I’m looking at a puzzle. I’m considering how to solve it. I’m pretty sure there’s no way to solve it. Literally no way to solve it. It simply can’t work. It’s nonsense. It’s clearly impossible. You might as well ask me to make two plus two equal five. But then something clicks, suddenly and decisively. A Copernican shift introduces itself into a simple set of inviolable rules. The center has moved and now everything turns into something else entirely. It feels like a miracle of geometry, of logic, like oh, hey, a fourth dimension has opened up where a wall used to be. Maybe Newtonain shift is a better way to put it. What seemed impossible is now as simple as letting gravity take an apple.
These are the best parts of The Witness. And, to be fair, they’re fairly frequent. Regular even. But to what end?
After the jump, ssentiW ehT, dnalsi na, nalp a, man a.
The Witness looks good. It’s as quaint and colorful as a Team Fortress 2 map. Sometimes mysterious, occasionally even eerie. But mostly quaint, as precious as a diorama. Although something has clearly gone wrong on this little island, it’s only gently dilapidated, as if it has been visited by a noncommital catastrophe.
You arrive from the sky, a mysterious stranger destined to power up the island one puzzle at a time, turning on generators and waking up majestic clockwork machinery, draining lakes and shifting massive metal rails, bringing to life a giant edifice to reveal what happened here, why it happened, and to whom it happened. Oh, wait, sorry. I was thinking of Myst. In The Witness, you’re just a finger swiping iPad puzzles and the island never changes. Each puzzle more or less opens a door to more puzzles, which in turn open doors to more puzzles. The changes in this world are as insubstantial as sunbeams, which is ironic on an island where not even the sun changes. A giant windmill lazily turns. Will it turn clockwise or counterclockwise? That’s the level of drama in The Witness.
The ways The Witness changes are both more and less meaningful. They’re more meaningful in that the dramatic arc of this game is less about the game world and more about your understanding of it. As simple inviolable rules undergo Newtonian shifts, the only thing that changes is your perspective. That seems to be the design mandate. This is a game about you learning things, about you changing while the world waits impassively for you to figure out its heiroglyphics. It’s not going to entertain you. It’s not going to do tricks. As you range not very far and not very wide across this open-world island, it sits impassive, stoic, disinterested, unresistant to you going wherever you want to go, so long as you understand the vocabulary of whatever puzzles stand in your way. What will you see when you get there? Just more puzzles. What will be different is your understanding of them.
But these changes are less meaningful because they have no impact on the game world. All that has happened is The Witness has taught you its made-up language of stars and Tetris shapes and squirming lines worming through seemingly countless mazes. Once you realize how little is actually happening in the world of The Witness, progression relies more on endurance than curiosity. You won’t revive any vast machinery. You won’t put massive gears into motion. You won’t find the man behind the curtain. There is no curtain. There is no man. No one waits behind any of these doors. Well, that’s not entirely true. The cutscenes are like Woody Allen’s documentary in Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which his character just runs footage of some elderly intellectual prattling on. It’s fascinating to him. He can’t comprehend that it wouldn’t be fascinating to everyone else.
As far as worlds go, The Witness isn’t the least bit interested in telling you anything about itself. Imagine playing Portal without GlaDOS, without Wheatley, without the dark hints about Aperture Science, without being able to see behind the bright white panels, humorless and sterile. It holds forth with lectures it heard once about Buddhist koans or it cites long quotes from some sort of 16th century manuscript that it happened to be reading for god only knows what reason. By the time it ends — and it does end, so make sure to keep those saved games handy if you’re interested in the optional puzzles — you’re none the wiser about any sort of place or story. If you persevered through The Witness hoping for a twist, or reveal, or resolution, the joke’s on you. Puzzles all the way down. Quite literally.
When I was done, the feeling wasn’t elation or even satisfaction. It was that feeling you get when you finally pass part of a game you never want to have to play again. I couldn’t shake a vague resentment that I’d squandered dozens of hours to no effect beyond now knowing the made-up language of The Witness’ puzzles. Not that I’m above squandering dozens of hours in a videogame. It’s just that I prefer squandering them because I’m building something, or leveling up a character, or beating a time or score, or resolving Trevor’s storyline, or collecting more pointless stuff in virtual Gotham, or figuring out how to use banelings, or rescuing the princess from whatever damn castle she’s finally in. The Witness probably sneers at those hours because they didn’t teach me self-contained rules about when a green star can be in the same section as a yellow star. They didn’t expand my mind by teaching it what those little hollow blue squares mean. They didn’t make me look up James Burke on Wikipedia.
