In 2008, an up-and-coming game designer by the name of Jonathan Blow released his debut title, Braid. It received massive amounts of critical acclaim for its inventive platforming mechanics, subversive storytelling, and eye-catching art style. Along with Cave Story released four years earlier, Mr. Blow’s title helped the independent game movement gain steam, inspiring many artists to follow in his footsteps for years to come. Shortly after his first game debuted, Mr. Blow began working on various prototypes for possible builds. One concept in particular stuck out to him as particularly viable, though challenging considering it would require developing a 3D game engine to properly implement. Realizing the slightest mistake could compromise his progress, he began working on a new game in earnest in late 2008.
By 2009, this project had a name: The Witness. In contrast to Braid wherein he completed most of the programming himself, Mr. Blow created a team known as Thekla, Inc. to help bring his vision into reality. Making the game proved to be long and arduous due to a number of factors ranging from Mr. Blow’s wishing to expand the scope to opting against any time and cost-saving solutions. At no point did he allow the gameplay itself to be diminished in any way, nor did he permit the use of a premade engine to expedite the process, as he wanted to have total control over every conceivable element. To fund this project, he used revenues from sales of Braid, though it was exhausted by February of 2015. Undeterred, he sought additional capital, and by the time the project reached completion, estimations suggested it cost just under six million dollars to make.
The Witness was finally finished and released in 2016 whereupon it received nearly unanimous critical praise. The gaming press was quick to cite Mr. Blow’s sophomore effort as yet another triumph for the venerable 2010s indie scene. Considering the creative new directions contemporary artists explored through their work, how does Mr. Blow’s The Witness fare in the face of such tough competition?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, there will be unmarked spoilers throughout this review.
When you start The Witness, you find yourself in a dimly lit, cylindrical corridor.
On the far wall is a device that resembles a video monitor displaying a line with a circular point on one end. When you focus on the panel, the rounded edge on the other side will begin flashing. By touching the circle and drawing a line to the rounded edge, the door will open. The next room contains a panel similar to the one before, only the line turns a corner. Once you have made it through, you will be taken outside. After opening the structure’s main gate, you’ll find yourself on a mysterious island. You’re left to discover the rest on your own.
This entails a majority of the experience. The Witness is a first-person adventure game with a heavy emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving. There is no combat, nor do any NPCs exist to interact with; you’re completely on your own to explore the island with no exposition provided about where you are or what you’re supposed to be doing. Scattered throughout the island are panels similar to the ones found in the starting area. By solving them, more puzzles and sometimes entire areas open up. Most of the time, solving a puzzle will cause a wire to light up. By following it to the other end, you can repeat the process until something different happens.
All of the puzzles have the same basic goal of connecting a circle to a rounded edge. While this may sound overly simple on the surface, a majority of them feature multiple paths, yet it quickly becomes apparent that only one will work. There are a few select puzzles that have multiple solutions, but they’re far and few in between.
You might be questioning how one could discover the true path if there are so many to choose from, and to answer that, you need to examine the panel closely. In the above screenshot, there are five hexagons within the circuit, and you must draw a line that passes through them all. Sometimes, a pattern resembling a Tetris piece is visible, and you must draw a line in a shape that encompasses it. Other panels require you to separate differently colored squares. What you need to do might not even be hinted at on the panel itself, prompting you to check your surroundings for a clue. Occasionally, the solution isn’t possible unless you literally approach the problem from a different angle.
As was the case with Braid, Mr. Blow wanted to demonstrate video games as an art form. I was often reminded of the classic 1993 adventure title Myst when playing The Witness. It’s no coincidence, as this game pays homage to it not only with the analogous premise of setting the player loose in a beautiful void, but also in how it explores the idea of an interactive work communicating complex ideas to the player without the use of dialogue. When entering a new area, the game never outright spells out the rules by which it plays. You’re instead typically given a simple version of a puzzle, and it’s from there you can extrapolate on your own how they’re meant to be solved. It’s an interesting approach – one that treats its audience with a lot of respect. Considering the 2010s AAA propensity to inform fans of mechanics they’ve already utilized, this was a nice change of pace.
