The Witness – A Review
The Witness from Thekla Inc is an exploration puzzle game available for download on Steam (£19.99) and on PS4 (£29.99), designed and produced by Braid creator Jonathan Blow. Join me as I take a deeper look.
The game has, basically, two types of gameplay: an exploration phase and the puzzles.
The exploration phase is done really well. The style of the graphics is very nice and you feel like you’ve stepped into a bright pastel landscape drawing. It’s all very peaceful and relaxing. The ambient sound changes to suit your location, which again is nice and relaxing. This phase of the gameplay is primarily used to navigate between the different puzzles. There are no other characters on the island to interact with and you only have basic controls to explore with (move, look around, and interact) so there is no challenge in this phase (you can’t even fall off a wall). It’s just a nice stroll across the pastelly island, which is quite, well, nice.
The puzzles dotted around the island are all in the style of a 2D ‘snake’ maze game. I remember doing puzzles like these when I was in school, so I find the first few pretty easy. Each section of puzzles has a theme, such as symmetry or grouping similar pieces together, and each puzzle in a section becomes progressively more difficult. Some of them can take some time to work out, but I’m guessing most adults should figure them out eventually. Each time you solve a section of puzzles something will happen and you have to go off and explore to find out what’s going on.
There are no tutorials and no guidance is given throughout the game, which gave me a sense of freedom but could cause frustration for some people. What this means is that you will be presented with a puzzle but with no rules on how the puzzle should be solved, which means you have to figure out what you have to do and then figure out how to do it. I really liked this aspect, but it did mean spending a lot of time staring at 2D panels wondering what on earth you were supposed to be doing (meanwhile, the graphics card in my top of the range PC was yawning and contemplating the futility of its existence).
There is no immediate story or plot but as you explore and solve more puzzles you start to piece something together, which can help to spur you on. Occasionally you come across a quote from a scientist or philosopher, which is OK. Each quote is supposed to be thought provoking but it didn’t quite work for me. It felt a bit forced, like that guy in the art gallery telling you the importance of each brush stroke of a painting when all you are thinking is ‘ha, the bulldog is cheating. That’s so like my mate Dave. I’m going to get that put on a t-shirt’. What, I mean is, art is subjective, what’s important to you may not be to me, you don’t need to tell someone what they should be feeling. For a game that makes a point in letting you figure out the gameplay for yourself, it would seem logical to do the same with the aesthetics and philosophy of the game.
I’ll be honest with you, I loved this game for the first hour or two, started to get a bit bored during the next few hours and then felt an obsessive compulsion to complete it, as though to not do so would be a slight to my intelligence. At some points it didn’t really feel like enjoyment but more of a chore or duty, but I suppose that applies to all puzzles.
Given its price point and release on PS4 I believe this game is lacking in technical ability and gameplay. I really like the style of the graphics, but some of the plants and vegetation look spindly and are obviously 2D sprites intersected to form a 3D object. Some of the water waves were square, which could be a comment on social conformity or a broken particle system, I’m not sure. There were a few other bits and bobs too. You don’t notice them often but you do notice them.
The puzzles are what get me down the most, though. When I started the game I didn’t know that all the puzzles were 2D maze games. I finished the first few sections and was expecting some new challenge to blow me away, but alas I was presented with more 2D maze games. Also, the challenge starts to become a bit stretched when the only way to increase the difficulty is to start spinning the puzzles and in doing so switch the challenge from mental agility to one of dexterity and visual cognition. This, for me, felt out of place with the rest of the game.
£19.99 on Steam seems steep and if I paid £29.99 on PS4 I’d probably feel a bit let down. For me this, was so close to being an amazing game, but it just didn’t do it for me.