Overall, I definitely enjoyed the game. The visual language it uses to demonstrate mechanics is extraordinary. The journal I kept with my puzzle notes looks like the scrawlings of a mad man - row after row of tiny dots, squares, arrows, and hastily scribbled phrases. However, when my first playthrough was "complete" (more or less), I couldn't help but feel a nagging sense of... emptiness, and I don't believe it was quite the zen-like feeling of contentment that the game wanted me to feel. It was a pang of disappointment.
Mechanics. Or, What I Enjoyed.
Looking back now, after learning the mechanics and finally solving a difficult puzzle, I was constantly perplexed at how it could have been so challenging to me - the solution was “so obvious.” To me, this is the biggest testament to how well The Witness teaches you new concepts, and also how well it hides solutions from those who would simply attempt to “brute force” their way through the puzzles by guessing. Solving the mazes of The Witness becomes much more than drawing a line from point A to B; each new mechanic asks you to consider spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, logic, and even visual perspective. I think that this, again, is the game’s greatest strength - to a casual observer, you’re just drawing lines on a grid, but a lot more is actually happening here.
The progression in the game isn't based on obtaining a new key or tool or weapon - it's based on gaining new knowledge... and that's really something special. Nothing is explicitly explained; learning the game itself is the sole means of advancing. In addition, The Witness is also not afraid to present concepts that you are currently not equipped to tackle. You are expected to leave, learn, practice, and come back ready to take on old riddles that had you utterly stumped, this time with a new understanding. In a weird way, it's almost similar to "Dark Souls" in this regard... but, best not to stretch that comparison too far.
Contrary to popular opinion, I felt the puzzles were well integrated into the environment. They still, technically, felt artificially placed there - the puzzle panels are clearly not the natural, universal machinery for their intended function, as is the case of "Myst" and other adventure games - but nevertheless were pleasantly presented in such a way to occasionally interact with the surroundings. Puzzles often used nearby environmental queues for hints or even outright solutions, and in many cases altered the surrounding pathways, opening new areas or shortcuts. Honestly, I'm not quite sure what people were expecting?
By the end, I only ran across two or three puzzles that I felt "didn't play by the rules" or had solutions that simply felt too obscure or clever for their own good (the door puzzle in the shipwreck was a particularly egregious offender, I think - even when you know what you're supposed to do to solve the puzzle, the solution itself feels a tad arbitrary). However, considering I had solved 500+ panels by this point, I guess that's still a pretty good ratio? Of course, you always remember the most frustrating puzzles in a puzzle game.
Scattered about the island are a plethora of environmental puzzles that, while a welcome inclusion, I didn't have the patience to finish. Also, there are six or seven "meta" puzzles which "reward" the player with the game's... for lack of a better word, "story." And this leads me to some of my biggest issues with The Witness.
Message. Or, What I Disliked.
... that is , until the game, explicitly and at great length, directly told me that this wasn't the case.
A bit of hyperbole there, but it is bordering on truth, I think. The rewards for the “meta” puzzles - clips of footage from short films, lectures, and documentaries - are also bordering on insulting. In their individual contexts, I'm sure they have excellent merit, but presented within the framework of The Witness, they are clumsy and pretentious. Keep in mind, I do not use the word “pretentious” lightly - I think it gets overused as the boilerplate response anyone on the internet has to “this (media) is presenting a concept that I don’t care about.” However, the meta puzzle Easter eggs in The Witness are some of the most eye-rolling experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. Without divulging spoilers, I think I understand the rationale behind the inclusion of these clips, but their handling leaves so much to be desired. Instead of pausing to think more about the game and its theme of seeking abstract truths, I only found myself letting out an exasperated sigh and leaving the area in frustration.
To be fair, I found a couple of the clips to be somewhat enjoyable, despite not adding much to the game itself. I particularly liked the vintage footage of a scientific lecture, which describes "drawing lines" between hierarchies of ideas. Jonathan Blow does love his double meanings, after all. At any rate, perhaps it's myopic of me to only try to find meaning in the game itself, rather than thinking more broadly - but let's be real - I'm playing a video game, man! I don't mind high-concept ideas, but I want them to be more naturally integrated into the medium in which I am experiencing them!
Peppered throughout The Witness are audio logs, quotes by famous persons on learning and science and spirituality and the relationship all three have to one another, but that's more or less all there is in terms of lore. The game simply, intentionally, doesn't prioritize lore... or even dwelling on the most basic trappings of storytelling. One of the final pieces of meta puzzle footage told me, almost directly, to stop looking for meaning. Hmm.
In the final hours of the game, you get handful of audio logs that start to peek behind the curtain, in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion, and I adored what was being presented. It's very self aware, as well - one of the disembodied characters, a designer of said audio logs, suggests that some participants (read: players) would enjoy the humanizing element that would come with dropping the heavy pretense for a few moments. Well, unnamed creator, I appreciate the thought; but to me, as a player that wants some degree of continuity between a world and its lore, a wink and a nod at the end of the game isn't quite enough to hold my interest. A subjective critique, for sure, but one I feel quite strongly about.
Other smaller issues crop up here and there. Invisible walls are occasionally frustrating, especially when you're just trying to drop from a 2-foot incline. The lack of any and all music is clearly an artistic choice, but once you factor in the lack of many much-needed ambient, environmental, or wildlife sounds, the result is honestly quite dull. Finally, a select few of the hardest puzzles reward the user with absolutely nothing, progression or otherwise. One of the most basic lessons that The Witness teaches you is that solving difficult puzzles equals progression; it’s not a “deal breaker,” but it does cause a tinge of resentment.
The crux of the matter is all of this feels very deliberate, for better or worse. The creator didn’t just “forget” to put music in, or neglect to add a more concrete, tangible plot - this is all done purpose. Therefore, the question I would ask here is: are these elements (or lack of elements) enriching to the player? In many cases with the Witness, I would argue that they are not.
All a Matter of Perspective.
What does all of this add up to? I'm not certain, but I can’t help but feel that this was a game made more for its creator than its audience. Players don’t necessarily need a cheap carrot on a string, a puff of confetti, or the Pavlovian ping of “Achievement Unlocked,” but we do need a reason to care. Player psychographics are a basic and important aspect of game design, and I do get the impression that The Witness is only designed for a single type of player.
Solving the puzzles of The Witness is sufficiently gratifying and the world is, suffice to say, beautifully rendered. But, the game is missing a certain... something that I think will ultimately keep it from being remembered as an Adventure or Puzzle classic. A lack of clarity and purpose make the game feel less engaging, less alive. Its subtle attempts to explore the nature of perception could have been something special, but are so softly stated that they are forgettable at best and aggravating at worst. In the end, The Witness DID make me ponder on the nature of learning, teaching, and the concept of "truth" itself, but perhaps not quite as deeply or as thoroughly as it intended.
Despite my occasional bouts of frustration with the game, however, I found it to be an extremely competent puzzler that I would recommend to anyone looking for a well-designed set of logic and spatial reasoning puzzles.
You mileage may vary. After all, as The Witness seems to imply, your personal fulfillment depends on the lens with which you view it.