The Witness is the first game by Jonathan Blow that I’ve played. It ended up being basically what I’d expect from him, though, based on what I’d heard: good game, good puzzles, but with a somewhat annoying opinion about how to play leaking out in spots.

In case you haven’t heard the game’s basic idea: it’s an open world puzzle game where the puzzles involve drawing lines on grids. Well, maybe “open world” isn’t the right phrase — there aren’t fetch quests or anything — but the puzzles are sitting right out there in the world, and while there are local sections that are clearly linear, you also have almost complete freedom in the order in which to do the chunks of puzzles, you can (after the very opening) take a break on one chunk of puzzles to work on something else, and you can wander around the world for quite a while trying to figure out what to do next.

All of which worked well? At the start, there’s a fairly obvious path, which I appreciated, teaching you a few very heavily used puzzle concepts. After going through those, I fairly quickly wandered to the central hub area; and, honestly, here I was lost for a little while in a way that started to feel frustrating. But even that wasn’t so bad: I was running into puzzles that used concepts I didn’t know about and hadn’t been introduced to, so I figured that I’d probably eventually hit the start of a chain introducing me to one of those concepts, I was just somehow avoiding doing so?

And that theory was entirely correct, and honestly I think I mostly had bad luck that it took me so long to hit a chain: I kept on not wandering down the right paths, and I also didn’t notice any of the boats (even though I probably walked right past two of them), which would have shown me a map that would have been quite helpful in terms of orientation. So I think the game did a reasonable amount of signposting, I just got unlucky, and even so, I found a good next place to go just as I was starting to get annoyed. And that was ultimately all fine.

Also while doing that wandering around, I found a couple of these videos that the game hides away, giving excerpts of other works that Blow thinks are particularly relevant to The Witness. I can’t remember the details, but my memory is that one of them was a paean to continuing to bang your head against problems, that it’ll be worth it in the end? Which seems like a Jonathan Blow sort of thing, based on my prior expectation of him: videos going on for too long obliquely hammering home a point that I think has some virtue but is also significantly more prescriptive than I would like.


Anyways, once I got unstuck, I quite enjoyed my time with the game: good new mechanics, a very well staged series of puzzles exploring each new mechanic, and occasional times where I’d get stuck for a decent length of time but would make it through. Liesl was watching me play, and she often had useful suggestions; good to have multiple eyes / brains on puzzle games, I think.

Having said that, a few of the mechanics were pretty annoying: one that took me forever to even figure out what was going on, and while I did eventually figure it out, I also feel like, if I’d given up and looked in a walkthrough to figure out how to get started, my experience wouldn’t have been any worse? And that one and two others also had some annoying bits further on as well; though, to the game’s credit, the other two puzzle sequences that I’m thinking of in that regard were remarkably short, so the designers did a good job of throwing in unusual stuff but also not pushing it too far.

But I went through all of the sections, and enjoyed them. I didn’t try to be completionist: the environmental puzzles were a neat idea, but I didn’t go out of my way to try to track them all down or anything. And also there were some puzzles outside of the main sequences that were clearly harder: puzzles that required you to simultaneously use several different techniques that the game had taught you and/or puzzles that were at a higher difficulty level than the rest of the puzzles. I figured I’d do the main through-lines, then do the endgame sequence, and then try to come back and try out a few of those non-main-sequence puzzles, since I figured they were probably going to be harder than the endgame puzzles.


The endgame puzzles were pretty cool, but also included the one place where I did give up and look at a walkthrough. Which, I think, was the right choice for me, and actually I think you could make a case that that specific puzzle was a weak spot in the game’s design: I thought that the puzzle was advancing past what I’d seen before in a specific way, then I got frustrated when I couldn’t solve it based on the idea that I had in my head. And, when I looked the solution up, I actually had the right idea, but I didn’t go far enough, there was a second idea that I needed to come up with and throw into the mix as well. I don’t think the game had ever made me advance two steps at once in that way before, I think it would have been better if there had been a chain of puzzles leading me to the more advanced solution. And I’m actually still wondering what was going on there; I wonder if the designers tried but then couldn’t find a good puzzle that fit that missing intermediate step?

And then I made it to the credits, and got a screen where my only option was to start a new game. So, unless I was missing something (possible, I didn’t poke around much), I couldn’t just go back and try the puzzles that I’d been intentionally putting off?

To which my response was: well, fuck you too. I mean, it wouldn’t have been hard to get back to where I could have tried those puzzles, I could have started the game and in about five minutes I would have gone through the initial puzzles and then had a free line to the central area. But also, why would you design the game that way? Why throw away the state that the players had built up that way, and why do it without any signaling of that to players? Again, maybe I’m missing something, maybe there was a way to get back to my prior saved game, but it sure looked like a new game was my only choice.


So, ultimately, my attitude is: a very good game, with very well-designed puzzles. But also a little too opinionated, and a little too player-hostile. And also, while I suspect there’s quite a bit there in terms of hidden puzzles and what not if the game really clicks for you and you want to explore every nook and cranny, I also got the feeling that the game was doing that in a way that was in love with showing off its cleverness? It’s not the sort of feeling I get from, say, Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey: in those games, there’s stuff around every corner, but I feel like it’s there to make players happy, whereas, in The Witness, I feel like those extras are in large part there to make the designers happy.

Maybe that says more about me and my neuroses than about the game, though. (Edit: Thinking it over, I really do think there’s a good chance that that’s the case, that the last sentence in the previous paragraph was really more a reflection of me being in a bad mood than anything else.) Who knows; at any rate, I really am glad that I played The Witness, but I also am glad to be done with it.

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