The Witness is a game that challenges what a game is and should be. Its noteworthiness has inspired me to write my thoughts on it. By right I probably shouldn’t even consider writing about it. I don’t own The Witness. I don’t think I fully understand The Witness. I have never played The Witness. In fact I don’t even plan to play The Witness. What I do have though is a studied interpretation of the game as a viewer (a witness if you will). My judgement on the topic comes through a full (more or less) playthrough of the game by the great Day9 and an analysis of the game by Joseph Anderson befittingly titled The Witness – A Great Game That You Shouldn’t Play. I say befitting because I wouldn’t say, and many would agree, that the game is not very player friendly unless you morbidly enjoy solving puzzles for the sake of solving puzzles. However, in the grand scheme of brilliant game design The Witness truly shines. For this my opinion is that The Witness is a controversial, bizarre, but truly remarkable game to say the least. I highly recommend watching Anderson’s 41 minute account on the profound subtleties of the game even if you never plan to play it.
The Witness is simply put a start-anywhere explore-everything puzzle game set on an island of unknown origin and background. Like many puzzle games before it you simply appear in the world devoid of explanation. It is your responsibility to uncover what happened here. What mysteries are held there? Littered around the island are series of maze puzzles on consoles and panels in different environments. Everything from the stone mannequins of the native people, to the elaborate set pieces of civilization past, to the motley of scenery elicits wonder in a way I have not experienced in another world. My immediate first impression told me that by the end of it we will have witnessed (pardon the pun) a storied fantasy. But what do you do when a game as evocative as this isn’t met with any rewarding results? How long does it take you to realize maybe there is no comprehensible story at all?
A standard set of puzzles found on the island (solved on the right). There are nearly 600 of these types of puzzles. No explanation is ever given on the rules of how to solve. That is up for you to find out.
In all fairness, The Witness shouldn’t be a good game. The premise is predicated off of puzzle after puzzle of minimal consequences or even direction at all. Progressing through the game, it’s easy to start feeling defrauded of your time or duped of any reason to continue endlessly solving puzzles. The puzzles only get more difficult as you go along and arguably become less rewarding. One of the best points made in Anderson’s video is that the game actively tries to waste your time despite its advertisement as holding your time as ‘precious’. There are many instances in the game where you pointlessly activate a puzzle to no avail or you have to wait overlong for the world to interact around you. There is seemingly not a lot to enjoy about this island unless you overly fancy nice scenery and puzzles.
Keep in mind my account of this is not me solving the puzzles. I am watching someone with a lot more patience than I work and struggle their way through the game. To be honest, a lot of the puzzles made my head swim and I skipped through much of the video of him puzzle solving. However, I always observed the resolve of the puzzle(s) because I absolutely needed to know how that puzzle interacted in the world. What clues did we get just now that would undoubtedly lead us to our next series of puzzles? Why can’t I look away? Why do I think this will all work out in the end? Will it all be worth it?
I have a somewhat vague but binary answer to that question. If you play through this game from start to finish with an idea of an objective explanation awaiting you, you will not think this game is worth it. What I started to realize as no tangible story was developing was that there must be an interpreted story beyond standard storytelling. What you will find as the fulfilling redeemer of this game is that the cryptic subtleties in environment and perspective in the Witness make up a story of a larger whole. Once understood these subtleties make The Witness in my mind one of the most intelligent stories told in video games and even art.
Most people’s first impression is that this game is absolutely beautiful. If anything the world is designed to instantly captivate by aesthetic alone. The game’s vibrant colors, clean textures, extraordinary attention to detail, and soothing cell shaded styling make the world so enjoyable to look at. The island is filled with diverse landscapes that are inviting despite their slew of intense puzzles. For example the game has regions of desert, jungle, orchard, mountain, cliffside, etc all of which harmoniously ebb and flow into a quiet and peaceful immersion. In this way the game is very meditative which is necessary to keep focus but remain curious. I am a sucker for environment artistry and I would be lying if I told you this wasn’t the main reason I was interested in this game in the first place. However, there is a so much more artistry to the environment than this naïve perception.
One of the beautiful and tranquil sceneries in the game. There are many diverse areas (desert, orchard, temple, cavernous, mountainous, etc. ) like it in The Witness.
