The Witness

March 3, 2016

The Witness is a puzzle game that I think anyone who likes puzzle games should download and play. It's a beautiful and challenging puzzle game that has clearly had a lot of thought, care and attention put into it. As is the case with many forms of media, this is a game best experienced unspoiled and the less you know about it going in the better.

While this game has clearly had a tremendous amount of thought put into, it the more I played it the more I felt that it's not a stunningly well designed game. I feel there's a minimum bar in design for a game to be fun; this game passes with ease but a few key decisions leave me frustrated and wanting for what could have been.

Puzzle reset

Depending on the puzzle one of 3 main things will happen when you get a puzzle wrong:

On the condition that the behaviour is consistent, each of these is tolerable; but that's the thing here: it's not consistent. It feels random. There's no way to tell - just by looking at the puzzle - which failure behaviour it has. Forcing me to re-enter a previous solution always surprised me and always frustrated me. It still does, I think it's the single greatest weakness of this game.

I think the game does this to "encourage" the player to understand the puzzle, but this assumes that the player will only ever get a puzzle wrong because they don't understand the rules behind how to solve it. Not that they can't see the solution, but that they don't understand the rules of the puzzle. But that is not always a correct assumption. There were many times, especially when the puzzle involved listening for audio cues, when I was getting things wrong not because I didn't understand what to do, but because the puzzle was difficult. Simply failing to find the solution is enough to make most players look more closely at the puzzle. Forcing the player back is too much. It's bad design.

Non-linearity

The Witness is an open world game, and for the most part you can walk to all the areas in any order. What you can't do is solve them in any order. That's not to say there's only one order you can solve them in, there's not, but some areas you can't access until you've solved, or at least got a good understanding of, a different area. What's more irritating though is that some areas will let you get halfway through before the dependency on another area reveals itself, and you're stuck. An area should either be entirely solvable in isolation, or impossible to enter without fulfilling all its dependencies.

I prefer linear puzzle games, but The Witness would be a much worse game if it were linear. I just think hitting a brick wall halfway through an area sucks; being made to leave an area you were previously doing well in can be maddening, especially when that reason boils down to information hiding.

Story

If there is some story-based pay off to this game, I've not found it. The whole game feels like there should be a story: there are story hints everywhere. The whole island feels artificial; everything about it, from your entrance into the island to the inside of the mountain, shows that this is a designed island that's constructed by people. There were others on the island, now petrified. There's an air of mystery about the place. But there's no story being told.

That air of mystery is what hooked me, what made me play as much of it as I did. It's not enough. When I opened that mountain and went down the stairs I expected some clues about the history of the island, some reason for the petrified people, some hint as to why I was there. All I saw was more puzzles and some sketches of the island. There are screens with seemingly live feeds from all over the island. Were you being watched? Who's doing the watching? I don't know, I'm not sure I can know. Nothing seems to come of it, I've left that area bitterly disappointed. I've just stopped playing, maybe I'll never go back and finish it, I just don't know. I don't feel like I have a reason for finishing, the mystery of the island seems unsolvable to me.

This is a beautiful game. Overall, I'd say it's a good game. If you like puzzle games, I think you'll like this one too. I just wish it had more substance, I wish it gave me a solid reason to finish it and I wish it didn't frustrate me so much.