Played on PlayStation 4 and Windows
Also Available on Xbox One, macOS, iOS, and Nvidia Shield.
Jonathan Blow was the lead designer of Braid, an excellent puzzle platformer of a very unique style. Rather than simply focusing on beating levels, there were puzzles interspersed with the levels and it created a rather novel and unique experience beyond just getting to the end of each level. A couple of years later Jonathan Blow returned with his new game The Witness. So what’s the verdict on it?
To be honest I played The Witness at launch in 2016 on PS4, and had a rather good time with it. It’s a puzzle game and it’s as simple as that. Sadly, I think there was a bit of build up to it, in that people expected some groundbreaking experience. Fans of Braid wanted to see how The Witness created a similar experience. In truth, Jonathan Blow and his team just produced an amazingly solid and unique puzzle game. He took interesting puzzles with simplistic controls, mostly feeling like you’re tracing a line on a piece of paper, and adding a walking simulator around it. The problem is it’s not really like Braid, though I don’t think it ever was promised to be like his previous game.
I previously have talked about walking simulators on my reviews, and while a lot of people use that term in a negative facet for games, thinking it demeans the contributions of the game, I like the idea of a walking simulator because it illustrates what the gameplay will be like. In The Witness, you solve puzzles, but for the most part you need to find those puzzles, you do this by walking around and exploring. There is quite a lot to see and explore but it’s all about that experience of walking to the next location or finding that next puzzle.
In fact, I only chose to replay this game because of another “Walking simulator puzzle game” Obduction. When I finished the review of Obduction I had a feeling that it was somewhat similar in a few ways to The Witness, so I wanted to go back and replay The Witness and see if it lived up to what I remembered.
The one thing I noticed as I played the Witness this time is that graphically, The Witness is not that impressive. It’s not ugly, but after playing Obduction, there’s a definite step up in the graphics between the two games. In fact, I would honestly say The Witness wasn’t even impressive in 2016 and the fact is it almost feels like a lack of effort. Maybe there was an attempt to stylize the graphics and I can see that almost, but at the same time, the graphics tend to feel a bit flat.
There are some interesting tricks with the graphics and when the game pulls this off, the graphics are impressive, the problem is that the graphics become a mixture between impressive and dull. I won’t talk about the tricks with the environments but while it’s a cool trick the graphics just don’t feel up to where they could have been outside of those.
That’s not to say there are not beautiful vistas and locations to explore and see, but many of them feel like they’re mirages. As you approach them, you realize how ordinary the pieces are that make up a lovely image rather than how intricate the detail is. It’s not bad sign, just a touch weak especially when there’s only the simplistic gameplay to keep up with..
The graphics feel a bit plain most of the time.
There is also not much story, in fact the story pieces that are in the game are mostly tucked away. The story is a bit limited here, most of the pieces are small introspective moments about locations.
I don’t believe The Witness is necessarily intended to have a major story. The name alludes to the fact you’re not a participant in this world in some way, but I think in addition you’re not intended to have a single cohesive narrative as well. There are a few story elements, such as audio recordings and a secret ending, but I don’t believe either is intended as a narrative but rather pieces that you can discover.
The goal of the game though is to play through it, experience it. The reason for all of this is purposefully left vague so you can create your own narrative if you wish, but at the same time it’s intentionally left up to the player.
So we’ve danced around the gameplay… The Witness’s gameplay can simply be said to be Line Puzzles. What is a line puzzle? Well at the beginning you get mazes, two dimensional mazes with a start point and an end point and you have to draw a line between them. There are wrong turns and incorrect directions to avoid, but this a simple maze.
This is the first puzzle, simple but move from the big circle to the curved end.
It is a simple concept on paper, but Jonathan Blow’s team took it and developed an interesting game. There are so many variants of the maze and line puzzles that I’m quite impressed by the game. The lack of verbal explanation in the game though is outstanding.
A great example is in the first tutorial area, which you can see in my first look. There is a puzzle with two different end points, choose one and it runs a cable out of the room in a way you can’t reach. Choose the other and it helps unlock the gate you should be trying to open. This exact puzzle isn’t used often, however a number of puzzles have multiple answers and each one has a different reason or use for it. You learn through the process of playing the game, and can gather knowledge from it.
There are actually a number of styles of puzzles in the game. I want to avoid talking as much about what you will find in the game as that’s the major gameplay here, but the number of unique designs of the puzzles is rather impressive. Two early ones are dot puzzles, where you have to cover each block dot along a pathway, and square puzzles where you have to divide the space up into Black and White squares. This previous line is more text than the game spends explaining all it’s puzzles and yet the experience of learning and understanding the rules is quite wonderful.
“The Witness” isn’t just a great puzzle game, it actually looks at how to teach the rules of the puzzles in the game without a direct explanation being given to the player. Many concepts in the game are taught by giving an arrays of puzzles, each step showing a simplistic puzzle that can only be solved by abiding by the rules it’s trying to teach. If you fail, the tutorial puzzles will attempt to show the error as the error flashes red. It doesn’t say how it’s wrong, but rather just shows you what is wrong. This informs the player what might be wrong and then has him try to figure out how to fix the puzzle which requires understanding the rule in place as they work on it.