In every puzzle you will start on a circle and follow a grid-like path to the end. Clues for puzzles are typically found on the puzzle itself, never with any explanation, but obvious insinuations that they are clues. What you will discover along the way is that the environment will be your clue if no other clues are found. In most cases this is not obvious. Every region has unique ways of employing environmental cues, some by shadows in branches, pitches in noises, background imagery, and some by solving through filters of perspective.
A simple example of the environmentally placed puzzles. The solution being the branch containing the apple in the tree in the background. This is one of the first environment puzzles in the game and is not immediately obvious to most players.
You will probably go through hundreds of these before you begin to realize that these exact puzzles are all around you integrated into the environment i.e. looking down at a river from the mountain, clouds in the sky, a passing ship through a dock, a spinning windmill that aligns, a painted staircase (start watching Anderson’s video around the 21 minute mark to see these environmental peculiarities). The first realization of this was a numbing experience for me. As Anderson elegantly puts it a ‘Holy Shit’ moment. These have been in front of my face the entire time after many hours of not seeing them. Suddenly everything in the world becomes liable to being a puzzle on an individual and much grander scale. This begs the question about how deep the puzzles really go. Fundamentally, they mean that the game itself is the puzzle skewed by what you thought the game was. My thoughts began to shift from what I was trying to solve to what I had been missing. To me these puzzles are some of the cleverest distortions of environment and perspective I have seen in a game.
Puzzles like this have been brilliantly weaved into the environment. You probably won’t even notice them until you’ve solved hundreds of the standard panel puzzles. This is an example of how your perspective changes over the game. After a while you’ll start seeing these everywhere and you might even start imagining puzzles that aren’t there.
Now, I’ve talked about perspective a lot because it is so core, in an obvious way, to finishing the game. Many puzzles in the game are only solvable by modified perspectives i.e. looking through lenses, lining up colors and lines from another angle, etc. However there are layers of obscured perspective present here that go beyond sensory limitations. Anderson’s interpretation, which makes a lot of sense to me, is that the game is an exhibit on meta-perspective. The best example of this is the inexplicable media devices found throughout the game. Along your journey you will find videos and narrated audio tapes not in plain sight. None of them seem to make any sense. Listening and watching them develops no discernable story in the context of where you are or what you’re doing. Again we have to question what the developer meant by valuing our time by giving us these worthless ramblings. And let me add they are long. There is a video that is over an hour long of seemingly irrelevant content. Anderson mentions that they all seem to contradict each other too. For example the first video is a lecture championing science over art. The next from a completely different person suggesting the contrary. However, Anderson’s interpretation is that these slices of media are accounts of different perspectives in a game challenging you to modify your own perspective on what the world should, what a game should be, what entertaining should be, and what your purpose should be. Hence these devices are self-referencing your perception of the game. On top of that the videos themselves contain environmental puzzles within them furthering the suggestion that the puzzle is the game.
There are instances like this all over the island (turn your head sideways). There is symbolism all over if you look hard enough in a perspective that is new to you.
*SPOILER ALERT* I want to talk a little about the endings and how they add to the meta-level complexity of story-telling. Now the normal ending was understandably frustrating to me when I watched Day9 play it. What I expected to be the answer to all my burning questions was another sequence of obscure dialogue accompanied by a mystical flying observation of the island ending in the same place you started on the island followed by a complete exit of the game. I felt robbed. But I understand it a bit better now that I know about the game’s ideologies. Your perspective is unique and important but shadowed by the perspectives of everyone else and everyone that came before you. The alternate secret ending has you discovering yourself in a game studio producing the game you are playing. You are a developer and tester of your game. You awake as the developer of the game in the real world and struggle with your new found perspective of puzzles. While this is hard for me to explain the meaning of, it is easier to understand that this is also self-referential storytelling. Your perspective is the story.
I understand that this might be very confusing or might even sound a bit pretentious. I simply wanted to give my rendition of the favorite things I observed and tell you why it’s a game worth talking about despite its self-aware player punishment. It’s completely understandable how my account might have turned you off to ever touching this game. Even so I still recommend watching Anderson’s video if not for the game then for the experience of understanding. I defer that he explains it much better than I ever could especially in accordance to self-referential bit. Regardless, my interest level in The Witness has inspired me to start a conversation about it. I hold the Witness in high regard for its impressive and intelligent design, its objection to how we perceive, and ability to toy with what is expected. I give it my personal ‘best game I’ve never played’ award.