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The Witness PlayStation 4 Review: Cast Away

A clever collection of puzzles can't overcome an insufferably smug and sterile experience.

Review by Bob Mackey, .

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[Editor's Note: This piece was originally published as a review-in-progress, written with roughly 16 hours of play completed. If you've already read the first installment, click here to move on to the second half and conclusion.]

Outside of The Last Guardian, it's difficult to think of a game burdened by the weight of expectations more than The Witness.

Eight years ago, Jonathan Blow's Braid essentially introduced an entirely new audience to the concept of "indie game." While Blow wasn't first to the scene by any means, this puzzle-platformer did much to pave the way for small teams making small games for consoles—until it soon became clear heading to Steam first usually works out much better. Much has changed in the near-decade since Blow last checked in, and today, it's not uncommon to see a game made by one person compete at awards shows alongside multi-million dollar productions. In short, thanks to Braid's impact on the industry, Blow unwittingly sabotaged his chance to make a second big splash in the world of indie games—something that's incredibly hard to do in the first place.

Nothing can could possibly be as revelatory as Braid, so it's a good thing The Witness doesn't aspire to such heights. In fact, what you actually do in The Witness is alarmingly simple, and not without its precedents. After just an hour, you may notice some similarities to other first-person puzzle games like Portal and The Talos Principle, though Blow's approach is far less organized. But that's part of The Witness' charm: From minute one, you're set free on a fairly large island, and given an almost intimidating amount of freedom regarding which puzzle to approach next.

Unfortunately, my embargo agreement means I've been sworn to semi-secrecy when it comes to telling you how specific puzzles function, but I can at least provide the overall gist of things. Nearly every challenge in the game exists in the form of a monitor which displays a two-dimensional maze you need to complete in order for something to happen. Often, finishing a puzzle simply powers the next puzzle, but you're almost always working towards some sort of overall goal tied into traversing the environment: building a bridge, opening a door, powering an elevator, and so on.

And while these mazes at first take the form of something you'd find on the back of a diner's menu, Blow continually comes up with new themes and variations on tracing a path through two-dimensional corridors. Sometimes, you'll have to hit a certain number of nodes without doubling back on yourself; other times, you'll need to corral certain colors into their own quadrants with the line you leave behind. At their best, these puzzles gradually build off of each other in difficulty to the point where it feels incredibly rewarding to finally finish off the last one of a set. (Even if, at times, The Witness feels like a prolonged SAT test.)

That's essentially all there is to The Witness—at least, at the point I'm writing this portion of my review-in-progress. You're given no overarching goal, or a reason you're there in the first place: The Witness simply asks you to solve puzzles for the sake of solving them, and see how your progress causes the island to expand (which mostly provides new puzzles). It's an approach that feels like a Metroidvania of the mind, in that your ability to overcome previously encountered hurdles relies on internalizing the logic of solved puzzles. Because of The Witness' open-ended nature, a certain element of a challenge you stumble upon may make no sense until you complete the more rudimentary versions of it elsewhere. Of course, you can always try to brute force things and rapidly prototype potential solutions, but most puzzles have too many variables to make this strategy anything but tedious.

The real problem, then, comes when you've solved all the puzzles you know how to, and have no choice but to scour the island for more you could potentially finish—which involves a whole lot of walking. This issue directly echoes a problem I had with 2012's Fez, where my last three or four painful hours amounted to wandering around, desperately looking for the last things I had left to do. Granted, The Witness provides a method of travel that's a bit faster than hoofing it, but Blow's lack of guidance can often turn exhilarating freedom into crushing boredom when you're not exactly sure where to go next—and there are plenty of places to go.

The Witness' generally hands-off nature can often throw a roadblock in the way of progress when you're dealing with puzzles that incorporate multiple elements of past ones. The puzzles that build off of each other work well, since you're provided with constant visual references as to the significance of certain elements, and their interplay with others. When several of these elements come jumbled together with no real context, progress relies on whether or not you've internalized their meanings from past experiences.

This is doable at first, but soon enough, The Witness provides so many different puzzle types that I eventually ran into trouble memorizing the logic of them all. I know it would break Blow's focus on minimalism, but some sort of expanding "puzzle legend" would have definitely been appreciated. After getting stumped one too many times, I actually took it upon myself to keep a catalog of puzzles stored as pictures in my phone for quick reference.