Much like his debut effort, it’s clear he and his team put a lot of effort into the aesthetics. It’s not just that the game is pretty to look at, but the setting itself conveys a story without resorting to dialogue. It’s very esoteric, and one could spend the entire experience unaware that a plot even exists. Keeping in mind the mainstream approach of attempting to turn games into films, often to an ill effect, The Witness more closely captures the kind of storytelling that complements the medium.
Unfortunately, as many good things I can say about The Witness, the gameplay lacks polish. For starters, there is no portable map. To be fair, the game world isn’t particularly large, but there were a few instances in which I entered a region only to fruitlessly search for the first panel before getting lost in the visually indistinct scenery for several minutes.
Some panels disable themselves upon getting them wrong, forcing you to solve the previous one a second time. Theoretically, this was meant to discourage the audience from brute forcing the puzzles. In practice, all this does is come across as an unnecessary punishment for the normal players while realistically doing nothing to stop the disinterested ones from trying everything. The solution to the previous puzzle is seldom erased, so it doesn’t prevent brute forcing as much as it delays it slightly. All of this ignores that most of the mazes have so many possible paths, honestly trying to figure out the answers takes far less time.
When activating certain mechanisms, expect them to move very slowly. On the coasts, there’s a boat that can transport you to other harbors around the island, but it travels at such a glacial pace, it’s arguably faster just to run from one end of the island to another. Had it not been for one otherwise inaccessible area, there would be little reason to use it. Similarly, there’s also one puzzle that, like the others in the area, rely on light for you to deduce the solution. You go about this by looking at the reflection of the panel in the water. It’s not so bad at first, but then you must drain or fill the pool in order to get the proper perspective. One in particular can’t be observed until the water is at the halfway point. You can’t pause the water when its filling or draining, so you only get a brief moment to see it. If you don’t get it, you must change the level again. Unless you end up taking screenshots, this is an unbelievably frustrating task. It makes sense why the water would move as slowly as it does, as otherwise the puzzle solutions would be nearly impossible to see, but they could have done away with it completely and the experience wouldn’t have been any worse off.
I think this alludes to a persistent problem prevalent throughout the entire game; it’s a hodgepodge of good ideas interlaced with several appalling ones. This is to say, the designers seemed to have trouble differentiating genuine challenge from annoyance. One puzzle involves distinguishing a bird chirping in different tones from a plethora of other discordant sound effects. It would bad enough as background noise, but actively paying attention to it gets grating instantaneously. Sadly this wasn’t the worst example; there is a series of puzzles nearing the end of the game that really stood out as the apex of abysmal design in which the panels rapidly flash various colors. At best, this succeeds at hurting the player’s eyes. At worst, it could be dangerous for anyone who suffers from epilepsy.
The biggest problem I have with The Witness is that it’s more monotonous than anything. Mr. Blow and his team deserve credit for coming up with such a creative concept, but all they effectively did was design over six-hundred variants of one puzzle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on a single good idea; Valve more than proved this true with their innovative, well-written Portal series. The key is that they were exactly as long as they needed to be and didn’t resort to filler. Meanwhile, with The Witness, Mr. Blow proudly estimated that players would take more than eighty hours to solve all of the puzzles. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of a concept however good before tedium starts to set in. If there was a clear story, it would properly motivate players to make it through the less-than-stellar portions, but as it stands, the only thing keeping them going would be the gameplay itself. Puzzle enthusiasts wouldn’t have a problem with this, but those seeking a more balanced, varied experience are inevitably going to run out of patience.
Now that I’ve expressed my thoughts about the gameplay, you might be wondering what I think of the narrative framework surrounding it. Even as Mr. Blow’s first game, Braid, caught the attention of many critics, some of them felt it was overly pretentious – a sentiment which in turn extended to the creator himself. There are limitations to using one’s work to analyze the author’s intents and personality, yet I can say with absolute certainty The Witness does little to convince me the self-indulgent nature of Braid was an isolated incident.
