the witness 2 31 Jan

It’s always best as a critic if you can secure an early copy of a game to review before it releases. The obvious benefit from an outsider’s perspective is that an early review nets more views. But the not-so-obvious and more important reason is so that the critic goes into the experience as fresh as possible without an influence of opinion from an outside source (accidental or intentional).

When I go to review a game, especially if I get a copy late or if I purchase the title with my own funds, I avoid as many reviews and trailers as possible. Earlier this week I grabbed my cup of coffee and started to pour through my emails and visit my favorite internet news aggregation web zones and I was accidentally exposed to a few critics scores for The Witness. It was unavoidable. It was loud and proud and it was everywhere I looked.

Seems as though The Witness received perfect scores from a few reputable sites and very high marks from others. I’m human. I love games more than the average bear. My excitement level instantly went up.

A perfect game? That’s not just a “very good” game. That’s the kind of game you skip making dinner for and order takeout. That’s the type of experience that keeps your eyes on the time, hoping that 5 o’clock and freedom rolls around quicker. Time moves slower when you’re not playing it, and it flies by when you are. You say to yourself “just a few more minutes” and the next thing you know you’re neglecting your sleep schedule. That’s the kind of game that draws in newcomers not just to the genre, but sometimes to video games as a whole! Perfect games are talked about for years.

I wasn’t expecting that kind of experience from The Witness. But hey, maybe I should have set my hopes a little higher.

Nope. They were right where they needed to be. The Witness isn’t that kind of experience. And it’s another reason why I hate scores on video game reviews. At times even my own little “worth buying / worth trying / don’t bother” tally irks the hell out of me.

While it’s clear from a technical and even an artistic standpoint that Jonathan Blow has achieved something really special with The Witness, but the game is mired in some rather sizeable issues that I feel knock it a few pegs down from perfection… or even near perfection.

And it makes me wonder, “what the hell happened?” And I don’t mean with the game. The game is fine. I mean with the reviews.

Obviously everyone is entitled their own opinions and I don’t fault anyone for enjoying The Witness. If The Witness happens to be your new favorite game of all time, I’m honestly happy for you. That is a great feeling when you find a game that almost seems custom made for you.

It’s just that The Witness is the latest and probably one of the most blatant victims of Launch Hype Sickness. It’s not Jonathan Blow’s fault that people are so excited for his work. In fact, I admire him. He’s clearly a very talented, brilliant individual who is not only brave enough to put his own work out into the public to be judged, but he pumped his own cash into project, so much so he allegedly put himself into debt despite the massive success of his previous game Braid. That’s real bravery.

And as a critic I feel uncomfortable criticizing other critics, but I’m getting rather tired every AAA or popular indie developer game that’s moderately fun and doesn’t have any immediately glaring technical issues automatically gets a 9 or higher. It’s a safe approach for critics. And safe is… cowardly.

Once the launch hype dies down, and the anti hype wave kicks in, there’s another batch of critics who wait to see what the consensus of the common gamer is. Then it’s a simple matter of parroting popular opinions to have a review worthy to stand the test of time. Afterall, if you’re late to the watering pool it’s practically suicide to form a legitimate opinion of your own, put yourself out there a little bit and praise something that others have condemned or perhaps find real fault with something others have overlooked.

Everyone loves an echo chamber.

My opinion on The Witness? I enjoyed my first hour of it. It went downhill pretty quickly after that. From a technical standpoint, the game is stable and if you’re a true diehard puzzle fan, then I would recommend you pick up The Witness. Everyone else? I’d say hold off.

The game is set on a gorgeous island with every tree, rock, building and pathway placed with the utmost care. Each dab of paint and drop of color, no matter how initially perceived as meaningless has been painted on with the precision of a master. The island environment is the greatest achievement within The Witness. The more puzzles you solve, the doors of your perception open wider and wider. And for that I appreciate, understand and fully recognize the genius that has gone into making this game.

But that’s not all it takes to make a good game.

The pessimist could look at The Witness and claim “it’s nothing more than line puzzles set on a pretty backdrop.” While incredibly negative, there’s truth to it.