I can't tell how far I am in The Witness at the point—estimates have it weighing it at anywhere from 8 to 100 hours (seriously)—but I'm definitely enjoying it so far. Though I'm forbidden from giving any specific details about the story, I couldn't even if I wanted to: So far, I've found two "audio logs" that haven't really told me a whole lot about anything. Solving dozens and dozens of puzzles in near-silence has been rewarding so far, but at this point, I'm hoping for Blow to throw some kind of curveball my way. What's been presented to me so far has been deceptively straightforward, almost as if I'm being set up for something big further down the road. In any case, I'm still excited to see what happens next. Now, what am I supposed to do with those star shapes again?

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Comments 37

  • Avatar for Ralek #1 Ralek A year ago
    "I know it would break the Blow's focus on minimalism"

    Is that what we are calling him now? The Blow? :-D
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  • Avatar for bobservo #2 bobservo A year ago
    @Ralek He asked that we call him that, and avoid making eye contact if we see him in public.

    ... Or it's a typo.Edited January 2016 by bobservo
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  • Avatar for Ralek #3 Ralek A year ago
    @bobservo Great, now I feel like I should be making a "The Fish"-joke :-D
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #4 Kadrom A year ago
    How difficult are these puzzles? I never played Talos Principle but I watched the AGDQ run of it and the runner talked about how some puzzles required you to convert things into hexadecimal or other crazy IRL things and that sounded like way too much effort for me. Hopefully the Witness isn't that extreme.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #5 bobservo A year ago
    @Kadrom Some puzzles have some surprising twists that involve referencing things outside of the puzzle itself, but I haven't found anything THAT esoteric.
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  • Avatar for Kirinn #6 Kirinn A year ago
    This has probably been said before, but I hadn't been following this game up 'til now, and going by just this review - I'm getting a very MYST vibe off of it.
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  • Avatar for stoneedwards44 #7 stoneedwards44 A year ago
    @Kadrom Are you maybe thinking of the Fez run? Some of those puzzles did require that which IMO is just crazy. The Talos Principle, at least for the main puzzles, did not require anything like that.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #8 Kadrom A year ago
    @stoneedwards44 I think he just mentioned in passing as something that was required for the bonus puzzles, but he already knew the solutions or otherwise clipped through the game to get them without the effort.
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  • Avatar for orient #9 orient A year ago
    Really looking forward to this game. Something tells me it's going to take dozens upon dozens of hours to reveal its true mystery, which I'm fine with. Games like this almost force a slow approach where you put it down, think about it for awhile, then come back.
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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #10 KaiserWarrior A year ago
    There are games that want to challenge the player, and then there are games that want to defeat the player. It's the difference between a Streets of Rage game, and an arcade beat-em-up from one of the lesser-known development houses. It's the difference between Demon's/Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II. From everything I've heard, it seems like this is the case with The Witness: it's not interested in challenging the player. Rather, it simply wants to defeat the player and then lord its "I'm too smart for you" status over them.

    A proper puzzle game builds from one puzzle to the next, teaching you the logic and then going from there. But it sounds like puzzles in The Witness don't really build on each other, so much as take previously-used mechanics and smash them together in increasingly haphazard amalgams just for the sake of "being hard". Not a great design, in my opinion.
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  • Avatar for Crononaut #11 Crononaut A year ago
    Wow, surprised at the harsh score. I've heard mixed commentary on how well a job the game does of teaching you the fundamentals you build upon, from a glowing review that praised how well the game taught so much just from the environment to this one which seems to suggest flawed game design.

    I plan on purchasing the game tonight, so I'm interested to see if the game resonates with me or if I'll find myself in a trial-and-error hell I've seen a few other reviewers caught in.

    Appreciate the perspective, as always!
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #12 ShadowTheSecond A year ago
    @KaiserWarrior

    I personally feel like the puzzles Do build on each other quite well. Whenever, there is a batch that makes no sense it typically means you should leave the "end" of the current area and start another one until you've learned the missing piece of the puzzle logic.

    I do agree with Bob in that it is very much a modern Myst, and often too obtuse for many in modern games. I think The Witness is well designed, just not for everyone--and all games aren't for everyone.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #13 Neifirst A year ago
    I can't wait for the day when I read something by Bob that doesn't mention Dark Souls.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #14 Kuni-Nino A year ago
    Savage review. It's hard to blame Bob though. It sounds like he was utterly broken by the experience which is normal to have with tough ass games. Goes to show you how hard it is to design puzzles that are "fun".

