I know this may literally be the worst possible way to begin a review, but… I don’t know if I like The Witness or not. See the thing is, I know that I admire it, but I’m still not entirely convinced that I enjoy it. I’m the sort of person who resorts to violence at the suggestion that all games are art, but I’m happy to argue until the cows come home and put their feet up on the sofa that The Witness is art. But look at it this way: I’m a big fan of the works of Salvador Dali, but I’m not sure I’d say that I’m having fun while browsing through copies of his work.
Although bright and pleasant, the graphics in and of themselves aren’t particularly impressive on an artistic level. The art lies in the design, in both micro and macro views (I know, sorry). For the benefit of the few who don’t know, The Witness is the brainchild of Jonathan Blow, whose last game was indie darling Braid. Braid is a puzzle platformer where the player progresses by manipulating time back and forth, but there’s also a tale being told through abstract storytelling. The Witness is much less frustrating than Braid could be, but at the expense of what’s easily identifiable as gameplay.
You certainly do ‘play’ The Witness. You explore its world from a first person perspective and, heck, there’s even a button to hold down that makes you run! Apart from walking/running, there are puzzles to solve, and… that’s about it, really. You’ll spend at least 90% of your time solving single-screen maze puzzles on monitors dotted throughout the island you find yourself on. This does mean that it often feels like a game that belongs on the iPad and, no, that’s not a compliment.
Each maze is very small, meaning that they all look deceptively simple. Some of them are quick and easy to solve, but most of them are not. There are absolutely no tutorials, nor is there any explicit guidance of any kind (apart from an on-screen prompt for the run button at the start of the game). The way in which you are taught the many, many sets of rules for solving these mazes is – usually – an excellent example of intelligent game design, and just one tentacle in the background of the art octopus. Each maze has a literally unwritten set of rules to follow, your only indication of what they are being the colour/s and/or shape/s present on the board. A combination of shapes means a combination of rules.
There are certain sections of the island designed to teach you the rules for certain shapes/colours. This is done simply by providing you with a series of mazes of gradually increasing complexity so that, even if you don’t immediately realise exactly how and why you’re solving them, at some point you go “ah-ha!”. That’s not to say that this type of puzzle becomes immediately simple; rather, you’ll have a proper understanding of what you are and are not allowed to do.
Due to the fact that in terms of logic you’re doing most of the heavy lifting yourself, it can be extremely satisfying to beat a tough maze or finally crack a previously impenetrable set of rules. And yet… and yet… that feeling is the exception rather than the rule. This is partly because where there should be a feeling of triumph, there is often a feeling of relief instead, simply because you’ve been knocking your head against the same puzzle for so long (though in fairness, there are usually multiple mazes in multiple areas that you have access to). Another issue here is the rewards you get for completing the puzzles; or, rather, the lack thereof.
Each time you complete a maze you are, by and large, congratulated by being handed another maze to solve. They ultimately act as electronic locks. Sometimes it’s a single, relatively simple maze that opens a door. Other times – most of the time – there’s a huge series of mazes that must be solved in order to open up a path and/or a series of doors. The problem is that sometimes, just as you’re at the brink of accessing a new area after solving a long series of mazes, you’ll hit a new maze with at least one shape you haven’t seen before. The result, unless you’re extremely lucky/clever/patient, is that your progress down this path comes to an immediate halt until you find the corner of the island which teaches you the new rule. There are lasers in the game, but that’s not as exciting as it should be. Each laser, once activated after running a gauntlet of maze terminals, points toward a mountain in the distance. Activate enough (you don’t have to trigger them all) and… well, I’m sidestepping spoilers here.
Everything is connected in The Witness, in a way that is so impressive it leans toward genius. This is not immediately apparent but, the longer you play, the more you notice that there’s more going on with your environment than is immediately visible. There are certain spots where viewing things from a particular angle suddenly reveals the answer to a puzzle, or reveals an entirely new mini-maze constructed from pieces of the environment that’s only properly visible from that position. There are abstract themes running through the experience and, all in all, you can imagine the entire island as an exquisitely detailed diorama, with Jonathan Blow as this island’s god making huge sweeping adjustments and miniscule millimetre-perfect adjustments to everything. The thought and effort that has gone into The Witness is staggering; but as a game, it too often feels cold and soulless.
What’s the bottom line? Quite possibly the best argument the industry has to date for the ‘games are art’ position; but at the price of putting the emphasis much more firmly on ‘art’ than ‘game’.
Review by Luke Kemp. Thanks to Xbox for the review code!