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Review: The Witness

Courtesy of Thekla, Inc.
Courtesy of Thekla, Inc.
Courtesy of Thekla, Inc.

I don’t like to write reviews of games that are negative. Video games take an incredibly long time to create, they take a lot of financial resources, a lot of different people with different skills and then if the game isn’t successful, either commercially or critically received, then all of the work that went into creating it can feel like a complete waste. With this in mind, I think The Witness is a test in tedium, pushing your patience to the limit for no discernible reason and providing no reason to even complete the game. 

The game opens with you staring down a long white corridor. You find that you’re in control and walk down to the end of the corridor. A puzzle is on the door. You interact with it by drawing a line joining one point to another. The door opens. You come across another line puzzle. Solve it. Door opens. Then you’re faced with another puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door. Puzzle. Draw. Solve. Door.

Now if you found that last paragraph a bit tedious to read, then you have just experienced a minute sample of what the game has to offer. Other than the puzzles, it offers very little else. The game itself seems to aspire to ideas greater than what its mechanics allow for. You could be drawing a line puzzle, then stumble across an audio log discussing the philosophy of your place in the universe. The two simply do not mesh. It would be like playing Battleship whilst someone explains the intricate science of black holes. Sure it might be interesting to listen to, and Battleship is always fun but that doesn’t mean they need to exist at the same time.

And this is where the game’s most deeply conceited quality manifests itself. The entire game takes place on a completely abandoned island. There are no people on it, except for statues that seem to have been petrified in place by some cataclysmic event. There are no animals, except for one puzzle where you listen to bird chirps so someone on the island must know about these animals. But there exists this tightly connected, fully functioning and complex series of puzzles that all connect to one another and power pieces of machinery. You wander across an island where at one point you’ll be standing in a castle, then in a desert temple and then you’ll be solving puzzles in treehouses. Every single bit of the game begs the simple question “why?”. Why is there a cinema under the windmill that has weird videos play in it? Why am I here? Why why why why? The intrigue pushes you on. You solve the infuriating puzzles and reach the final puzzle. You complete it and pray that the game will give you some sort of answer as to what the island even exists for.

Courtesy of Thekla, Inc.

Does the game give you those answers? Of course it doesn’t. No. Nothing. It somehow manages to give you worse than nothing. The game has two endings and both of them are just varying degrees of telling the player that they’re a pointless waste of space and that seeking any sort of solution or answer to the questions the game is answering is stupid. It’s frankly insulting, albeit a rather ballsy move. Now, I’m not against video games wandering into weirder and more abstract territory: it’s the only way that the medium will make more progress and mature as a result. I for one absolutely love games like The Stanley Parable and Gone Home, but for a game like this to present itself as being so big, so wise and so intelligent, only for it to pull your pants down and laugh at you at the end for playing it, after playing for 15 hours to complete all of the necessary puzzles, then the game isn’t pushing the medium forward, just my ever dwindling patience.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. The island is absolutely beautiful. A clear and unifying aesthetic with bold colours that are striking and result in every turn down a path bringing a visual feast. It all contributes to creating a world that both seems familiar and natural, but also uncanny and artificial. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition that contributes to a sense of unease in this world where nothing seems quite right. This paired with the intrigue that the island offers with scant audio clips telling of a society that once lived (or is still living somewhere), create a tension throughout the game that digs its claws into you and refuses to let you go, a feat that few games have been able to do to me.

It’s just such a shame that it sticks the landing so poorly with its ending. The game expects you to play it for hours, getting ingrained in this world, but at the back of your mind, there is always this doubt that the game will not be able to live up to what it’s trying to sell to you. But you ignore it. You hope that your doubts aren’t confirmed. That the game is going to give you some nugget of resolution. That your doubts are completely unfounded. But then they are all proven correct. And it ruins the entire experience. This game costs thirty pounds. The level of disappointment I feel after completing it was not worth that price. If you bought a toy car you would have a more fulfilling experience. Even 30 Kinder Surprises could offer a better experience than this. The only thing that The Witness will leave you wanting is some protection from its pseudo-intellectual bumf.