Some rules or areas will be different, however almost every area in the game teaches it’s core concepts through a couple puzzles and then the player should learn what the puzzles in that area of the world are focused on.
There’s interesting looks here, but there is no story for why or how these people came here, or if they are statues or stoned people. Just the model.
On the other hand, there are some areas of the game that are intended to be solved after completing other areas. Unfortunately these are not always clear, or are hidden behind a skill test. There is a town in the game, and it’s one of the better combinations of concepts in the game requiring the player to use a number of techniques to succeed. It also can be the first area the player reaches, or one of them, and the player might get frustrated as it feels like the game throws him in the deep end. The fact is, the town seems to be intended to be one of the final areas the player solves, but the game locates the town in a central location that can be misinterpreted by the player. That’s definitely a flaw in the game.
You see, The Witness with it’s lack of words or precise progression leaves the player to stumble upon different puzzles and try to solve them when they do. The problem is, the game doesn’t have a good way to inform the player if they’re missing some information that will help them solve the puzzle. It’s a shame because it’s one of the most frustrating parts of the game, and the player may run into this problem and not be aware of it. Admittedly, players should realize their lack of knowledge, but without telling the player directly, they might struggle with one of those puzzles far longer than they should.
In fact, there are a number of times where the game can be obtuse in a number of ways. There are a number of different areas that are supposed to teach you core mechanics. Personally, there is a core mechanic in the game that I absolutely hate in that I don’t feel it works well. The good news is that mechanic isn’t used much, but it’s still a part of the game. There’s another part of the game that’s critical for the player to understand, but it’s hidden and can only be accessed in a way that might not be obvious to players without a hint.
Again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers but I still need to bring up parts of the game that I feel fail the player, or just make the player unnecessarily frustrated.
The good news though for players is that the game doesn’t require the player to solve everything for the ending. There are just two achievements in the game. The first is the completion achievement for finding the ending of the game. Most people will probably solve about half of the puzzles in the game at that point, though speedrunners have shown only about a fourth of the puzzles are necessary to reach the “end”. So if something stumps you, you don’t necessarily need to solve it directly to beat the game, the Witness is quite forgiving.
The other achievement is… well divisive. I won’t talk about what is required for that achievement, but I definitely understand why some fans of the game don’t really like it. I earned it on the PS4 version and probably will not attempt it on the PC version due to a number of factors. The biggest thing is that the second achievement is the only time the game feels like The Witness completely comes off the rails and tries to be something it’s not.
This is a puzzle in the tutorial area. Find a way from one of the big circles to the rounded point.
The nice thing about The Witness is for people who want to just beat a number of puzzles and see the ending, it is perfect for that. But if players want to show off, there are far more puzzles in the game. While many puzzles actually lead to the ending, there are a significant number that have nothing to do with either achievement, or ending, and just are there for players to solve as they wish. The ability to go back, and find a new puzzle, then solve it is rather good here, and while there is an finite number of puzzles, there are over 500 (again a significant number over 500), so there is a lot to find and do in The Witness.
At the same time, there’s another issue with the Witness. Once you’ve watched someone beat The Witness, or have beaten it, you know most of the tricks. I beat the witness at launch, that’s two years, and 8 months ago, or 32 total months ago. It’s a rather long time. However I wanted to go back and see how the Witness is. It’s still a very good game to play, but my enjoyment of my second playthrough was heavily tainted by the fact I had already solved almost every one of the puzzles before and remember the solution or the tricks required for most solutions.
It’s similar to most story games, This is The Police, most Telltale games, and other story based games are games that aren’t as exciting to play a second time. The Witness joins them. While I enjoyed reexploring the world, it didn’t have that amazing feeling that I had the first time where I felt like I was learning something new. I sadly already knew many solutions and even where to find most of the important areas, and sadly the experience loses something when you try to return to it.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed The Witness the first time I played it, and while the second time left me feeling unfulfilled in some ways, I can’t deny the quality of the game and experience. For any puzzle game fan it’s worth a playthrough, but I also think it has a special quality that makes it appealing to fans who are looking for something new.
I think the average gamer deserve to at least take a look at The Witness, if you enjoy puzzles in other games, this is a good step. It has mostly simplistic puzzles but most take a decent amount of thought to understand or complete. At the same time, the exploration and the ability to tackle the puzzles in any order you wish or at any pace is a nice touch and it’ll keep you entertained for a fair amount of time.
I award The Witness a
Final Thoughts: It’s a pure puzzle game and is happy to be a puzzle game, though with simplistic controls, excellent environment, and well developed puzzles. It’s worth checking out even if you aren’t a major puzzle fan.
Stats: 7.2 hours played 1/2 achievements earned on PC. At least 10 hours played and 2/2 achievements earned on PS4.