The Witness (Xbox One Review)
Every morning we wake up to the same old world we’ve grown accustomed to, ignoring the wonders surrounding us, man-made and natural alike. The vistas we could be feasting our eyes on and the extravagant places we could be exploring are subdued by our everyday need to work and make a living; garnering more time in the office and less time out in the open world. And that’s where video games come in. Games allow moments of respite from our grueling everyday lives and let us visit places we would never be able to normally – or even those that are not physically possible. The Witness creates a world in which you could lose yourself in for hours, uncovering the meaning behind everything on offer. In spite of its miraculous panoramic views, The Witness wants something from you first before you are allowed to experience these sights. And that’s a piece of your mind.
You start in a dark corridor only to see a faint gleam of light at the end. As you slowly head towards it, you realize that there is a panel braced to the front of it, a simple horizontal line with a clear start and end etched on the front. You hover your cursor over it and all your basic principles are telling you to simply trace what is shown in front of you. And you do, allowing the door to swing open and your freedom guaranteed. As simple and allegorical as the opening scene to The Witness is – a sense of being born into this new world- it failed to captivate me in the slightest. It’s not until I finally trek and batter through the same repetitive line drawing puzzles that I actually get to see the world I inhabit and finally come to terms that these puzzles are more than rinse and repeat objectives they first appear to be.
With a plethora of paths to take and no map at your disposal your initial jog through The Witness’ jungles and towns can be intimidating. Finding your bearings can be difficult, but thankfully areas are coordinated in such a way that they stick out from one another. A small island with several unique biomes; Jungle, Desert, Snow, Mountainous and so on. Being separated by their distinct looks is a subtle godsend to the player as there are tasks with activating lasers that all lead to a single focal point. And finding these lasers would have been a troublesome task without these explicit environmental cues. You do gain access to a basic map of sorts through your “Fast Travel” boat, but it would be nice to have a more detailed portable one as paths tend to stray from time to time.
At first glance, there is no clear objective. The Witness expects your wanderlust to take over and steer you in, hopefully, a direction of an easy puzzle for you to solve; just to get your mind revving. Most puzzles can be divided into two categories: mathematical based and perspective orientated. The more mind numbing puzzles are the maths based ones, having to segment the board you sketch onto into varying sizes and must include equal number of shapes, colours, and designs. Whilst not as straightforward to understand, the answer is always in front of your face, hidden in plain sight and it’s only a matter of time before you crack it.
The more interesting and fascinating puzzles are those that rely on the player’s perspective and orientation to solve it. These aren’t as easy as the aforementioned mathematical ones, requiring the player to actually move and interpret their surroundings in a new light. Players will be left looking through an object to solve a conundrum or use light refraction and sometimes water reflection as a means to solving it. There are a few other variants that you’ll come across, like puzzles that use sound as a means to communicate the answer to the player. These sound puzzles can become tricky as audio cues usually play over one another to distort and distract the player – I often felt that The Witness was trolling me as I tried to focus on a multitude of sounds at once.
Although there are hundreds of puzzles to wrap your, soon to be scrambled, mind around, they all operate in the same fashion. You use the thumbstick to control a small cursor on screen and trace lines across etched surfaces. Even though they continue to grate my nerves, I’m always compelled to play on; once I truly understood that this sort of simplistic puzzle solving could have an ounce of depth to it. The one negative I would say is that with The Witness’ vast array of biomes to explore brings frequent changes in puzzle solving techniques. What I mean by this, for example, is once you finally wrap your head around some complex and sometimes fairly obscure Tetris like puzzles you could be swiftly shifted onto solving a completed new puzzle with a whole new gimmick to it; such as sound or symmetry. The result often leaves you feeling mentally drained as your brain doesn’t have enough time to fully take in what you have learned before you move onto something new. Something which a lot of games tend to avoid. More often than not, a game will slowly carve a set of rules into your mind which will then continuously play out in subsequent puzzles in the foreseeable future, with a few minor iterations here or there, and still hold true to its original formula. Whereas The Witness breaks up that thought pattern with an excessive number of puzzles and large changes in approach. That’s not to say its bad design, in fact the puzzles will keep the player on their toes, but many players will become exhausted through the mental gymnastics required to progress at times.
Whilst you’re muddling away around the island of The Witness you’ll also stumble across shiny little audio recordings that hold a transcript from workings of famous authors. Some of which challenge the player to think about what the world of The Witness means, what it represents, and our place in this gorgeous world. Or it could simply force the player down the path of thought to an existential crisis. Personally I never really picked up on anything – which I guess says a lot about my intelligence. Whether or not you decide to search for these insider trinkets is up to you, but the one thing you cannot avoid is The Witness’s encapsulating graphical design. It’s as if the island you are stranded on has been ripped right out of an abstract painting. Looking at the the world of The Witness is like looking at a painting, interpreting what the true meaning of it is and what message the artist is trying to get across to the player. And therein lies the beauty of The Witness, every player will take something different away from the experience, their own unique message.
And that’s about all there is to it. I say “all there is” in terms of design in The Witness; you walk about and solve puzzles. There is still plenty of depth to The Witness, you can occasionally stumble onto a few off beaten paths that have hidden clues to a much larger and grander puzzle near the end. You can also find a few unique sights, like statues that represent people from different backgrounds and stature. Even though The Witness can become a bit of a slog at times with an obscene amount of puzzles – which border or repetitive – and the ability to easily lose your bearings, it’s definitely one you should at least dip your mind into, if only for an hour. That being said, I’d certainly hold off on a purchase until the £31.99 Xbox One price tag drops.