We have to confess to feeling a little perplexed by The Witness, Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to his 2008 indie smash, Braid.
It’s certainly a beautiful piece of work and the puzzles it contains offer a staggering amount of variety considering they’re all based on the same template. But the experience of playing it left us rather cold – mainly because for all its ambition and commitment to old-school difficulty, playing The Witness is… well… a little boring.
The game kicks off by plonking the player on an island that seems bereft of any form of life except some rather lush foliage. As they wander through this beautiful environment, a certain eeriness creeps into the atmosphere, due in no small part to the statues of people dotted around the place; they look like they were suddenly changed to stone while going about their day-to-day lives.
Players will also notice an inordinate amount of iPad-like tablets scattered around the island. All of them contain a maze-like puzzle, which the player solves by connecting two points with a stream. Early on these puzzles are laughably easy, but as players progress further into their surroundings The Witness ratchets up the difficulty substantially.
One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of The Witness is the incredible amount of freedom it gifts the player. They’re free to explore pretty much every area they’ve unlocked and there doesn’t seem to be a set course they’re supposed to follow. There’s no time when a player will feel as though they’re being funnelled in a particular direction or boxed into a corner.
That freedom, however, comes with a cost. All too frequently players will confront puzzles that appear wholly unfamiliar, due to the fact the open layout of the area they’re in caused them to saunter passed the tutorial puzzle. In this instance, their only choice is to attempt to solve these puzzles with no instruction, or to backtrack and try and find the puzzle that provides the key to a solution.
The Witness, as it happens, isn’t big on handing out clues. Aside from informing the player that they can move faster if they hold down one of the triggers, the game’s M.O. is to place a puzzle in front of the player and to let them get on with it. There’s no help here, just what you see in front of you.
You really are on your own in this game and some of these puzzles are so spitefully rock-hard that some players may just give up while others would be justified in high-fiving themselves for solving them all. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of The Witness is how deceptively simple these puzzles first appear – and they are anything but that.
The game’s biggest drawback isn’t its difficulty and it isn’t its loose structure. It’s the lack of any lore or plot underpinning the action. There’s no reason for players to invest in the world save for their love of solving puzzles.
Working out these conundrums, incidentally, doesn’t really have much of an impact on the environment in the game; doors open, boxes unfurl and the player moves on – that’s it. The player will come across a series of audio-logs on their travels, but the recordings on them are oblique, prompting more questions than answers.
The Witness isn’t the first game to offer puzzles as a catalyst to explore a rather beautiful world; the likes of Myst, Riven and more recently The Talos Principle have placed players in similar situations, yet the worlds contained in those games offered something in the way of resolution.
If all you want from a game is a series of mind-bending problems to get stuck into, The Witness can certainly scratch that itch for you. But for those who want some meaning from the journey this game will take them on, beyond simply proving their puzzle-solving skills to themselves, will likely be disappointed. It’s a well crafted and stunning game, sure, but if it has a soul behind all of its moving parts, players will have to dig deep to find it.
- The Witness was reviewed on a PS4. Review code was provided by the publisher.