'The Witness' is a Beautiful Game with a Shitty Attitude

In this week's Guide to Games, we look at the puzzling, cold, and oh-so-rational 'The Witness.'
April 19, 2017, 3:04pm

Guide to Games is Waypoint's weekly short video series diving into a game we love, detest, or find fascinating. If the video above doesn't work, try the version on YouTube!

The Witness is a mostly beautifully designed puzzle game with a worldview that I abhor.

It's a colorful, cold game set on a deserted island. Different areas correspond to different puzzle types. Though all of them ultimately have you tracing lines on panels.


Some have you looking at the world from different angles to find a solution. Others rely on sound or color. But the majority of the puzzles have you reading and learning what different symbols and glyphs mean.

It's like learning a new language—something like 11 dialects of a new language—and when you make progress, The Witness is intoxicating. It feels great to parse the secrets of the star puzzles in the treehouse, and figure out that different solutions will lead to different paths. I felt like a wizard when I finally understood the tetronimo puzzles and completed the marsh.

All The Witness screens courtesy of Thekla, Inc.

This game had me doing remedial first grade-level arts and crafts, and I loved that aspect.

And I had a genuine rush of discovery when I first figured out that I could find secret symbols in the wider world, and they were everywhere!

What didn't feel great was banging my head against design that felt unfair. There's one puzzle in the monastery that requires you to look at the floor, where a crucial part of the solution fell off and tumbled aside.

Nothing in the game suggests that you should look at the floor, you just have to stumble on it. You're fucked until you do. But worst of all, The Witness has a serious attitude problem. It revels in a rationalist worldview that I was repulsed by throughout, the idea that logic and cold, hard, rational thought will solve all the world's problems.

I mean, just look at these self-serious statues. These fucking statues. The recordings that litter the world that profess very grand ideas. A movie theater that plays up-to-40-minute video clips of pop philosophy and science and a heaping dose of bullshit.

The game's secret ending—attained by completing "The Challenge"—does send much of this up. It makes fun of its entire conceit.

But it does so in a way that feels mean and unfair to the game's biggest fans, those who tortured themselves through the challenge's timed puzzles. And the only people in the world who will actually see this "true" ending, this sneering "It was satire all along! Go outside, nerds!" are the ones that are willing to put up with this game's bullshit for the longest.