THE WITNESS Review
THE WITNESS marks the eight-years-in-the-making return of developer Jonathan Blow, whose acclaimed 2008 platformer BRAID is often credited for instigating the past decade’s renaissance of indie game development. Despite being playable to the public in various forms throughout its dev cycle, the actual nature of THE WITNESS has been fairly mysterious until release. Perhaps the closest comparison would be to MYST, another island-based puzzler, but even that analogy falls short of fully explaining just what THE WITNESS is; it’s safe to say that THE WITNESS is just as trailblazing for the medium as BRAID was.
Among other things, BRAID was also labeled by many as pretentious for hiding its philosophical argument against nuclear warfare beneath the charming Victorian Mario aesthetic, and those same people will likely find similar criticisms within this more recent game. THE WITNESS is to games what BARAKA and SAMSARA are to film. Unlike either BRAID or MYST, there are no characters, dialogue, or narrative to speak of. Vague morals concerning hubris and the folly of man are delivered through recorded poetry recitals and striking set pieces, but just how intellectual THE WITNESS actually seems will vary from player to player.
In the country of puzzles and repose
There’s just as little hand holding when it comes to the gameplay. Players solve only the same kind of line puzzle throughout the game, guiding their cursor from the beginning to the end of a maze without intersecting their path. Elements are gradually added to these pathways, however, that create additional completion requirements, such as grouping certain blocks together or segregating others. The twist here is that without written or auditory instruction, players are left to their own devices to figure out what these rules actually are.
Complex puzzles with unknown symbols will require the player to venture to another part of the island to learn those concepts. In this sense, THE WITNESS could be classified as a game about language, as the player will spend the duration of the game expanding their cryptic vocabulary. It’s a fascinating, immersive sensation that can’t be replicated in film or literature, and hasn’t before been implemented within games. Returning to a previously indecipherable puzzle with newfound knowledge and solving it is an incredibly satisfying experience, though maybe not enough to match the frustration that led up to that point.
Screenshot or walkthrough? You decide
And believe me, there’s plenty to be frustrated about in THE WITNESS. Though the intro mazes are deceptively easy, the difficulty quickly spikes as permutations without immediate explanations start cropping up everywhere you go. Tutorial areas for most of the variables exist, but it’s hard to figure out where they are or which order they should be visited in. Worse yet, some of the more experimental puzzles, such as light and sound-based mazes, feel inherently broken, as their solutions involve breaking the established rules. Others require you to backtrack and solve other puzzles that you previously completed, despite assuring you that you found the correct solution beforehand! These subversions would feel welcome in any other game, but given THE WITNESS’ predilection for explaining nothing, these select examples felt more like dirty tricks than clever ciphers.
There are a handful of other minor grievances to be had. Some sequences require to resolve the previous maze upon failing the current one, a tedious and pointless task when the solution is left behind for you to trace back over. Elevators and mechanized bridges take far too long to activate, and while it can be argued that industrial lifts do take a while to warm up in real life, THE WITNESS’s abstract setting makes such details irrelevant.
Ultimately, though, these issues are ones of convenience, and while THE WITNESS strives to be a lot of things, “accessible” is not among them. These criticisms really only apply to the definition of a game as a set of challenges to be overcome to reach an end goal. But there is no such win state in THE WITNESS. There is no rush to get anywhere, and there is an unspoken demand for you to take your time. It’s not a game that is necessarily played to be beaten, but rather to be contemplated over time.
It won’t be long until you’re SWAMPED with obstacles
It wouldn’t even be a stretch to say that THE WITNESS is the least approachable game in recent years, more so than any convoluted military, plane, or train simulator on the market. The game was cunningly marketed in that it wasn’t at all. The lack of awareness, along with the just unappealing $40 price tag for a downloadable title, means that the casual consumer will steer clear of, if not pass by completely unaware, this title. Only niche gamers will apply here, and this is for the best, because it’s they who will benefit the most from this game. THE WITNESS is significant if for nothing else bucking the preconceptions of what a game is “supposed” to be. It is closer to a painting than cinema, more like a poem than a story. It won’t satisfy the player with tactile mechanics or tight pacing that the likes of PORTAL, SUPER MARIO, or even BRAID will, but rather chooses to give back whatever meaning they choose to lend it. THE WITNESS doesn’t subscribe to the popular notion that a game has to be “fun”, nor does it hope to draw a large crowd, but it is thought-provoking and even ahead of it’s time, and it’s for these reasons that I must endorse it.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on PC.