The Witness: A Cross-Examination

I was going to write this one without spoilers, but some things I wanted to discuss certainly fall into that category so consider yourself duly warned… SPOILERS AHEAD ME HEARTIES!!! 

It’s currently one of Steam’s “Quick! Now’s your chance to trim that wishlist!” events which means I’ve parted with some cash to pick up some games in what I tell myself is a sly and savvy bit of retail action, but in reality is money that I wouldn’t necessarily have spent otherwise.

One of these purchases… specifically the one I’ve sunk 17 hours into over the past week... is ‘The Witness’, Jonathan Blow’s enigmatic follow up to to ‘Braid’. It’s a game that was pretty difficult to miss when it was released 18 months ago, as it seemed to gather polarised reviews and sparked some controversy over its perceived high prices “for an indie title“. As the dust has settled, it seems to be widely regarded as a creative success receiving solid review scores and being hailed as a work of art by many for its visual style, and ‘hidden depths’. The player jumps into the shoes (well, we assume, the topic of footwear never actually comes up) of a mysterious person emerging from an underground chamber to be greeted by a bright, colourful, highly stylised, and above all mysterious island. To escape our subterranean ingress point that player is presented with a door; a symbol, a dot with a line attached, sits expectantly on the panel and the player must tap the dot and trace the line to the end in order to open the door. That’s the first one… repeat about 400 times until you reach the ‘end’ of the game… and many more if you want to 100% (which as we’ve talked about isn’t my thing).

… that’s it… blog post over…   

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I particularly liked this one…

Of course there is more to it than that, but at its heart the concept of all the puzzles is just that, draw a line from a start point to an end point. These start out as just simple mazes, but soon new rules begin to appear; they are introduced in what I’ve decided to call ‘learning panels’. The learning panels comprise of a series of puzzles introducing a new element, the first is usually trivially easy, the second will have some subtle variation, and gradually the complexity increases as the player begins to understand the new rule. For example the player learns quite early on that if there are black and white squares in the grid, they must be separated by the line being drawn; the subtlety of Blow’s deign is that this knowledge is imparted without words, diagrams, or tutorial prompts. It’s simply the positive ‘ding’ of a successful completion followed by the illumination of the next puzzle that  indicates success. The island itself plays host to these puzzles, each region of the island is dominated by a specific new rule, however there are elements of puzzle ‘crossover’, multiple elements in the same panel, and the town square seems to be a cocktail of all the puzzle types rolled into one. Progress to the next puzzle is indicated by a glowing cable and access around the island is mostly open from the outset allowing the player to move about at will. Ultimately the player will have completed enough regions to unlock the mountain… where there are more puzzles and an ending … of sorts…

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Training panels in action!

So far so dry… but there’s more to this game than meets the eye. On one level, the puzzle progression is excellently done. I found myself rushing from region to region to discover the next quirky rule, pushing onto the harder regions, finding tucked away boards, and revelling in the different ways that the puzzles had been combined, warped, twisted, and tweaked. On a second level the island itself is intricately constructed every element has been thought out, and even without the puzzles, it’s a fascinating place. The creators have included countless ‘perspective based’ treats, items lining up to form faces, scenes or animals when viewed from interesting angles, and it’s worth spending a little time traversing the island to enjoy these.

…this is where it get’s very spoilery…    

Thirdly it made me feel more stupid than any game I’ve ever played because of one facet; the ‘hidden’ puzzles. I’d pushed on so hard to complete areas that even when I thought to myself “oh, that’s cool ,they’ve made bits of the landscape look like the line puzzle” I didn’t think to click on them and discover that there are a subset of puzzles that are embedded in the landscape. Stand over here, these lines on the brickwork line up, and with a quick shimmer, that’s another puzzle ticked off. I’m opening myself up to (possibly much deserved) ridicule here, but don’t let it be said that I don’t suffer to give an accurate account of my gaming experiences, failures and all, in this blog. I’d stayed up late chipping away through the last few puzzles before hitting the ‘end’, and decided to check out the NoClip documentary about the Witness the next day on the train when it painfully spoiled that aspect of the game for me, so (once my combined sheepishness and spoiler annoyance had worn off) that evening I jumped back in to check out these large scale puzzles drawing lines in the sky, down rivers and across buildings.

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I can’t fault the Witness on its level of attention to detail and the precision with which its been crafted, there is a dedication to a vision here that’s pretty rare, even in the classics. That being said, I’m not likely to be returning to it too often for that 100% (I suspect I’ll scratch away at it from time to time), and before you jump into the comments with indignation, I’m also aware that there are depths to the mystery that I havn’t found yet… And I’m ok with that. There are elements here that just don’t grab me as much as I feel that they should. The hidden puzzles quickly descended into what felt like a collectathon, the shear number of them to find is overwhelming and doesn’t serve any obvious progression; I can’t help but feel like they should have been more elusive and less numerous. Witness purists will no doubt argue that I missed the point, that the discovery should be reward enough, but my own gaming motivation requires challenge, plot progression, or exploration, and having reached the nominal ‘end’, there’s not enough draw there to justify the leg work in mopping up when the scraps of progress feel so sparse. What serves as exposition is handled by audio clips littering the landscape, they all touch on topics relating to science, religion, or the acquiring of knowledge, nudging the player in an unsubtle way at the ‘point’ of the game; It’s awkward, and looking back at the text heavy intermission screens in Braid, I think that Blow’s talent lies in clever mechanics and detail rather than storytelling.

The Witness is a good game and, despite not seeing it through to 100%, the enjoyment that I’ve gained from it outweighs the misgivings I’ve picked out here and a tendency to be pretentious unnecessarily. The best compliment I can give it is that it’s like an elaborate watch movement; intricate, precise, and with each piece interconnected to the others.

Did you play ‘The Witness’? do you want to mock me in the comments?… 

7 thoughts on “The Witness: A Cross-Examination

    1. I look forward to reading it! Tbh I found it a difficult game to write about, but I think I gave a pretty frank description of my experience. I enjoyed it, but can’t really rave about it… although I’m sure some people could if it sings to them.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, absolutely; even as a collection of puzzles, the work that’s gone into making the puzzle panels is astounding. The setting is certainly intriguing and I think a fan of the puzzle genre would appreciate its slightly surreal atmosphere and the care with which the island has been put together. Now’s a pretty good time as the current price in the steam sale (if you’re thinking of PC) is the lowest I’ve seen it as it rarely gets discounted.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The Witness was one of those games I wish I loved… but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Clearly a lot of planning and effort went into making it, and the way the entire world fits together is beautiful; but I completely understand where you’re coming from when you say there isn’t enough to justify the leg-work. Sometimes ‘clever’ just doesn’t cut it.

    Although if someone was to make a game set in The Witness’ world… with some of the puzzles and a more substantial storyline added… sign me right up.

    Liked by 2 people

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