Puzzling Over The Witness | A Fanatical Discussion

The Witness was released to widespread acclaim. Some say it’s the best puzzle game of all time. I wholeheartedly disagree. Myles Gann, who reviewed the game, really enjoyed his experience, and while I did as well, I was left with so many nagging complaints that I couldn’t keep them all inside my brain any longer. I took a good, long look at his review and replied to it.

The following is our discussion about The Witness, puzzles, Dark Souls, Portal, and maybe a few other random items. Spoilers for some puzzles follow.

Ben: Let’s start with the story. The absent, uninteresting story. I suppose I am one of those people you mention in the review that is looking for something more. Am I to believe that this entire island was created in someone’s mind like a virtual simulation thing? That’s fine and all but ultimately irrelevant to the previous 20 hours of my life with this game. In fact, it almost seems a copout. What were all the statues on the island? Did they mean anything? I guess not. And part of the problem with that is that I don’t care if there is an answer to that question. It’s a worthless line of thinking that goes nowhere. The answer will illicit nary more than a shrug and an ‘oh’ from me. That’s not good storytelling. In fact, the more time I spent with the Witness, the more I wished it would stop trying to be some kind of highbrow, metaphysical ‘blah blah blah,’ and just gave me more puzzles to complete.

If any teacher taught the way The Witness does, they would be fired… Any learning in The Witness is done in spite of itself.

But enough about that, let’s move on to how the game teaches the player. I will not disagree that it does a tremendous job of letting the player discover and learn. However, not all areas are created equal. This comes down to the ‘secret’ of several zones being frustrating or obnoxious and requiring little critical thought. I can’t help but feel that about a third of the areas aren’t worth mentioning in the same breath as the others. The desert, the Japanese temple, and the jungle/bamboo forest were all very disappointing; if not infuriating at times.

The desert revolves around light and reflections to solve all the puzzles. It’s a cute idea but it turns the entire area into a frustrating game of ‘am I standing in the correct spot, yet?’ There’s little intelligence involved in finding the answer based upon physical placement and then writing it down.

The temple is a neat idea but it once again involves simply finding the right place to stand. Plus it’s incredibly short to its detriment. Similar can be said of the wooded area with the shadows but that one was much more interesting and longer. Still, these places rely on 1 or 2 tricks and then it’s just a boring slog to get through to the end.

The Witness

Then we get to the ‘audio jungle’ as I like to call it. That place is pure garbage. I despise it. I have no shame in saying that I used a guide to solve the last 5 on that platform. Even knowing the answers, I still have no clue as to what I was supposed to do. If there ever was an example of a poor tutorial or bad difficulty ramping in this game, it’s this entire area. Had my desire to complete all the areas not existed, I would have left and never returned.

The disappointing areas are so disappointing to me because it meant they spent time making those when the other areas were better and I would have rather solved more of those puzzles instead. Maybe it’s just my personal preference but I can’t imagine that someone would champion the desert over the treetops. There’s no comparison. I almost find it insulting to list the two in the same sentence.

Additionally, I found the difficulty curve to be unsatisfying at times. Many of the areas ease the player in, teaching new mechanics as it goes on. But some only give a handful of easy starter puzzles and then the rest are medium-hard puzzles. In fact, there’s very little middle ground in the entire game. That’s mostly fine but it can be very frustrating 3 puzzles in when you’re suddenly asked to solve a much more difficult puzzle. Not to mention the complete lack of any clues ever. I’d like to think I’m patient, but when I’m stuck on puzzle 20 of 25, the design decision to force the player to complete all of the puzzles on the way to the beam of light is a gut punch.

The Witness

As a final thought, I like the idea of hidden lines in the environment, but the game takes it too far. Again, I’d rather simply solve more puzzles than draw lines on a windmill for half an hour. The game was so obsessed with making a world that it got in the way of giving the player a ton of puzzles.

Wow, this all sounds much more negative than I thought it would.

My dislike for the game is definitely aimed towards the environmental stuff. Anytime it was logic puzzles, I was there with drool running down my chin. The big difference to me is that the environmental stuff is always going to be the same answer. The secret is finding whatever arbitrary (albeit interesting) object is revealing the answer. With the Tetris pieces or the stars you can solve them in a variety of ways, and failure shows you what’s wrong which further teaches the rules.

