It’s days like this when I’m thankful I no longer write game reviews.
When I first heard about the Witness, I still did. That was roughly seven years ago. Even after it missed its first of many release dates, my brain continued to ponder the possibilities of a game of that genre on that scale. I’ve repeated ad-nauseam my desire to see fewer sequels and instead more original works inspired by those of the past and hearing that magic word – Myst, gave me an unnaturally high expectation for what the final product would be.
The Witness wears that influence for a few minutes but very quickly wants to rebel against its parentage to do its own thing. There is a mysterious island and a lot of unanswered questions, but Myst and its setting were always a conduit to its story; you explored and solved puzzles to better understand the events and the characters. The Witness not only seems to have zero interest in those things, at times it feels as if there is an active contempt for the pursuit of any narrative. The puzzles are the means and the end, a recursive loop wherein you solve them for the simple right to solve more.
The “story” is really about your accumulation and application of knowledge, using permutations on themes and structures that you’ve seen up to that point. To this end, I can’t help but be impressed by what was accomplished. To hear about the game and to be told that 90% of your time will be spent solving very similar line puzzles is, frankly, deflating. You’re not jotting down a pattern of constellations to move a satellite or looking through books for puzzle clues. At no point are you staring at the screen wondering what you need to interact with to advance – it’s always a line puzzle. Yet astoundingly, it works, perhaps because the narrow focus on that specific format (along with the protracted development cycle) allowed for it to be tweaked and polished until it felt just right. Even if you spend most of your time doing the same things, it rarely feels that way.
This is why my feelings on The Witness are so conflicted. It is, in no way “Myst done better”, but what it does do is something novel and engaging. I suppose the deviation point is where my expectations met up with the execution. It’s unavoidable for a title that’s been in development for so long, but it feels like somewhere along the way I forgot that it was a Jonathan Blow game. True to his nature, the rare breaks from the puzzle solving delve into overwrought pretension. I’m certainly not opposed to a work having a message, but I’d prefer that message not be delivered to me from someone yelling down from a mountaintop. I can say with extreme confidence that Jonathan Blow is much smarter than me, and playing The Witness does wonders to reinforce that, but perhaps the injection of his worldview is misplaced, especially considering that his interest in philosophy is the only injection of flavor on offer. I hate to use the word “pretentious” when “overly sincere” may be a better way of putting it. The man just can’t help himself.
Though I would feel wrong for saying that The Witness is a bad game simply because it doesn’t set out to reach the same goals that I’d hoped, I also can’t help but wonder what it could have been with a different set of priorities. As it stands, it’s a visually interesting and well-designed world. I just wish I mattered more to it.