I don’t mean to be entirely dismissive. Some of these puzzles are quite brilliant, if you’re into that sort of thing. It can be gratifying to do Sudoku, or crossword puzzles. This is that, but without the benefit of numbers and words you know. Imagine someone doing Sudoku who doesn’t know the base-ten numbers system, or someone doing English language crossword puzzles who doesn’t even know what language is. That’s The Witness in a nutshell. It’s as exhausting as it sounds.
It’s also not as narrative-free as I’m making it sound. I think of narrative, of storytelling, as a progression from ignorance to wisdom. In the beginning, I don’t know who these characters are or what they’re doing or what’s going to happen to them because of the choices they make, or whether it will have any resonance with my life. By the time it’s over, I do. A story is the act of learning these things. The Witness is the act of learning rules. Or, more accurately, of being taught rules. Because The Witness is a teaching method minus any content. It is — forgive the use of this word, because I usually wince when I read it, but it belongs on the other side of a colon at the end of The Witness’ title — pure heuristics, entirely and only about how you learn something with no regard for what you learn because it’s useless for anything other than getting to what you’re going to learn next, which is again useless for anything other than getting to what you’re going to learn next, which will in turn be useless for anything other than what you’re going to learn next. Pure and empty. Puzzles that teach you how to solve other puzzles. Most puzzle games do this. I don’t know of any puzzle games that do only this. The Witness eventually folds in on itself in a dizzying self-referential and self-reverential masterclass that collapses into a black hole of puzzle solving from which no story can escape.
At first, The Witness is simple and welcoming. The open world will allow you to go somewhere else if you get stuck. This sustains The Witness for a while, especially as it connects puzzles from different locations. What was a dead end is now a door into more puzzles. But as the dead ends stack up, you’ll eventually be hemmed in, poring over over every little thing, peering closely for clues, trying long shots, but dismayed that even if you accidentally hit on the solution, even if you brute force this puzzle, you won’t get past the next one until you learn what the last one was teaching you. If you need to be held back, it will do that without telling you. Did you learn a rule wrong? Did you misintpret some visual cue?
In one puzzle you have to notice a twig on the ground. This isn’t easy to do. You’re never going to look on the ground, and if you do, you’re not going to think much of a twig. The thought process that makes the twig relevant is having done a few puzzles that require looking through tree branches. When you get to one that seems unsolvable given a gap in the tree branches, you will hopefully think, “Maybe a piece of the tree fell off…” And you will look down and see that twig. Which is pretty cool. But from then on, you’ll worry that you’re missing the twig on the ground. That’s the problem with learning a new language. The rules are only the beginning. The idioms are what get you.
I might have preferred The Witness as a long-term proposition, taking time off to let my head clear, to occasionally ponder it, to spend time elsewhere for a while. This many puzzles, this much time spent staring at this many grids, this much trial and error is a bit much to take in the space of a week or so. But there’s no other way to play The Witness. As with any language, your Witness skills will atrophy if you don’t use them. When you come back after a few days, after a week, god forbid, after a month, you will have to back up and relearn everything. This is not a game about intuition or logic. It is a game about learning the made-up language created by the developers, who painstakingly teach you what a dot means, what a star means, what a star with a dot means, what a color means, what a shape means, what a shape and color mean, what a shape and a color and a star mean, combining, interacting, conjugating like verbs, hyphenating, neverending neologisms. Did I mention everything will be on the final exam? The various drawn-out finales merge all the rules into a tangled clotted polyglot of rules for rules’ sake. Just when you thought everything has come together in a fiendishly clever intersection, you still have a mountain more of puzzles. Imagine opening a hatch expecting to find a trove and instead discovering a deep pit. If you think there’s a trove down there, you’re in the wrong game.
Although I don’t like it, I respect The Witness. I really do. It’s a careful, intricate, and skillful creation that no one can accuse of being too short. But as a game that does nothing other than teach you how to play, it is perhaps the most meaningless game I’ve ever played. Considering the games I’ve played, that’s saying a lot.