The Agony and the Ecstasy
It's over; I'm done. You've made me a broken man, The Witness. And you've finally won.
That's not to say I've actually finished The Witness, because I haven't. Though I have played more than enough to form a final opinion. I'm afraid I've run smack into my own limitations, which is why I'm writing the second half of this piece with some trepidation: No critic wants their review invalidated by the "bad at video games" label. But, while mulling this over, a thought leapt into my brain: I actually like games that challenge me. Two favorite series of mine, Dark Souls and Monster Hunter, do little to explain themselves, and instead place 99% of the responsibility in the player's hands. So I wasn't exactly surprised to see GamesRadar's Leon Hurley invoke the name of Dark Souls in his own review: In a statement I absolutely agree with, he writes, "Dark Souls feels like a warm hug from a friend compared to The Witness’ clinical sterility."
If Jonathan Blow is the god of The Witness' world, he's a callously indifferent one. 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. The puzzles currently in the way of my progress simply sit and silently mock me; unlike their predecessors, there's simply too much going on to give me the proper feedback about what I'm getting wrong. At this point, I could likely look up one of the many walkthroughs hitting YouTube, but even seeing a solution doesn't necessarily teach the logic to solve future variants of said puzzle. Case in point: Last night, I found a new series of monitors and slowly got to work piecing together the rules of my first maze. Moving onto the second, I soon realized the logic I constructed in my head didn't work as originally intended, leaving me with no choice but to return to that first puzzle and sit, stare, and search for the Truth—which is still MIA.
This experience is all too common in The Witness: Often, I felt I barely had a grasp on the rules at hand, and only continued working on that particular set just to have it over and done with. And relief partners with frustration as the two emotions you're most likely to feel throughout. Following those earlier puzzles I could actually wrap my mind around, my most common muttering after working my way through a later set was "Finally!" If anything, The Witness could stand to be a lot more "gamey:" most of the time, your reward for finishing puzzles is simply more puzzles. The final one typically has some marginal impact on the world around you, but, most of the time, you're shuffled off to the next one in an altogether joyless manner.
And that's the overlying problem: The Witness doesn't care if you're having fun—for the most part, it relishes in how clever it can be. There's some joy to discovery, sure, but once that's over with, you're just scraping against the few things in your way. I appreciate Blow's lack of presence in his world, but it's a blessing as much as a curse. Of course, I understand what he's doing: The Witness is very much a modern-day update of Myst, and meant to be played as if we were back in 1993. Ultimately, it feels like something designed to be chipped away at over weeks or months—not an experience to cruise through over a handful of afternoons.
There's nothing wrong with this approach in theory, but something tells me Blow was maybe a little too close to his work. Every moment of beauty and wonder packed within The Witness is ultimately undone by its heartless lack of regard, leading to an experience that slowly transitions from intriguing to tortuous. After several hours of fumbling through puzzles, I turned to a few other games for a palate cleanser, and it practically felt like coming up for air. At this point, finishing The Witness is something I could only do out of spite, and that's not the healthiest relationship to have with a game. Jonathan Blow may have created an experience that's wholly his, but it's this sense of single-mindedness that ultimately makes The Witness a chore.
There's a common sentiment about The Witness I've been noticing in these past few post-release days: "It's a brilliant game for intelligent people." So, naturally, it's easy to feel insecure about disliking the game—you're practically saying "I'm just too stupid for this." But The Witness isn't a smart game. Just as you start to fall in love with its world and puzzles, 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. Solving seemingly impossible puzzles definitely has its moments, but the sense of desperate relief that follows hours of mental gridlock tends to drown out any hint of possible satisfaction.
So, in the case of this video game breakup, I'm afraid I'm going to have to point fingers—It's not me, The Witness; it's you.
You essentially control a dot. That's kind of hard to screw up.
The Witness' puzzle-packed island means it'll keep you busy for hours and hours—if you don't tear your hair out first.
The island setting is usually eerily quiet, but it offers convincing environmental audio where appropriate.
The Witness' remote island location is absolutely gorgeous, and its Wind Waker-y style means it'll age incredibly well into the future.
It's easy to fall in love with The Witness, and even easier to have your heart broken by the callous indifference of Jonathan Blow's beautiful island. A healthy challenge is good for any game, but the puzzles on display here offer few inroads to understanding for those who can't think exactly like their creator.