There’s an oft repeated scene in high school movies where the nerdy library girl has a makeover and gets to go to the trendy party. At first, she’s really pleased she went; everything’s going great, she’s got a red plastic cup full of beer, the love interest looks over at her and notices how hot she is; she’s fitting in. Then suddenly it all goes wrong. Someone is sick on her, her glasses break as she falls into the mud, everyone laughs and she ends up leaving in tears wondering why she thought she was ever good enough for that crowd in the first place.
This is how I felt while playing The Witness. For every moment I was made to feel like a star, like one of the intellectual elite, there was another that made me feel like a complete and utter idiot. For long periods I’d be enraptured by the beautiful surroundings, the elegant and intensely clever puzzle design and the near orgasmic feeling of those eureka moments only to have it brutally interrupted by Jonathan Blow laughing directly into my face for an hour. It’s the juxtaposition of these two feelings that make The Witness a very easy game for me to admire, but quite a difficult one for me to love.
Which is not to say that I didn’t love it once. The first few hours as you tentatively start to explore the beautifully realised island are magical. This is a truly awe-inspiring place; waves lap gently across abandoned beaches, trees sway gently in the breeze with painterly leaves dancing in the sunlight, and huge structures stand tantalisingly on the horizon just begging to be explored. It’s the kind of place you’d go to in order to write a novel. Peaceful, isolated and reflective.
The puzzles too, hidden round every corner and in every crevice, are wonderfully designed. The game’s primary mechanic, which essentially boils down to tracing a line from A to B, is gently expanded, altered and twisted until you’ve developed an entire internal language for finding a solution; all without a single tutorial or written instruction from the game itself. It’s all incredibly clever. The dedication and restraint shown to never veer away from this singular vision is both impressive and more than a little obsessive.
Which is perhaps where the appeal starts to fade. In his quest to eke every available possibility from such a simple concept, Blow has made a game that’s frustrating, bloated and even a little bit boring. It’s difficult to get into specifics without potentially spoiling some of solutions but puzzles in The Witness can broadly be separated into purely logic based, where you have all the information on the panel directly in front of you, and “other”, where the tools you need to solve can come from a variety of different sources. It’s in these “other” puzzles that you’ll find the game at its brightest but also at its most irritating. It’s almost like the game is in such a hurry to show off and impress you that it forgets that its primary purpose is to entertain.
This is exasperated by the story which is delivered scattershot throughout the course of the game and whose navel gazing, philosophising can feel like having your ear gnawed off by a particularly tiresome pothead. The narrative breaks are interesting in isolation but trying to make sense of them as a whole while having your brain routinely dismantled by the puzzles is one layer of complication too many.
Braid, Blow’s previous game, managed to get round this by being relatively brief; affording you the opportunity to reflect and revisit the plot in order to make sense of it all. Here, he goes in totally the opposite direction; The Witness is a very long game, easily 40 plus hours to get to the end and potentially 100 plus hours to mop everything up. It’s all just a bit too much and it’s disheartening when your only reward for solving a puzzle is yet another puzzle.
I’ll admit that I sadly found myself reaching for my phone and looking up the solution on a number of occasions just to move the game along a bit. Staring at a single panel for over an hour, gently nudging the analogue stick until something clicks, in complete deafening silence can quickly lose its lustre. It’s all very well being tested, but the game holds the player at arm’s length and offers no assistance or reassurance when you hit a brick wall. The game never plays unfair; whenever I did admit defeat and consulted a walkthrough the answer was well within the established rules; but when playing a video game starts to remind you of sitting an exam it’s easy to start questioning why you’re playing the thing in the first place.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, The Witness provides you with a moment of such grace, clarity and wonder it very nearly fixes all the games problems in one fell swoop. To discuss it in any great detail would be grossly unfair, but it changes your approach to the entire game and is completely and utterly magical. It’s a majestic expression of the “a-ha!” light bulb feeling when the clues fall into place and everything makes sense. That this sucker punch can potentially land at any time just adds to its wonder and I expect players will be discussing their first experience of it for years to come.
I fell in and out of love with The Witness so many times throughout my time with it that by the end I was as confused about my thoughts as I was about the plot. What can’t be denied is that it’s an incredible exploration of a single, simple concept; pulled and manipulated in so many directions that attempting one of the final puzzles without seeing the several hundred before it would be like trying to read a newspaper in Mandarin before you’ve learned the alphabet. That it’s also incredibly self-indulgent, preachy and a bit tedious can be just about forgiven. It’s the video game equivalent of yodelling; clearly impressive and made with a lot of skill and dedication, but not always that enjoyable to sit through.