The Witness lacks what puts other brilliant games into what I would consider the 9 and 10 categories. Its critical flaw: it doesn’t inspire the player.

What is the reward after players take risks? What is the fun mechanic that keeps people coming back? What is the sexy refrain that gets stuck in your head?

In a video game, players get hooked on a sense of achievement, a sense of discovery, or by being properly motivated through reward. Good games do all of these things. The Witness doesn’t do any of these things.

If the driving factor is to complete all the puzzles, then it is here that I would certainly quote the pessimist. They are simply line puzzles. No matter how they are spiced up by hiding them or using forced perspective to solve them, it’s a super simple game mechanic. And it’s not the game motivating the player. It’s the player motivating him or herself. If you like line puzzles. Then you may like The Witness. If you don’t, there’s nothing here to change your mind or push you to continue.

But what about discovery or reward? I had access and could see most of the island within my first hour of play. I’m a sucker for traipsing through digital virgin soil, but my sense of discovery tapered off very quickly. It is a gorgeous land to walk through, and though I didn’t particularly enjoy solving the game’s line puzzles, I did enjoy finding the hidden ones even if I couldn’t solve them.

On the island, players can find hidden audio messages. The messages are sort of interesting to listen to, but I feel they are one of the game’s setbacks or at least, they are a huge missed opportunity. Instead of leaving sizable exotic clues to some greater mystery, most messages ramble about mundane affairs. When added all up, perhaps they do lead some greater truth. But the many I found certainly weren’t titillating enough for me to care to find more. The reward within these discoveries is far too small.

In fact, I’d go a step further and say that the reward for many of the game’s risks is a punishment. Perhaps that was intentional on Blow’s part. I spent hours trying to solve some of the game’s more difficult puzzles only to be rewarded with a scrap of paper inside an otherwise empty room. I held onto hope, however. The paper was a clue for me to later reveal its purpose. Hooray! A mystery that I was about to solve!

When I plugged the solution into its home on the island I was ready for The Witness’s great reveal. Or perhaps a taste of the reveal. Who is my character? What is he or she doing on this island? What is this island? What I was awarded with were some of the most pretentious videos I’ve ever seen in a video game that added no apparent exposition, and didn’t satisfy my curiosity. In fact, I felt like I had wasted my time.

The greatest discovery reward the game offers the player is figuring out through trial and error the unwritten rules of the line puzzles. Each section of the island is designed to submerge the player into specific rules by slowly increasing the difficulty and eventually mixing all the rules together in advanced puzzles. In time walkthroughs will have the solution to every puzzle mapped out for future players, however, by using a walkthrough, players will rob themselves of that discovery, and will also weaken their ability to advance on their own. I have no doubt that The Witness will be too difficult for many players. It had almost bested me at times.

There are other issues with the game. I personally felt motion sick from playing and had to take a lot of breaks. Initially I prayed for an FOV slider, but later came to the realization that an FOV slider would very literally break the game. So much depends on precision placement of the player camera.

There are core puzzles that require the use of hearing, so if you’re hard of hearing, you may have a difficult time.

If your monitor or television screen is on the older side or doesn’t have great contrast, some puzzles will be near impossible.

And there are some puzzles that even after staring at my own solution that I forced into the workspace, seem to break the game’s own rules, or at least the rules as I believe them to be, particularly the puzzles using tetris pieces.

The Witness didn’t motivate me. I felt almost no urge to continue playing. My personal motivator was to complete the game to properly give a review, and after my first hour I wanted to discover why it got near perfect scores. I became tainted by an outside opinion. Clearly I was missing something, right?

The Witness is not a bad game even though I personally dislike it. Part of me was unintentionally overexcited for a game I thought would smash down walls. It’s an above average game built by a brilliant mind with caring hands for a very specific audience in mind.

Want to know if you’re a part of that audience?

Answer me this question: do you like line puzzles?

Tested on: PS4
Developer: Thekla, Inc.
Publisher: Thekla, Inc.
Platforms: iOS, Windows, PS4
Relaunch Date: January 26, 2016
Review copy provided by developer