INSOMNIA

The Witness (2016, PC)

By RoninOtter / December 31, 2016


I cannot begin to describe just how saddened I am by The Witness. I had been anticipating it for so long, but ultimately it's been an awful let-down.

The short of it:

   The Witness delivered on its promise of beautiful visuals and challenging puzzles, but while it contains thoughtful (albeit "borrowed") philosophical content that's beautifully presented, ultimately the promise of a deep mystery to be uncovered was a bold-faced lie. The game had been hyped for years, and ended up so depressingly disappointing to me that In the end I could barely bring myself to finish it. It is a glut of repetitive, meaningless, storyless puzzle-solving in an otherwise visually compelling environment that would’ve had the exact same impact on me had it been on the iPhone with pixellated 8-bit graphics. It wasn’t a game; it was a task. And it wasn’t one I felt any satisfaction from completing.
   The description on the Steam store states the following:
   "You wake up, alone, on a strange island full of puzzles that will challenge and surprise you. You don't remember who you are, and you don't remember how you got here, but there's one thing you can do: explore the island in hope of discovering clues, regaining your memory, and somehow finding your way home."
   Every word of that is a lie, designed to draw you into an ultimately banal and repetitive walking simulator peppered with puzzles.

The long of it:

   I was anticipating playing The Witness literally for years, having followed the developer's blog from very early on. A rabid Myst series fan, I was chomping at the bit for another story-based puzzle game to sink my teeth into, especially when it was described as an island setting where you arrive without any understanding of why you're there. When it came out, I bought it instantly, literally purchasing a new gaming PC at the same time so I could experience it on modern hardware. (I was overdue for an upgrade anyway.)
   The visuals are very pleasing to the eye in a bright and surrealistic way that walks a fine line between obviously unreal and bizarrely realistic. The lack of close-up shape and surface detail and overpowering color saturation mixed with believable reflections and lighting feel similar to the graphics of Team Fortress 2, oddly enough. Imagine if Aperture Science and a 5-star gardener with a degree in genetic engineering combined to create a manicured environment as an amusement park: Voila, you have the island from The Witness. It’s a wonderful environment to behold, and was clearly an exhaustive effort to create. There’s definitely a great deal of enjoyment to be had discovering the scope of the island and all its nooks and crannies.
   The other area that the developers obviously spent a lot of time was the development of the puzzles themselves. Their logic is devious, challenging, and will require you to drag out a pencil and graph paper (or your chosen digital alternative). There can be a high degree of enjoyment obtained from deciphering their cryptic composition, and the game does a very good job giving you just enough education on the rules to let you figure them out and reach that euphoric "eureka" moment. For a time it was wonderful, and at one point I even said to myself “If this could go on forever, that’d be great”. However, I was working off of the assumption that there would be a gradual revelation of the mystery of why I was there on this island, or at least some hints as to its purpose. As time went on, my heart sank deeper and deeper into despair as I realized that assumption was utterly and painfully wrong. It's clear they spent their efforts on the logic behind the puzzles and graphics engine, with no thought at all into building a reason for the player to actually _care_ about solving any of the hundreds of diabolical mazes strewn all around. I can’t say that I hated playing this game, because I only hated it after I realized that everything I was doing was pointless. Up until that point, I was loving it.

   The only content which can possibly pass off as having “story elements" besides the unnerving statues strewn about the island are the live-action movies you can “unlock” by solving certain puzzles, all of which hail from a wide variety of sources and eras. Some are absolutely beautiful philosophical discussions on the nature of reality, human understanding, science, God, and cognition. Others are pure avant-garde art which can be thought-provoking, but ultimately only carry whatever meaning the viewer chooses to ascribe to them. Their most common feature, however, is that the game developers didn’t make a single one of them. They’re all from existing documentaries, interviews, and TED-like talks, and while I respect the developers’ inclusion choices, they took absolutely no effort to incorporate them into the game. There is one exception of original content, but it's so banal and drawn-out with no visual component that I nearly threw my controller in anger when I realized after sitting and listening to it drone on for almost a full hour that it's only message was: "people like puzzles". The rest of the island is so devoid of meaningful story content that I found myself desperately trying to find and unlock all of the videos just to hear a human voice break the soul-crushing silence of the soundtrack-free environment. Indeed, the historical quotes and video excerpts are treats to someone who takes pleasure in philosophy and literature. However, if Jonathan Blow thought he could insert the words of great minds into his puzzle game to have them magically imbue it with deeper meaning, he's either deluded or just plain lazy.
   This brings me to the thing which depresses me most: The Witness has no story, period. It's a beautiful venue with no party, no music and no people; a concept that actually has literal representation in the game at one point. After anticipating it for so long, the most powerful emotion I felt after completing The Witness was nothing short of betrayal. It felt like Jonathan Blow built it to lure in the kind of people who liked the games it was supposedly "inspired by", only to troll them with a game that itself has no more mystery than a book of sudoku puzzles. I felt like I’d been duped and lied to, and the “secret” ending doesn’t help one bit in changing my mind, nor was it in any way original. In fact, it made me even angrier, because it is one of the single oldest (and worst) cliché endings one can ever possibly use. You've probably guessed what it is just by me saying that...
   Some players will claim the audio logs by the creators are the story. Sadly, the audio logs were one of the most disappointing things about the game. The audio logs were meant to sound as though they were candid, but were very painfully not so. By the time I reached that cavern and realized it was placed there as one giant "Easter egg" (that's actually what the developer says it is), I was so frustrated by the repetitive and now boring puzzles that I had no desire whatsoever to waste any more time solving them. I tracked down the content online, and found they added nothing at all to the experience. In fact, their accidental "campiness" felt so forced and awkward that they ended up making me even more depressed and disappointed. So I am sorry, but I stand by my statement: The emperor is naked. There is no story in The Witness.
   In the end, The Witness has only one point: People like solving puzzles even when there’s no purpose to doing so. It literally even *says this aloud* during the most disappointing piece of unlocked content. If you’re the kind of person who just wants to use an expensive PC to do maze puzzles, The Witness is for you. Aside from that, it’s nothing more than a walking simulator set on a beautiful island that would serve as a great demo for the Oculus Rift. The remaining "meaningful" content can be much more easily acquired from the original authors, or YouTube.
   I'm waiting for Obduction [ > ]...

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