Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Witness Review (XONE)

I think it is safe to say that The Witness is exactly the type of game its creators wanted to make.  Every aspect of it clearly had a lot of thought put into it and the end result is extremely polished and well made.  Just because they made exactly what they wanted doesn’t automatically mean The Witness is a great experience, however.  Depending on your interpretation of the world it presents it can come across as anywhere from brilliant, insightful, and enlightening to obtuse, pretentious, and boring.  I think I fall somewhere in between.  See all of the details here in our full review of the Xbox One version of The Witness.       

Game Details

  • Publisher: Thekla Inc.
  • Developer: Thekla Inc.
  • ESRB Rating: “E” for Everyone
  • Genre: Puzzle
  • Pros: Looks totally gorgeous; some truly clever puzzles
  • Cons: Obnoxious audio logs; unnecessarily long; is it fun?
  • MSRP: $40

The Witness is a first-person-perspective exploration game that takes place on an island that is filled with hundreds upon hundreds of puzzles.  There is no story or explanation why you’re there or what you’re supposed to do, but there are a series of puzzles laid out in a path before you so you do the only sensible thing and start solving them.  There is no combat or platforming or collectibles or anything really to do except to walk around and solve puzzles. 

Will you unravel some ancient mystery or earn a great reward by solving the puzzles?  No, not at all.  The truth is that The Witness doesn’t have a story to tell or rewards to seek beyond obscure themes that are totally up to your interpretation.  It instead asks you to solve its puzzles purely for the satisfaction of knowing you solved them.  Is that enough?  I’m not sure it is.

The problem is that the puzzles aren’t exactly fun to solve.  They are all variations of a line puzzle where you trace a line through a maze but they get increasingly more difficult and complicated as different maze types and rules are added over the course of the game.  Nothing is ever, ever explained to you, however, so every time a new puzzle type is introduced you spend several frustrating minutes (and possibly hours) trying to learn the new rules.  Eventually you’ll have an “a ha!” moment where you figure out the trick only to be greeted with a dozen more puzzles just like it.

When the puzzles are good, such as when they utilize natural clues you can observe in your surroundings on the island, The Witness can actually be rewarding enough to keep you hooked.  Those types of natural puzzles only make up a small percentage of the total, however, and the vast majority of the tasks are repetitive and arbitrary and seem totally at odds with the beautiful natural setting around them.  Honestly, I feel like The Witness just has too many puzzles and what starts out as fresh and interesting rapidly becomes a tedious grind as you go through puzzle after puzzle for, as I mentioned above, no meaningful reward. 

Unless you count the little pearls of wisdom scattered around the island in the form of audio logs as a reward, but I find them to be some of the most pretentious and condescending things I’ve ever experienced in a videogame.  These audio logs, as well as some videos in a hidden A/V room you can find, are famous philosophical quotes that are meant to make you reflect on what you’re doing in the game and go “Hmm.  Yes.  Indeed.  How intelligent.” as you pat yourself on the back because you’re so smart and sensitive.  I hate them.  They add nothing to the experience.  The game would be exactly the same if the audio logs weren’t present at all, but they are simply here to contribute to the illusion that the game is smarter than it really is.

The Witness is a great example of what I call the “Emperor’s New Clothes Effect”.  In presenting itself as a “smart” experience front and center by being intentionally mysterious and leaving things up to interpretation, by its use of puzzles and teaching you (lol, not really) how to figure them out on your own, and by the obvious use of the audio logs, The Witness builds intellectual armor around itself that makes it hard to criticize.  If you don’t like it, it isn’t because it is an unnecessarily bloated experience full of self-indulgent (note what I said at the very start of this review) nonsense, it’s because you’re not clever enough or smart enough or observant enough to “get” it.  No one wants to appear stupid or unintellectual, which is why you see so much over the top hyperbole about childhood memories and introspection in so many “10 out of 10” reviews for the game.  I’m not saying people are faking it, but they might be faking it. 

By questioning The Witness in such a way I’m obviously opening myself up to just that sort of personal criticism noted above but, hey, someone’s gotta say it.  However, just because I might think it is largely pseudo-intellectual drivel doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good time with The Witness.  I love that it is completely fresh and new and unique.  I was completely and totally hooked on it for the first couple of days.  I’d play for hours and hours and not realize so much time was passing.  I had trouble sleeping because all I could think about and all I could see when I closed my eyes were solutions to maze puzzles.  When the puzzles are good, they are really damn good. 

I would also say I enjoyed my experience overall with The Witness simply because of how beautiful it all is.  The island is small but made up of several distinct areas such as a swamp, fruit orchard, jungle, deciduous forest (with fall colors), desert, and more and they all look totally gorgeous.  The grass and trees are lush and beautiful and the colors are bright and wonderful.  The water also looks fantastically realistic.  The Witness is pure glorious eye candy.

In the end, despite some legitimate criticisms, I do still feel like The Witness is a good game overall that is worth playing.  It is amazingly good looking and has some fantastic puzzles that truly do make it a special experience.  As long as you approach it with the right mindset – don’t expect life-altering epiphanies and just go in knowing it is a decent puzzle game instead – you can have a good time with it.  Also, while $40 seems expensive, it can take dozens of hours to solve all of the puzzles, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.  It takes considerably less time if you cheat and look up puzzle solutions, and I won’t judge you if you want to do that (my motto is to do whatever it takes to have fun), just don’t complain you didn’t get enough value out of it.  Either way, I do recommend you give The Witness a try to experience its flawed brilliance for yourself.        
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.