Video Game Review: The Witness

WitnessPoster (1)The Witness first came to my attention while I was perusing a popular gaming magazine, the name of which I cannot recall, my sister had subscribed to years ago. It caught me quite by surprise because most gaming publications focus on anything but puzzle-adventure games and has ever been so since the decline of the genre in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Apart from the Portal series, Antichamber, and Fract OSC, there have been very few (good) puzzles game in the last 10 years (or more) for me to look forward. I was excited just to see one featured in a major gaming magazine and am glad to say that it was worth the several-year wait. With genuinely challenging puzzles and a beautiful environment, The Witness succeeds, but often tries too hard to sound smart.

The graphic design of The Witness has been widely praised and is, indeed, deserves it but I feel the architecture on the island serves special praise. Thekla, Inc. hired consulting architects to design the architectural elements of the island. Many game developers give little thought to architectural details and how crucial it is in creating a believable world. In games architecture is often only a superficial set-dressing, providing a semblance of time and space, but rarely achieving anything near historical accuracy or spatial sense. The Witness is one of the few games I have played that does justice to one of humanities oldest arts.

The game-play on the whole is very well organized. Unlike most other puzzle games that preference environmental or inventory puzzles, The Witness uses abstract logic puzzles. These consist of mazes that gradually increases in complexity and difficulty as the player progresses. The rules of these mazes are indicated through a variety of video and audio cues. Symbols, shadows, sounds, reflections, and, yes, even the fruit growing on the trees can provide vital clues to a puzzle’s solution. Some puzzles are quite easy, while others require more time, and some are downright difficult. Indeed, The Witness is easily the most difficult puzzle-based game I have played since Trilobyte’s The 11th Hour. However, as difficult as the puzzles can be, most of them do not feel unfair. In the cases of The Witness, a little patience can go a long way. I often found myself solving a previous frustrating puzzles after a several hour break and always felt gratified by doing so. It can be hard to find puzzle-based games that are genuinely difficult and The Witness does this very well, if at times too well.

In fact, the difficulty can be so great that I can’t help wondering if the game could have benefited from difficulty settings, thus allowing players to tailor the game-play to suit what they feel it appropriate to their skill. If they complete the game on a lower difficulty, they could always return and replay it on a higher setting. Given how many puzzles there are in the game (more than 400? or is it 600?) they could easily have sorted them into several levels of difficulty.

Despite this, however, The Witness does provide some relief by organizing the island, and its puzzles, into separate distinct areas. Completing each section activates a laser but the 11 lasers available, only 7 have to be activated to proceed to the end of the game. This allowed me to bypass an areas of puzzles that stumped me for a long time and to focus on others. Unfortunately, once you get to the find stretch of the game, this rule no longer applies and you have to solve every puzzle.

The puzzles I enjoyed the most were those that directly altered the environment. In some areas, such as the swamp, laboratory, and tree house, the puzzles moved platforms, bridges, or rooms. Most other puzzles simply unlock doors, which is a fine mechanic in and of itself, but integrating the puzzles into larger functions made solving these puzzles especially rewarding. Unfortunately, it a rare experience in The Witness.

There was one problem that occasionally got in my way, quite literally, when solving certain puzzles. The solution to some puzzle are suggested by tree branch but unless you have the camera position just right, you won’t be able to solve the puzzle. If a piece of branch extends into your path it will obstruct your line. Curiously, another puzzles use a similar element with shadows but they never obstruct the line. In another instance, a maze panel is obstructed by debris, unrelated to the solution itself, and can’t be solve unless the player is standing in just the right position. These problems form unnecessary barriers to solving puzzles and increase frustration in an undesirable way. Fortunately, these problems are minimal and don’t render the game unplayable.

The one characteristic of The Witness that makes it stand out from the rest of adventure games is its story, or lack thereof. I expected, from what little information was given during its development and prior to release, that the game would have a minimal story and would center on the experience of solving puzzles. Granted, the ah-ha! moment is there but there really is no story to speak of. I had expected, even hoped, that there would at least be something to give context to the islands existence or purpose but this is one area where The Witness is odd—not disappointing, mind you, but odd.

Throughout the game the player may encounter audio recordings on small electronic recorders, scattered throughout the island’s variation locations. Each of the recordings are direct questions from a variety of real sources and not fictional. These quotes are interesting in and of themselves, and compliment the game’s awe-inspiring scenery but they are very difficult to find within the game. I knew for some time there would be recordings in the game, because it was explicitly stated in interviews, but I never noticed them until I got to the secret ending. Afterwards, I went back to find some of them, though I confess I did not feel motivated enough to do a thorough search after completing the game. The recording devices are just too small to easily notice and there is nothing to draw your attention to them. One is even hidden between a post. Even in a beautifully minimalistic world it’s easy to neglect a small detail such as this and I feel that this is a problem they could have easily avoided.

In addition to these audio recordings, there is an underground theater when the player can video a small collection of videos and, much like the audio recordings, these clips are not original material but taken from other sources. It’s a curious choice and one I think does not work. Some of the videos are quite long and are just indirectly related to the gameplay as they audio recording but unlike the audio recordings, which you can listen to as you continue to play, you must sit (or stand, really) and watch them. Compared to the audio recordings, they are at least easier to find, but the sitting and watching is somewhat unpleasant because the content of these videos are not crucial to the game. Even the audio reducing seems unnecessary. After all, I got through the game without even noticing them! If indeed the game is about discovery and the ah-ha! moment of puzzle solving, then these audio and video clips create a sort of intrusion into the player’s subjective experience of the game. Instead of forming our own impressions, we are exposed to a series of thematic primers. This would not have been bad, and might even have worked, if there were a more conventional story to provide context to the island and purpose to these recordings but without this the recordings just seem unnecessary.

The two endings are just as problematic. One will send you back to the very beginning, resetting every puzzle, and the other (secret) ending shows a long, drawn-out video of the creator waking up from a virtual reality headset and stumbling around. These endings make the completion of the game feel final but I found them very unsatisfying. Again, they might have worked if the game had a more conventional story but because it doesn’t these sequences feel rather superfluous. Personally, I would prefer the game to have no ending. That way the focus would be entirely placed on the puzzles and the environment.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed the game immensely. It is one of the most challenging and visually stunning puzzle games I have ever played but it’s lack of story remains a strong weakness of The Witness, which is only emphasized by the unnecessary audio and video quotations. The Witness certainly isn’t for everyone and I can easily understand why some people absolutely hate it but it made this puzzle-gamer very happy and I think it will please other puzzle-loving gamers as well, provided of course that they don’t expect a story to go with their puzzles.

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