The Witness is one of those games that comes around from time to time that is very divisive; you will either love it, or hate it. I certainly didn’t love it, but maybe you will?
Dropping you directly into the game with no real menu or introduction, The Witness is pretentious and artsy right from the get go. After walking down a hallway, you’ll come to the first of around 500 line puzzles in the game. You’ll soon be in a garden solving more of these puzzles with no real tutorial or instructions; just trial and error till you figure out what happens. While the choice to have no tutorial respects the intelligence of players, it might also alienate others.
After exiting the garden, you’ll explore a large and colourful island with many different areas—all with the contrast setting seemingly set to maximum as colours pop off the screen. Make no mistake, The Witness is a beautiful piece of art visually, the game just falls apart everywhere else.
While wandering around the island, you’ll continuously come across more of these 2D line puzzles. Some you’ll be able to solve right away, while others require you to gain the knowledge to unlock. Instead of giving players an inventory system or keys to find, the developers have planted seeds of knowledge in the form of simple puzzles that gradually get more difficult to teach the logic of the specific puzzle type. A brilliant approach to game design, but keeping all the rules of each type straight can be frustrating.
One of the biggest problems with The Witness is that the puzzles feel so disconnected from the world around them. Walking through a beautiful world only to come to a series of flat dots and lines that require you to look at them point blank breaks the immersion. It makes the whole experience feel a bit disjointed and ends up feeling like you’re walking through a beautiful tropical island while solving one of those large paperback puzzle book pages every few seconds. Maybe that is an experience you’re looking for, but it certainly didn’t do a lot for me.
To be fair, some puzzles are a bit more involved than that, having you walk the path through the puzzle instead of drawing it, or using clues or hints found in the world to solve certain puzzles—but these are in the minority.
If you’re looking for a strong narrative you won’t find it in The Witness; instead, you’ll find audio recordings of quotes from great thinkers and video clips of people discussing philosophy and science, as if to pat you on the back and say, “Look how smart you are, and how deep you are. You’re just like these people. You’re like us.” The first audiotape I discovered was a quote from Einstein, which came across as the developers comparing themselves to one of the greatest thinkers of our time because they made a puzzle game where they draw lines. Very pretentious and honestly, kind of offensive. Perhaps that wasn’t their intention, but it certainly came across that way.
If you’re looking for a beautiful puzzle game that will make you feel smart or challenge you and make you feel stupid, The Witness is the game for you. If you’re a deep thinker and believe that alone makes something “art” and worthwhile, The Witness is also for you. Personally, I’d rather buy a five-dollar book of puzzles, rip the pages out and glue to them to my surroundings outside while listening to an audiobook of great philosophers’ quotes.