X
X

The Witness review

Get up, get up, c'mon get down with The Witness

The Witness is more or less an impossible game to review.

I mean, that’s my job, obviously, and I can run through the basic motions just fine. For instance, here’s your topline recommendation: If you’ve got the patience to sit through an occasionally frustrating, probably overlong puzzle game for the sake of encountering some interesting ideas about game design and the history of humanity, it’s well worth your time. Don’t be put off by the higher-than-expected $40 price tag, either. Mastering everything in The Witness is a meaty experience about on par with a dedicated playthrough of a major RPG, and the concepts explored within make a far stronger argument for the potential of gaming as a medium than anything else you’re likely to play in 2016.

The trouble is explaining why without spoiling everything that makes The Witness such an interesting game to play. I can touch on the basics of gameplay by telling you that you spend the entire game exploring an island and solving puzzles, all of them some variation on drawing a line on a grid to move from the starting point (or points) to the end(s) while simultaneously fulfilling other requirements. While that’s an unattractive synopsis and a fairly gross oversimplification, providing any examples of just how clever those different requirements are would ruin the enjoyment of uncovering them for yourself.

That’s really the single biggest draw of the gameplay, and while the review guidelines sent along tell me I’m free to spoil one or two such puzzle types, I wouldn’t dare take away even one corner of discovery. The Witness‘s designer, Jonathan Blow, has spoken in the past about his reluctance to explain his games in words because they’re designed to deliver experiences in a way unique to games, and that shines through here. There’s a commitment to minimalism in control and interaction that makes learning to see the puzzles from new perspectives your only impediment to progress, so sharing anything amounts to a walkthrough of sorts. It would rob you of the experience of making the insane jumps of logic yourself and having the moments of eureka that are the closest the game ever comes to any traditional definition of “fun.”

Besides, if everyone is allowed to reveal one or two puzzle types, given that the game is nonlinear and open world, what’s to say that multiple reviews won’t ruin everything in the aggregate? I’d rather not contribute to those odds.

And even this is just the first set of problems. What truly makes the game good—possibly great—is how the gameplay is married to larger ideas. I wouldn’t call it a story, really, since there’s not enough of anything approaching a conventional narrative for that. It’s nuanced and complicated, and almost impossible to praise without getting into specifics. That’s why I’ve had to dedicate an entirely separate piece to unpacking my reactions to the themes of the game, one which mostly disregards any spoiler warnings or review guidelines. But I will say here, in vague terms, that there’s more provocative meaning packed into The Witness than every title on EGM’s 2015 top 25 list, combined.

That’s not to say that this side of the game is perfect. Perhaps to its disadvantage, it’s often difficult to follow, aggressively hypertextual and metatextual. While mostly delivered in a grounded fashion, a few bits of the content or its presentation verge on pretension—now a recurring problem of Blow’s. It can be, on occasion, too intellectual, too calculated, too unemotional, too inhuman to resonate. Though not really the fault of the “storytelling,” there are times when the progression feels lopsided and overstuffed. Your progress will sometimes be frustratingly blocked by a linear path through extremely tough puzzles, which robs the open world of its biggest advantage, the ability to head somewhere else when you’re stuck and let the solution percolate in your subconscious.

And here’s the final problem: How do you properly distill something so multifaceted, brilliant but sporadically and undeniably flawed into a single number? How much do you account for the degree of difficulty in pulling off a game like The Witness? How do you properly grade when the creative vision is almost perfectly executed, but you question the validity of some of those goals?

In the end, the score I’ve settled on probably isn’t as important as what I told you back at the start. If the idea of solving more than 600 of the most fiendishly clever puzzles you’ve ever seen, in a game that’s unlike anything else, appeals to you, The Witness is worth a shot. If you’ve been waiting for a 100-hour game where you can’t die and you’ll never kill anyone, it’s worth it. Just know that you’ll get stuck, sometimes intractably so, and you’ll need to summon massive amounts of both patience and ingenuity to keep going. Know that you probably won’t be on board with every one of the game’s attempts to inject an intellectual flair. Know that reaching the ending may very well leave you cold.

Jonathan Blow, by all outward appearances, viewed The Witness as a chance to deliver gaming’s equivalent of a difficult novel: long, complex, and rich with meaning in a way that only the chosen medium can capture. There were moments while playing when that project seemed like a wild success. Other times—perhaps the majority, in hindsight—I felt Blow was a little too caught up in his own attention to detail, falling short of a great novel and landing in the obtuse didacticism of a grammar textbook instead. But even still: What a textbook it is.

★★★★☆

The Witness is the rare game that boils down to a question of faith. No video, screenshot, or review can really explain why it's such a worthwhile use of your time without spoiling the experience, so you'll have to trust me when I tell you it's worth every second—provided you have a bit of patience and are up for an intellectual challenge.

Developer
Thekla Inc.
Publisher
Thekla Inc.
ESRB
E – Everyone
Release Date
01.26.2016
The Witness is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Thekla Inc. for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

You may also like