The Witness

I want to love this game. It sounds like a dream to me. Jonathan Blow crafts a puzzle game inspired by Myst. But, in practice, this game doesn’t work. It’s well-crafted, smartly made, and gorgeous looking, but the moment you get stuck on a puzzle, the whole thing falls apart.

The problem is that video games are primarily a visual medium and visuals are inherently ambiguous about what they are trying to communicate. There were lots of times where I thought I knew how a puzzle worked and then got five or six in and was stumped because I didn’t understand it at all.

And you either get it or you don’t. There are no hints to prod you along, there are no outside means of communicating what is going on. Everything is built into the puzzle and if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. You can try to brute force it, but the puzzles are too precise for you to get far with that strategy.

I don’t think that’s Blow’s fault, I don’t think it’s my fault either. It’s just an inherent problem with complex visual puzzle games. And when I got stuck, I couldn’t think my way out of it because I simply did not understand what he was trying to convey. This led to a lot of looking stuff up and by the end I got so frustrated I didn’t even finish the game.

The core mechanic are stretched thin. Braid worked well because of its short runtime. Blow explored a lot of ideas at length before casting them aside for a new idea. Here, having the same mechanic stretched over twenty hours gets tiring after a while. There are certainly diverse takes on how the puzzle works, but after a certain number of line-drawings, they all begin to run together.

For those who get it, The Witness is likely a wonderful, gratifying experience, but for the rest of us, it’s a frustrating and tiring experience. A smaller, more focused game or more mechanics would alleviate some of these problems, as well as perhaps some gentle nudges and hints for those who get stuck. It’s a wonderful idea, but an absolutely frustrating experience. People who want this kind of experience should check out Myst creator Cyan’s latest game: Obduction.

© 2017 James Blake Ewing