It comes down to this, while I did feel smart for figuring things out, whenever I got stuck it was always because of some dumb thing in the environment rather than me not understanding what to do with the symbols. In that way it felt like the game was just being a jerk by not being more forthcoming. Sure, I found all of the secrets eventually but I don’t know if the ‘a-ha’ moment was worth actively being mad at a game. I just wanted to solve more puzzles!

Myles: Can completely understand your frustration with the story because, when you break it down, it’s not really a “story” at all. It’s a frame of mind, more or less, that is taken to an extreme. It’s the idea that you’ll have your answers only for their sake, and only if you want them badly enough. That feels so original and fully-fleshed out to the point that I didn’t have much of a problem with it. It is a decidedly different approach than with Braid though, and that probably caught a lot of people off guard.

It’s the idea that you’ll have your answers only for their sake, and only if you want them badly enough. That feels so original and fully-fleshed out to the point that I didn’t have much of a problem with it.

As far as the rest of the game, the puzzles felt much larger in some areas and more concise in others. The treetop area, for instance, was just between you and the panel ahead of you for the most part without any tricks beyond the rules of the puzzles. Then the desert grew the puzzles to incorporate the sun and angles, the symmetry puzzles to incorporate the landscape etc. Personally, I love the fact that the box around the puzzles is constantly shrinking or expanding depending on the area. You have to pay attention to everything around you in order to find the real solutions, which fits with the theme through and through. The optional puzzles in the environments are some of the best parts of the game to me because of how it showcases the land around you being a puzzle as well.

Ben: On the environmental puzzles, it oftentimes felt like the game was trying to slip me up. For instance, when the rules for something would suddenly be reversed, or when there were two or more possible environmental clues. It was never clear what the game wanted. In fact, it seemed to intentionally be trying to have me fail. Sure, it’s cool to solve these things on your own but it’s a bit like giving a kid an assortment of sports equipment and then asking him to play a game he knows nothing about. Then when they, mistakenly, grab a basketball, you shake your head ‘no’ but don’t say anything else. That kid is going to hate you once he stumbles into the rules for baseball, the game you wanted to play but couldn’t say for some reason.

The Witness

I’ve now realized that I partially feel lied to by the game’s ‘it’s just puzzles’ popular perception. It’s not just puzzles. It’s a bunch of other things that are somewhat related to puzzles and also proper puzzles. Finding out you need to stand in a certain spot to see the solution is interesting the first couple of times but it is the solution for a shockingly high amount of these puzzles. And again, they have but one solution. The ‘ah ha’ moment of discovery is cool but once it has been discovered, you must repeat this same trick several times. It’s just boring. Also, those boards are more like optical illusions rather than puzzles. However, all the logic stuff doesn’t have a set answer and, upon replaying the game, will still offer an interesting challenge. Ya know, as opposed to seeing a shadow again and just going through the motions.

Think about The Witness this way: how much more interesting and complex could the puzzles have been if some rules were spelled out (and didn’t rely on sticks and shadows)? Wouldn’t you have rather seen more different board/grid shapes? Imagine a honeycomb pattern but with the stars— that could be incredibly interesting. What about (a lot) more triangle grids? What about solving a puzzle by placing the symbols onto a grid with a line already drawn on it? Speaking of symbols, the triangles are awesome but they are exclusively used on optional stuff and never expanded on much. Point is, there are a lot of interesting places the puzzles in this game could have gone instead of shadows, sounds, and sticks.

I understand that it’s not right to knock something for not being what I’d like it to be but the game comes across as misguided. Misguided by the idea that its nonsense plot needed to be a part of it all. It ended up shaping the world into a place I don’t care about.

‘The answer’s everywhere. Nothing matters.’

Just shut up and put a board in front of me.

Having to basically learn something else in every puzzle area felt invigorating, and the environment being such an integral part of them sells the idea that you’re only going to find the answer from one specific viewpoint.

Myles: See, I didn’t mind the idea it conveyed throughout, that the discovery of knowledge and answers is something that can never really be completed by man. Is there a larger place for an actual story in there somewhere? Yeah, probably, but Braid didn’t follow too traditional a story telling path either. Having to basically learn something else in every puzzle area felt invigorating, and the environment being such an integral part of them sells the idea that you’re only going to find the answer from one specific viewpoint. Now, if there were more variable sections in the game (like the last door before the last area) then yeah, we’d agree one hundred percent. It is a sink-or-swim experience from the ground up, but it’s one that plays by its own rules, which is basically what most any player asks of their game to begin with. So, interesting question: How do you like how you learn things in The Witness as compared to how From Software teaches their players?

