Usually I divide my puzzlers into distinct categories. On the one hand you have your SpaceChems and your Infinifactories; these are games that present you with a set of tools and then leave you to figure out what you have to do in order to hit the target output. On another, you have the Talos Principle. If Infinifactory was a question of “What?”, then The Talos Principle is a question of “What else?” in that you have a set of items that have known uses, but solving each puzzle is usually a matter of making a mental leap and coming up with a new, outside-the-box way of combining those items to reach the goal.
Now, though, we have The Witness. It is the first puzzler I have played in a long, long time that didn’t fall into either of the above broad categories. Instead, The Witness is in one all of its own; a category aptly labelled “What the fuck?”
Where The Talos Principle was about making one small, incremental conceptual leap per puzzle, The Witness first requires you to make several very large standalone conceptual leaps before you can even start playing it properly. This is partly down to the elegant and at times downright devious ways in which the puzzles of The Witness utilise various elements of their surrounding environments; the design here is extremely unconventional and it requires some significant shifting of mental gears in order to understand what the game wants you to do. However, while it is true that The Witness does expect more of the player than your average puzzler, it is also true that this expectation is a somewhat artificial one that’s been amped up by the decision to not provide even the vaguest sort of explanation about what The Witness actually is.
As with most first person puzzlers these days, you start The Witness by awaking in a strange, unfamiliar environment with no backstory and solving a series of softball tutorial puzzles. The basic puzzle type in The Witness is the maze; you have a set start point and have to draw a line (that isn’t allowed to cross over itself) to one or more set end points, and doing so successfully will usually activate some sort of power cable that you then trace to the next maze, and then to the next maze, and so on until you finally unlock a door leading to another set of mazes. The puzzles in the tutorial area are exactly as simple as this sounds, but once you get out of that crumbling castle the game immediately opens up and gives you access to all of the rest of it.
And I mean all of it. The Witness is set on a compact island rendered in lush, painterly, primary colours. This island is broken down into about a dozen distinct areas, each containing its own themed set of puzzles, and from the moment you leave the tutorial area you can visit them in any order that you choose. (Or, to be more accurate, the order that you blunder into them; this is a key failing of The Witness that we’ll visit in more detail later.) The first area I went to was a greenhouse where the puzzles were interspersed with rows of plants and coloured glass. The second was a tranquil monastery built around a single gigantic tree. The third was another castle filled with hedge mazes and platforms that lit up as I walked over them. They’re all different, and not just visually; each of them will not only introduce new elements that are used explicitly in the area’s line-drawing puzzles – usually in the form of symbols whose placement dictates specific rules as to how you’re allowed to draw that line to solve the maze — but also new and much less obvious ways in which those maze puzzles can manipulate the surrounding environment – or vice versa.
Solving an area is not just a matter of solving the individual puzzles as it would be in Infinifactory, and it’s not just figuring out that area’s trick as it would be in The Talos Principle. Instead, before you can do either of those things in The Witness it asks you to first make an unusual conceptual leap in discovering which elements of the environment are crucial to solving the puzzles within it. Some areas make use of sound, others make use of changing colours, others still make use of light and shade, and I found that the first and hardest step I had to take in The Witness was getting my brain into a place where it accepted that, yes, that really was where the puzzle design was going with this solution. What I found interesting here was that these environmental elements were almost all different, and because they’re all different they’re very non-transferable between areas, ensuring that your brain is always having to do some work beyond simply drawing lines around a maze. It keeps The Witness feeling fresh and imaginative almost all the way through, and it keeps your mind drugged up on that wonderful feeling of discovery and breakthrough that accompanies all great puzzlers.
Not that The Witness is entirely about its environmental tricks. The maze puzzles are surprisingly good too, albeit much more mechanically obvious. There’s about a dozen symbols you can find on each puzzle that changes up the way you have to complete it; for example, your solution has to draw a line in such a way that it separates sets of differently-coloured squares or pairs of stars, or it’ll have to cover a series of hexagon shapes that are laid out along your path – this is made awkward by the line not being allowed to cross itself and the fact that the potential routes you can take will often be blocked off in the most annoying places. Aside from these basic building blocks there’ll occasionally be a more complex twist, such as your line also drawing a mirror version of itself from the opposite end of the maze that has to be guided to a second endpoint, or the particular endpoint your solution reaches changing the direction of a bridge or controlling a moving platform. At the end of the day it’s basically a line-drawing version of Sudoku, but The Witness manages to tease out a surprising amount of depth from what at first glance appears to be a very simple concept.
Nevertheless the fact remains that in the vast majority of cases you’re going to see the solution to an individual maze in a matter of seconds – about one puzzle in four takes longer, but it’s rare that you’ll be stuck for more than a few minutes on just the maze itself — and so while The Witness partly makes up for this with quantity, throwing 40-50 puzzles into each area of the game, the mazes themselves are ultimately just building blocks to support the environmental manipulation, which is the really fun part of The Witness. Unfortunately I feel like it’s fun that isn’t really sustained, as there is a point where you’ve finally redefined your scope of what to expect from the game and you start to figure out the environmental twists much more rapidly. The first two areas of The Witness together took me over four hours to finish despite not having more than 50 puzzles between them. None of the subsequent ten areas took me more than an hour except for the final one – this isn’t because I’m a puzzle genius, but because after having to expend a tremendous amount of brainpower figuring out those first two zones I had a better understanding of how the general puzzle design worked and the things that I would be expected to look at in the later ones.