    I don't know if I want to play this game now. Kinda sucks. :(
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #15 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    I want to read this review, but I also am afraid of spoilers. This is especially relevant in a puzzle game! I'm sorry, I guess I'm just gonna beat it and then come back and read this.

    That being said, I'm maybe an hour in and I agree with the title and subtitle of this article so far haha. hoping it gets more interesting soon!
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  • Avatar for seanmitchell #16 seanmitchell A year ago
    "it soon becomes cruel and withholding, and more intent on leaving you staring at grids and dots than it is in giving you a slowly building sense of mastery over its complex puzzle language"

    i dont know man I beat the main portion of the game in around 18 hours and i feel like i was learning to master it. it just sounds like you aren't that good at puzzles. i mean its ok not to like the game and theres legitimate reasons. i think some of the games tedious and i don't like the lack of incentive other than new puzzles. but many of the puzzles were extremely clever. it sounds like you are just frustrated that you couldn't solve a lot of puzzles and it was too much

    as you said "On his island, you either get it or you don't, and no divine intervention will arrive to help you in your time of need".

    but all the information is there to solve the puzzles, and usually its set up in a logical way that if you question it and keep trying you will succeed.

    i guess its fair to rate it low if its too hard for you as long as you are honest about it

    "The Witness isn't a smart game"

    i think the way the game teaches you to understand the different puzzles and then ups the ante is very smart. just because you couldn't figure some of them out doesn't mean the game isn't smartly designed. if it wasn't smartly designed i would never have been able to beat so many seemingly impossible puzzles. but i always worked at it and tried different approaches and then had the aha moment.Edited 3 times. Last edited January 2016 by seanmitchell
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  • Avatar for seanmitchell #17 seanmitchell A year ago
    @KaiserWarrior i don't think thats true at all. most of the puzzles are very smartly designed

    "it sounds like puzzles in The Witness don't really build on each other, so much as take previously-used mechanics and smash them together in increasingly haphazard amalgams just for the sake of "being hard". Not a great design, in my opinion."

    they do build on each other in a great way. often times though it is a case of figuring out the actual rule of a puzzle. to master the puzzle you have to learn the rule, and you find that maybe an easy puzzle you got right was not right for the reason you =thought it was. then you go back and explore why it was right in the first place and experiment until you get that aha moment.Edited January 2016 by seanmitchell
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  • Avatar for amightysquall958 #18 amightysquall958 A year ago
    I feared that Blow's reputation would lead people to project their feelings about him (read: smugness and superiority) onto the game, especially if the design of the game presents a large vacuum, real or perceived, between the player and Blow's design intentions. I guess it was inevitable--we humans love filling voids with our own heuristics.

    I will pick up this game eventually (it's too intriguing NOT to play), and thus will reserve judgement until I understand this game firsthand.
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  • Avatar for orient #19 orient A year ago
    ...but the sense of desperate relief that follows hours of mental gridlock tends to drown out any hint of possible satisfaction.

    I know you can only speak to your own experience, but I don't think this will be true for most players interested in the game. For those who enjoy the process of figuring out difficult puzzles, you could argue that The Witness provides immense satisfaction unrivaled by most modern games, precisely because of its lack of "gamey" elements.

    But I understand that it's not for everybody, nor should it be. No interesting piece of art is universally loved.
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  • Avatar for robertchiang #20 robertchiang A year ago
    Finally found a naysayer...
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  • Avatar for falz3333 #21 falz3333 A year ago
    This thing I've been reading reviewers complaining about that rings totally hollow has been "All I got for solving these puzzles was more puzzles! Ayyyyy!". The game is about the puzzles. Seeing the puzzles. Testing the puzzles. Solving the puzzles. If you aren't in it for the puzz, why are you even playing the darn game???
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #22 VotesForCows A year ago
    I'm pretty sure I would get absolutely no enjoyment from this game.
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  • Avatar for internisus #23 internisus A year ago
    I feel like there's an assumption underlying this review that fun is the most important thing, and I don't think that has been something you can take for granted with video games for awhile now.
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  • Avatar for internisus #24 internisus A year ago
    @KaiserWarrior What if the reason why the game doesn't make the effort of teaching the player is that deriving the rules and language of new puzzles is the real gameplay? Leaving learning entirely in the player's hands seems like the whole point. The world provides all of the information necessary to figure things out, but it's up to the player to seize upon the right ways of looking at it. It may not be to everyone's tastes, especially after being conditioned through years of other games to expect clearer direction, but I fail to see why this approach to design is necessarily invalid.
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #25 ChairmanYang A year ago
    While I don't agree with Bob's review here at all--I find The Witness to be great at teaching the player, and I find it a profoundly smart and inviting experience--I think it's a useful review. Simply put, lots of people are going to feel the same way as Bob about the game. In fact, some other reviewers have said the same sorts of things; that they're disappointed and annoyed that the only reward for solving puzzles is more puzzles.

