The Witness

I’ve wanted to check out this game ever since it was billed to me as a “Metroidvania of knowledge”. It’s a first-person puzzler where you explore a mysterious island covered in computer terminals with puzzles to solve. You can access nearly the entire island from the start, but some areas build on puzzle rules taught in other areas, so you need to learn and understand new mechanics in order to progress.

It left me with very mixed feelings.

Initially, the game is excellent. It is a masterclass in intuitive design: it manages to teach you tons of mechanics without a single word of text, instead allowing you to learn by doing with tutorial puzzles designed to break each new mechanic down into its simplest forms. It felt a lot like I was a scientist in an alien world, learning through experimentation and using my knowledge to learn even more.

Unfortunately, this describes only about half the puzzles in the game. There are a bunch of areas with very bizarre, poorly-explained mechanics that aren’t used anywhere else. Oops, didn’t we tell you? We’ll show you the solution but only if you stand in this exact spot. Now we’re going to make you solve a puzzle based on sound despite the rest of the game being entirely visual. Also, we’re going to invert the rules halfway through without telling you! These sent me scrambling for a walkthrough every time, which just completely killed my immersion and enthusiasm by the end.

The game overall feels like it crammed in a lot more ideas than it needed. A lot of the later puzzles were more annoying than challenging, mostly requiring copious memorization and note-taking. The puzzles based around physical positioning were cool the very first time I saw them, and incredibly frustrating every time after that — the addition of an analog component to an otherwise digital puzzle just introduces too many potential states, and I can never be certain that I’m even starting in the right place. The final set of puzzles, while certainly new mechanics, felt like they were really scraping the bottom of the barrel — ooh, this one moves around to disorient you! Ooh, this one is constantly flashing so you have to wreck your eyes to see anything! Ooh, this one wraps around but we only show you a tiny portion at a time because screw you! They genuinely gave me motion sickness and headaches. Too much, game, reel it back a little.

It’s a real shame, because the concept is really solid, and when it hits, it’s a great hit. I love how immersive the tutorial is, and I love how much you’re rewarded for recognizing patterns and applying your knowledge. (I felt so proud of myself the first time I figured out an environment puzzle, and they remain probably my favorite part of the game.) But either the scope needed to be dialed way back, or it needed to actually explain some things once in a while. In general, I think Toki Tori 2 did the same concept much, much better.

There’s also no story, which is odd for the genre. There are audio logs scattered around the island, but they’re just quotes from real-life philosophers rather than anything hinting an overall plot. There are also a bunch of statues of people around the island — are they just statues, or was everyone here petrified Bastion-style? But there’s no answer. The ending is just you watching the game undo all your progress and place you right back in the starting location, complete with actually making you start a new game — yes, really. Thanks, game, that was really the satisfying conclusion I wanted after sitting through all your tedious puzzles. I think there’s an alternate ending if you mess with the optional obelisks, but ehhhh I’ll get to it when I’m less burned out. If you’re going to have multiple endings at least put the effort into making them actual endings, sheesh.

5 Comments

  1. Nerem says:
    The alternate ending is actually even worse and what you need to do to get it is so terrible I hate it with all of my soul and I hate this game with a blazing passion.

     

     

    I hope you like a ‘puzzle’ where the puzzle is fucking wasting your time!!! Literally it involves watching a movie for a very quick flash of what you need to solve. Whoops, did you blink and miss it? GET FUCKED!!!! Watch the entire thing again!

     

    The Witness is an extremely hard pass in my opinion. Garbage all the way down.

    1. Yeah, I looked up the solution for the alternate ending. Incidentally, obvious twist was obvious.

  2. Heatth says:

    If you are looking for a “Metroidvania of knowledge” may I recommend Outer Wilds? It is a space exploration game where all progress are about acquiring knowledge. You technically can finish the game instantly with no trouble as soon as the game start proper, but you won’t know how and the whole game is about figuring stuff out.

     

    Oh, and there are an actual story and characters.

    1. I have heard very good things about Outer Wilds and it’s on my Steam wishlist.

      1. Heatth says:

        It is great. I regret not actually playing myself. I watched a let’s play on a whim without knowing anything about it and just later realized I wish I had played it myself. It is a good game to watch let’s plays, though, so there is that.

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