To wit, there is a windmill which houses a theater that shows six different video clips depending on how you solve the appropriate puzzle. Among them are an excerpt from the BBC documentary series, Connections, an old video lecture, and the ending of Nostalgia, an art film by Andrei Tarkovsky. The content certainly makes for interesting conversation pieces when viewed in full, but in the context of The Witness, they don’t serve much of a purpose other than to inform players that the author is a high-minded individual who likely watched them at some point. Completing a bonus level unlocks the final puzzle for this room, whereupon you’re treated to an hour-long lecture about batteries, Shakespeare and the concept of awe. Obnoxiously, listening to the monologue is part of a hidden puzzle required for one-hundred percent completion.
It’s commendable Mr. Blow wanted to educate his audience, but scientific studies conducted in the 2010s reveal that lectures pale in comparison to active learning methods. As a counterexample to illustrate my point, Kotaro Uchikoshi with his excellent Zero Escape trilogy taught his audience about scientific concepts and thought experiments by having them influence the plot in some way. Players are able to walk away from his games memorizing these complex, metaphysical theories because they have a context they can use to easily recall them. With Mr. Blow’s approach, I ended up forgetting the points he and the presenters were trying to make the second the clips ended.
The standard ending also does little to assuage any perceived pretentiousness on Mr. Blow’s part. It’s almost the stereotypical late-2000s indie technique of throwing random ideas from reputable sources at the wall in the hopes that a deeper meaning arises from it. I would have assumed it was a parody if I didn’t know who created it. Once you’ve solved the final puzzle, you’re whisked away in a machine that gradually falls apart as various people read excerpts from the Diamond Sutra, an influential text in Mahayana Buddhism. They list the ways in which one can contemplate one’s own existence in the world only. These are thought-provoking mantras, yet they’re not presented in a way that makes the viewer want to actively use them to shape their own experiences. Instead, they’re thrown at the player as they passively observe. To put it another way, Mr. Blow and the AAA industry he rebelled against weren’t so different at the end of the day. They both resorted to methods in which the interactive element that defines the medium is abandoned.
Drawing a Conclusion
Keeping in mind that at least one publication referred to Mr. Blow as “the kind of righteous rebel video games need,” playing The Witness reveals something of a contradiction. This is because rather than feeling like an avant-garde statement that tests the boundaries of the medium, it comes across as a relic from the late-2000s indie scene. During that time, many creators seemed to pursue this nebulous high art standard with the goal of elevating the medium. They were noble intentions to be sure, but it’s as though Mr. Blow ignored the direction in which the scene was actually heading during the making of this game. By 2016, Undertale and Papers, Please had been released. Although they’re often mentioned when enthusiasts try to argue for the cultural validity of their hobby alongside the works of Mr. Blow, I believe them to be antithetical to his ethos. This is because both of those games proved one could leave a profound, artistic impact without casting away what made the medium so appealing in the first place.
When playing The Witness, I couldn’t help but feel as though he went about developing it under the impression that video games in their then-current form were not a true art form, and thus it was his mission to save them from a perceived downward, anti-intellectual spiral. I don’t quite believe these were his intentions, but the dogmatic opinions he expressed in interviews and on social media make this interpretation difficult to dismiss. He criticized big-name AAA developers for failing to conceive narratives in which the gameplay is weaved into the story. This is a legitimate issue, but I feel his solution would only solve the problem by replacing it with a new, arguably worse one. Even if I do hold a modicum of respect for the many independent artists who blazed a trail in the 2000s, there were a few trends from that era I was not sorry to see go away. Once this pretentious air left the scene, the biggest obstacle holding it back from achieving greatness was eliminated.
After having said all of that, whether or not you’ll get anything out of this experience boils down to a simple question: do you like puzzle games? If so, there’s little doubt you will enjoy The Witness provided you aren’t colorblind, hearing impaired, or suffer from epilepsy, though I’d personally rather advocate the Professor Layton series because the average installment boasts more variety. If you don’t like puzzle games, feel free to skip this one, as there is little chance it would change your mind. Should you decide to try it, know that your viewpoints will determine whether it’s a masterpiece or a self-indulgent mess.
Final Score: 5/10