Ben: The Souls comparison is interesting and seems apt, but the more I think about it the less I think there’s any comparison. If Dark Souls was set up like The Witness, you’d get to an enemy blocking a door and the ONLY way to get past it would be via a parry and riposte. Of course, in this version of the game, it would have never told you that is a thing you could do. Then another enemy would require you to find a way above it to use a plunging attack. What about a boss that can only be defeated by shooting an arrow into its unarmored right arm? This sounds really contrived and boring.

While the Souls games do place players in new environments with no caution sign or guidance, failure is clearly expressed. That lever triggers a spike pit, there’s an archer behind you, etc. You know where you messed up. In the case of things such as burning the windmill in Dark Souls 2, secret events like that are not required.

The difference is the freedom of expression. The Souls games never require the player to do anything other than move and press R1 to attack. Literally everything else is optional. So while figuring things out in The Witness can be exciting and fun, I think it is ultimately held back by its desire to be unclear rather than explaining and then expanding on rules.

It’s like the ‘I Spy’ books; once the stuff is found it’s over. The Witness forces the ‘ah ha’ moments to happen because they have to in order to continue the game. With Dark Souls, I’ll find something new each time I play through it, even after over 100 hours. That is simply because it allows itself to keep secrets.

Myles: That’s fair. Once you have the rules in place there’s not much else to learn, so that does keep a lot of that “I did it!” feeling to the first play through in The Witness. As far as teaching you something in one play through though, The Witness excels in teaching.

Ben: Sure, it is a great teacher but do you think that’s for the best? Would your enjoyment of the game have been lower if it had been clearer?

Myles: Jonathon Blow doubled-down on that discovery aspect, so taking just that away, adding in tutorial prompts, and leaving everything else as is would probably lessen the game considerably. Look at it like this: As it’s teaching you, you’re at least engaging with the game and receiving binary Yes/No feedback. A tutorial just flat out explains and takes away that engagement. You’d probably never want to explore the world for possibilities (like the awesome credits area) with tutorials because of the “this game is on my side” feeling those instill. Resident Evil, for instance, hands you no tutorial prompts at all, and the desire for exploration has never been higher in a game for me. Same with Dark Souls and other From Software games, even if there is kind of a tutorial area. So The Witness banking on that learning and language is a fine aspect that has helped give the game such high marks and buzz, and it wouldn’t be the same game without it. What other puzzle games have you played and enjoyed?

Ben: Sure, the game wouldn’t be the same if had any sort of tutorial. I’m not asking for everything to be explained but rather the game give a baseline of knowledge to grow on.

The only other similar puzzle games I can think of right now would be Portal 1 and 2. They both have simple illustrations of what new mechanics do before letting the player loose. It has narration but never explicitly tells you where to place things. It also has a much smoother build up in terms of difficulty. Simple cube placement and switches start things off and become more complex. Then lasers are added, turrets, the gels, etc. In The Witness, the only way these environmental puzzles change is when they arbitrarily switch to the opposite of their original meaning. That’s it. There’s no growth or expansion with those rules.

The logic puzzles do get developed upon but again, if the baseline rules had been defined, there could still have been plenty of room for discovery in the way the further rules would have been introduced. I’m of the feeling that the game could have had just as many secrets and things to uncover without hiding all the rules.

Portal 2

Myles: I’d argue that the baseline rules are defined within that first little tutorial area where you see the breaks in lines, the line you control etc. and the rest is building upon that. Then the environmental aspects kind of push those out even further. But yeah, Portal 1 and 2 are simple and straight-forward (relatively) with what you have to do with the tools you have. Saying that The Witness is more obtuse than Portal isn’t that controversial of a statement, but that’s just it. Portal is a puzzle game that expects you to finish fairly quickly; The Witness is a puzzle game that gives no *bleeps* if you finish or not. If you’re stuck on a run, you have to figure it out. That’s why I consider it one of the best puzzle games of all time, because of that purity between you and the puzzle ahead. Portal, while a fine puzzle game, has so many other aspects that it’s not trying to really dig into your brain stem for solutions, so as a pure puzzler, it’s nothing world shaking.

Ben: Yes, The Witness doesn’t care if you finish it or do well at all. But shouldn’t it, even just a little? No other piece of entertainment actively shuts out the purchaser. A confusing chapter in a book lets the reader continue. A hockey game doesn’t stop for an hour while I try to figure out icing. The Witness is intent on being unfriendly and that comes across very well. The game is basically the disinterested party of a blind date—only giving yes or no answers and with its attention firmly placed anywhere but on you.