    The thing is, if the puzzles don't click with you for whatever reason (because of their high level of difficulty, or their need for good spatial reasoning, or their demands on the player to "think outside the box", or whatever), then you're going to hate the game. But if solving puzzles unlocked story bits, or different types of gameplay, or various progression/achievement elements, would that really improve the core experience? No, of course not. It would still be a case of pushing through things you hate to get to some extrinsic reward.

    But if the puzzles DO click with you (and they have for many)...man, the best possible reward for solving puzzles is more of the gameplay that you love. It's like loving a game's combat system, learning it in and out, overcoming challenges with mastery of that combat, and then unlocking new aspects of the combat and new enemies to push you to learn it.

    As I said, Bob's review is useful because it talks about a common perspective on the game. But don't let it be your only perspective, and miss out on something you might absolutely love! Watch the Giant Bomb Quicklook or some other videos. It might spoil a tiny bit of the game, but it could open you up to an amazing experience that I've never seen in any other game.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #26 bobservo A year ago
    @Neifirst This truly was the Dark Souls of comments.
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  • Avatar for apoc_reg #27 apoc_reg A year ago
    Having played this for the last 24 hours I find it hard to believe this is an objective review!

    Really loving the game, the ah ha moments are worth the effort and tbe sound, level design and graphics are superb, makes you want to keep exploring every inch.
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  • Avatar for choog #28 choog A year ago
    @apoc_reg It is very much not an objective review. Bob is very clear about that in what he wrote.

    I found his review to be a very interesting perspective on the game.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #29 Roto13 A year ago
    "You essentially control a dot. That's kind of hard to screw up." And yet, there are specific instances where it's weirdly difficult.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #30 bobservo A year ago
    @Roto13 The actual controlling of the dot is pretty simple, actually. What you're asked to DO with the dot often isn't.
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  • Avatar for robertchiang #31 robertchiang A year ago
    @Kadrom More so, actually. So don't play the Witness if you don't want to make such efforts. I stopped at some point because I am so not giving what they demand.
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  • Avatar for sleazefrenzy #32 sleazefrenzy A year ago
    Best game I've played in a very long time. I guess if you suck at puzzle solving it may be more challenging than fun, but I found everything very logical and impeccably well constructed. It's almost as if the game was 7 years in the making.
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  • Avatar for seanmitchell #33 seanmitchell A year ago
    @internisus i would argue that thats the entire theme of the game. its about observing the world and testing things form different perspectives
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  • Avatar for boatie #34 boatie A year ago
    I want to play this game, but at it's price point, I'll have to wait a while till it's cheaper for my getting frustrated at my lack of intelligence thrills.
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  • Avatar for daverhodus #35 daverhodus A year ago
    Yeah, I lit two lasers and I think that's about the end of this game for me.
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  • Avatar for Crapknocker #36 Crapknocker A year ago
    @KaiserWarrior The puzzles in this game actually do build on each other incredibly well in my opinion. You learn from the environment how to solve every puzzle the game throws at you. There are a series of symbols you encounter that you learn how to use to figure out solutions to the sets of puzzles in each area. In that way, it's more like learning a language than just throwing together things to see if they work.

    As Bob admits, this is not a game to turn your brain off and cruise through. It does ask more from the player than other games I've found. There are no floating glowing arrows pointing you anywhere, but all the information you need is still communicated to you.

    After reading the review, I can't help but come to the conclusion that Bob plays games for very different reasons than I do. I'm enjoying spending time leisurely picking out solutions to these puzzles; I suspect if I were playing for a deadline and having to rush through everything, my review would read something like his.
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  • Avatar for sobo89 #37 sobo89 A year ago
    I've read a few back-and-forth's about pricing on this game, pitting amount of content and experience versus dollar signs, etc. (what is art worth to you? what of discovery??) But price really is the deciding vote for me. $40 is steep for what is, by many accounts, a love it or hate it type of game. $10, sure I'll try. $20, yeah it sounds intriguing enough (Everybody's Gone To The Rapture springs to mind). But $40 is a huge gamble for something so niche.Edited February 2016 by sobo89
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