By RagingLion 1 Comments
**There are no real spoilers about specific content in this but if you don't want to be influenced about the game before playing it or you want to have the experience completely fresh, don't read this.**
I've just gotten finished playing to the ending of The Witness. And then walking through that first door again and meandering around the beautiful and lush world while trying to collect my thoughts, relive recent memories and work out what I ultimately make of The Witness.
I do think it's relevant that I can say without hyberbole that The Witness has been my most anticipated game of all time. The reason for that is who Jonathan Blow is as a game designer, which is something I feel I have a pretty decent grasp of, having listened to any interview or presentation he's been involved with that I've been able to get my hands on. The reason for the avid following is partly because it is so clear that this is a man who likes to use games to deliver a message and those messages have been borne out a lot of deep thinking, which is something I can relate to. I can enjoy games for myriad reasons, including the freedom they offer, exploration, roleplay, the satisfaction of completing tasks, seeing things I've never seen before, but if you push me I will always value most those experiences that have had something meaningful to say, especially if it's revelatory. Braid is the seal on the fact that Jonathan Blow is able to deliver on exactly that and knowing that The Witness was the game concept he felt compelled to make into a full game above any other made me expectant that this would be something truly special.
You can already detect that trace of slight disappointment can't you? Well, that may be, but it does this game an extreme disservice for it to be thought of in any kind of tarnished light. This is a wondrous game that has this quality of richness to it throughout; in fact it is impossible not to see how handcrafted with love every inch of it of it is, whether or not you're aware of the history of how long the majority of the game has been in place while a team of architects and artists brought it to striking life. There are so many little details crammed in and it wasn't long before I discovered why the game had to be called The Witness. There a multiple layers of revelation to that, but I think it's one of the games greatest successes to have made the observation of the world feel relevant so much of the time. That first moment of suddenly breaking through in my mind to see how I was surrounded by more puzzles than I first realised sent literal shivers down my spine. Yes, these are the moments I play games for.
And that relevancy of observation countered the fear that had started to seep into me during the long wait before this game's release; that there would be a void between the puzzle panels that populate the environment, if not in terms of interesting things to look at, then in terms of headspace. But my mind was nicely filled with trains of thought as I walked between panels, the most interesting of which was trying to figure out the broadest strokes of how everything tied together and what Jonathan Blow was getting at - what had he spent so much time working on in order to say something with it? The author was very much present, sitting just out of sight of his work. I did make it a fair way down that road of figuring out an underlying message just through observation, though the audio clips (and video clips!) definitely helped with that, even if a few remained too obtuse and cryptic to see what they were getting at. Now I don't have that message perfectly fleshed out and clear in my own mind - it's a bit foggy in places and not just because The Witness is probably saying multiple complicated things at the same time and that's they're encapsulated into a game because Mr Blow didn't have the words that would adequately describe them.
I can't deny that it has succeeded in conveying a lot from the author's mind to me and this is no mean feat since the games that do so are still rare and we're only wading into the shallow waters of interactive experiences delivering something with deep philosophical or artistic intent through the language that is unique to this medium. But I was still looking for more and I think I can level almost all of that missing of expectation at the ending phase of the game. It's amazing how much the ending of something can colour the whole experience and I missed that feeling of revelation and catharsis in the midst of mechanical convergence that I was looking for from The Witness. Perhaps it's Braid's fault, because that for me is the epitome of using of mechanics in an ending to effect a story climax that is so intuitively understood and powerful that it bypasses your brain and hits you in the emotional gut. I can honestly still remember what that gutpunch felt like at the end of Braid. (The fact that it also flipped the whole story that had come before it on its head helped. It isn't something you want to see in every work but whenever you do, they are normally some of the stories that stick with you most.)
So it is with sadness that I say that the ending of The Witness left me cold. There were some mechanical convergences that I could kind of intellectually see had wider meaning to them and fitted the overall message if I tilted my figurative head to look at them, but it didn't have the ability to hit me directly and emotionally. Now, not every game has to offer that, but the way it came across to me was as if on the way to the exit, The Witness showed off a few more puzzle types from converging some ideas or adding in a new twist ("Have you seen what happens when you wrap the puzzleboard round a pillar!"), tipped it's hat and simply left. I know that Jonathan Blow values mechanical completeness (i.e. fully exploring all the implications of a set of mechanics) but I wasn't really attracted to The Witness for the puzzles, I just hoped they'd to act as the conduit for ideas and I was hoping to discover those ideas were powerful. My ultimate dream was that it would be shown that there is something of intrinsic value embedded within a set of what otherwise seem to be simple line puzzles, but instead the puzzles themselves are left feeling a little hollow to me. I say this without even knowing if such an ending involving these puzzle mechanics would be possible and perhaps this is an unfair expectation.
Other than the ending specifically, that would otherwise be the biggest negative I could level at The Witness - that the puzzle elements themselves ultimately seem a little disposable as just these line puzzle things. They are at their best when they tie directly into the environment which they do often, but not always. Sometimes connections between the puzzle panels and the outside world are forced in a way that I can admire as being cool, but ultimately I know that connection between puzzle panel and environment didn't always feel earned and as if it had to be manufactured instead. I will say that it was a nice moment when I realised that all of the puzzle types had a fitting thematic connection back to their area/zone - there is without doubt a lot of cleverness and thought that has gone into it all and a lot of it works beautifully. And as an aside I really enjoyed the jungle area and laughed quite a lot when I realised what was going on and how it was presented.
And now that I have put my own thoughts to paper where they cannot easily be ripped away from me through retroactive peer pressure I'm going to allow myself to see what everyone else thought of this game.
By the way, please don't leave thinking that this game is anything but brilliant and powerful; my musing here has been in terms of measuring whether this was one of the greatest games of all time … perhaps it still is.