The game was so obsessed with making a world that it got in the way of giving the player a ton of puzzles.

Granted, you can still have fun with the game, and I had a lot, but I left with a disappointed and empty feeling. It’s almost as if the game was done with me rather than the other way around.

You mention the “purity between you and the puzzle ahead” and I have to disagree overall. There’s so much more to The Witness and the puzzles that it gets in the way of the puzzles themselves. Seeing a solution and knowing what to do but having to twist and contort to find the right place to stand is one such example. In fact if there was nothing between all the puzzles I would have liked the game more. I just wanted the puzzles but there’s all this side garbage in the way. Rooms and rooms of puzzles is all this had to be but it wanted to be ‘something more’ and that meant putting things between the player and the puzzles.

I just realized something, if any teacher taught the way The Witness does, they would be fired. So how is the game being lauded for teaching so well? It’s almost the opposite. It doesn’t teach at all and the player still manages to learn. Teaching is a give and take. There is active communication going on between teacher and pupil. Any learning in The Witness is done in spite of itself.

Myles: You seem to be wanting to make The Witness into something it’s not. This game would never, ever, ever work as a movie or comic or even as a puzzle book; it’s a one-of-a-kind experience even within gaming let alone anywhere else. And that disinterest of the game fits the mood and tone of the story – although you’re not a fan of that either – and the environment itself. You’re correct in that there is very little streamlining of any sort in the game, but that’s part of the point it seems. That’s the purity of this puzzle game. And it is just you and the puzzle! There’s literally you, the puzzles, and some scarce voice recorder dealies. It sounds like you want the game to feel simpler than it is, but it wouldn’t be able to exist otherwise. If it just automated you down a line of puzzles, that’d be the worst, and if it told you straight up what the colored star symbols mean, it would lose a degree of discovery.

The Witness

Ben: Sure, I am disappointed in what The Witness is and would prefer to see if be something else. Even saying that though, my complaints with it are still valid. I don’t think the course it took ended up working that well. That’s where my suggestions and ideas come in as ways I think it could have been better. The game has a good amount of issues.

I’m not saying that I wanted it to be simpler, rather the opposite. If the starting rules were defined, the new, hidden teaching moments could then be layered on. This would create more complex puzzles. Any complexity in The Witness comes from the idea that it isn’t telling you something, rather than missing reasoning, wit, etc. from the player. And I am definitely disagreeing with you that a line of puzzles would ‘be the worst.’ That sounds awesome.

I’ll end this giant circular discussion with this: At the end of the day, I remember not the discovery of The Witness but the solving of puzzles. The game excels in giving the player things to solve, not ‘teaching.’ Are you really going to look back on this game and have fond memories of when you looked at a tree the correct way?

Myles: No, probably not. The individual areas aren’t really the interesting part to me, and while the puzzles are fine, none of them are memorable on the scale of a Portal. What I love and will remember about The Witness is the dedication to that idea of finding the answers for yourself. It’s in every part of the game and, even if it doesn’t ring so sweetly with you or a lot of other players, their commitment to that idea feels lovely when so few other games bother giving you anything but prompts. For the record, I do have a foot in your camp about the rules being defined as you discover them, just so you can refer to them later if you forget. Because man, multiple playthroughs of some of the areas are not looking appealing from here.

Would you agree that The Witness is at least good for that first playthrough for that sense of discovery and, at the very least, some of the puzzles?

Ben: I guess I don’t remember individual puzzles either. There are far too many of them for that but a few tricky ones remain in my memory.  Ask again in a year though.

Sure, I can admire their commitment to the idea, it just so happens to be the same reason as to why I’m not so keen on the game.

For a first playthrough, I can somewhat agree the discovery is a fun part of it all. The first couple of areas I went to were great with all of that. The novelty wears off when it becomes a tiring search for the one thing I missed though. Especially when the solution is something convoluted. I loved all the logic puzzles. I even enjoyed tracing shadows and whatever. It’s when the game relies on the idea of perception too much that I got annoyed. Some of those solutions are cool (the shadows, maze area), but others are frustrating and poorly developed (stick patterns, desert). It’s like they had 6 good ideas for areas, decided they needed to have more, and came up with additional things to discover. Those new things being much less interesting and, more importantly, less fun to solve.

There it is, a really long way of saying that different people like different things from puzzle games. What did you think of The Witness? Leave a comment explaining just how wrong we are about all this.

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