That’s not something I necessarily hold against the game. I still think The Witness is one of the most startlingly imaginative puzzlers I’ve played in a long time, for all that I eventually became wise to its tricks. What I do hold against The Witness, and what I think unnecessarily inflated the time I spent on the first few zones of the game, is that it is absolutely bloody awful at telling the player how new maze symbols are supposed to work. Part of this is that it never explicitly explains you what they do, preferring to teach you through a series of simple puzzles that are supposed to demonstrate their use. This is in keeping with the game’s abstract nature, but I don’t think it works all that badly – if you can find the place where these tutorial puzzles reside. The problem I ran into time and again was that I’d be making good progress in a given zone, only to run into a puzzle that included a symbol introduced in another zone that I was clearly expected to understand. I guess the idea was that if I didn’t know what it did then, I should go off and try other zones until I found whereever the tutorial for it was. Unfortunately the island, despite being small, is quite confusingly laid out; it’s obvious where the distinct zones start and end, but sometimes it isn’t obvious at all how you’re supposed to get into them. As an example, I found the swamp area (lol) where you’re taught how the tetronimo shapes work about ten minutes after getting out of the tutorial zone. I didn’t find the correct entrance to the swamp area until six hours into the game. Meanwhile I’d spent so long smashing my head against puzzles with tetronimos in them that I’d resorted to looking up a couple of solutions on the internet, which is never a great thing to say where a puzzle game is concerned.
(The Jungle area is even worse. I can see it’s a zone in the game. I can see that there are dormant maze panels littering the thing. What I can’t find is the starting puzzle, and the Jungle itself is so mazelike that I traipsed around for 20-30 minutes with no luck. Again, I had to look that one up on Google.)
This question of structure is The Witness’s biggest weakness. It has a very laissez-faire approach to teaching the player how to play it, but I think that it isn’t structured anywhere near enough to support that approach; instead it seems to delight in being obtuse for the simple hell of it. It’s fine for your game to have a non-linear structure, and it’s fine for the zones in the game to not be completely standalone and to rely on having completed others first, but in order to get away with that the tutorial areas needed to be easily-accessible and well-signposted, not hidden away in the back-end of nowhere. As it is the island in The Witness is laid out much like ye olde British gameshow The Crystal Maze1 – here’s the desert zone, and here’s the swamp zone, and here’s the treetop zone — with absolutely no thought or consideration given to how these areas tie together into a coherent whole, and no indication that it’s even considered important that they do so. The thing that makes me think this isn’t just a design flaw but is instead wilful stupidity is that you do eventually get access to a fast-travel boat; the advantage of this isn’t the boat itself (as walking is usually faster than using the sodding thing), but that while you’re on the boat you get a map that finally tells you where everything is. Unfortunately for some reason you can’t access the boat from just any fast travel point. That would be too easy, since the fast travel points are spread out evenly around the island and it would only be a matter of time before you ran into one. Instead you have to visit one very specific out-of-the-way fast travel point that’s incredibly easy to miss2 – I did, and I was pretty exhaustive with my wanderings in those opening hours. In fact I was under the impression that fast travel was something that didn’t unlock until very late on in the game, as every fast travel point I did come across was inactive and unusable. That’s actively misleading game design that has no good reason to exist unless it’s intended that I blunder around like an idiot for hours.
This is something The Witness is over-fond of; not explaining anything is at times a strength – the environmental stuff would be way weaker if the game gave you hints — but it’s a real pain when it comes to the overall structure, and it’s also the way the game approaches the plot. Or at least it is the way The Witness would like you to think it approaches the plot; since it never tells you anything, and since the environment never gives you any clues as to what is going on, and since the ending leaves you absolutely none-the-wiser, I’m choosing to believe that The Witness doesn’t have a plot, or a story, or a point to speak of. In a sense it’s pure critic-fodder, a guided missile of cryptic obtuseness that is designed to have its true meaning debated ad infinitum for the next half-decade by people attempting to show how smart and sophisticated they are, just like they think the game is. What I think that debate – and The Witness itself — very much lose sight of is that the game is so cryptic and the number of possible interpretations are so broad that any “true meaning” that may or may not exist is ultimately meaningless anyway. since it could be literally anything. It makes for something that’s very enjoyable in the purest sense of abstract gaminess, but which is tremendously unsatisfying when considered on any sort of thematic or narrative level.
Ultimately I do think it is enough for the puzzles of The Witness to exist for their own sake; they don’t necessarily need a plot to make solving them worthwhile. They are clever and taxing in just the right way, and when you’re tackling them with a complete understanding of the basic rules the game is a joy to play. Unfortunately there’s too many unnecessary points of frustration, and because The Witness is nothing without its puzzles it is at these points that the experience starts to wobble alarmingly. That’s why I think that, despite The Witness having a purer, more elegant puzzle design than either The Talos Principle or Infinifactory, it is in the end the lesser of the three; aside from its aesthetics, which are admittedly very nice, it has no soul. It’s the videogame equivalent of a book of crossword puzzles; fine when you’re doing it, but essentially pointless beyond itself and eminently disposable after the fact.