Sudoku book that you’d buy at the grocery store. It looks like Myst on the surface, and as such many people might be disappointed when they learn how The Witness plays out. To be fair, there will also be people who enjoy this method of progression but personally I found it a bit dry.

Visually, The Witness is quite stunning. Vibrant and varied in scenery it provides some great eye candy when you’re not so nose-to-the-screen solving a puzzle. Surprisingly the game lacks any mode for those who are colour blind which might be acceptable some games, but The Witness is a puzzle game that greatly relies on colour and the interpretation of colour. It’s not necessarily done in such a way that you couldn’t have a colour blind option and so it’s perplexing to have it be excluded. Full disclosure, there are a couple of areas that, if you’re hearing impaired, you would be unlikely to progress without a guide and some luck. Suitable subtitles could have solved this issue, but it seems Mr. Blow was concerned the hearing capable would use it to their advantage. If that is the case and it wasn’t just an oversight, then it’s a pretty silly reason. Honestly, either reason is a bit silly.

If there is a story to be had in The Witness, it lies in its themes alone. There are a number of smaller themes and some overarching ones, mostly presented via audio recorders hidden around the island. Thematically, The Witness is simple, but Jonathan Blow had a point to make and unfortunately presents it in an aggravatingly pretentious manner. Instead of coming up with a creative way to put his themes and points on display, Jonathan simply takes quotes from history’s great intellectual minds, and voices them over in what can only be described as an attempt to make the themes seem more deep and thought provoking than they really are. It gets so bad at one point you can actually watch a few minutes of a BBC documentary after solving a puzzle in a certain way. Nothing, however, trumps the secret “true” ending to the game at presenting some of the most artful pretentiousness I have ever experienced in a game. For me it was a major turn off for an otherwise interesting take on the genre.

I’m honestly torn about The Witness. On one hand it’s a solid take on a genre I spent so much time in growing up and it does an admirable job in the process. On the other hand, I’m disappointed in the monotonous progression and the exclusion of the far more creative hidden puzzles. Above all, Jonathan Blows blatantly pretentious display of theme is some of the worst I’ve ever experienced in a game and after a while it became difficult to get around. If you’re a real puzzle buff then The Witness is likely to scratch an itch or two regardless of the sour notes I’ve mentioned. For others, it’s going to be a challenge to get beyond the negatives if not at least the unfortunate comparisons to the beloved Myst series. There is no question it will be one of the most polarizing games for these reasons, and as such, reviews are unlikely to serve their usual purpose. For me, The Witness is a case of trying too hard to prove to the world that video games can be art while not giving me the same sweeping narrative and more creative experience that Myst gave me so many years ago.

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Adam Morehouse

Adam Morehouse

I play games and write stuff about them! Blessed with an amazing online community for many years now. One half of the LAGTV duo.
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