The Witness is the Worst Teacher's Pet
'The Witness' is a game with some great ideas, some wonderful puzzle design, and a terrible attitude.
Header illustration by Paul O'Reilly.
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars , and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
Note: I'm going to spoil The Witness here. You've been warned.
The Witness was the best game that I really, really hated this year.
There's a great deal to like about it, and even more to admire: It's a precise, fiendishly difficult (in places) puzzle game that requires the player up to learn a language—no, nine languages—to solve its puzzles.
The Witness feels like learning math in some ways, and grammar in others. And when The Witness is at its best, that learning process is wonderfully satisfying. When you tease out the methods and logic—better, when you start to find secrets in its gorgeous landscapes—you ride a high that's akin, at least for me, to beating a Dark Souls boss, or nailing a fantastic lap time on the track. You did it.
And there is so much about the puzzle design to love. The first time I moved just so and figured out that the desert puzzles left a distinct impression on the panels, I was overjoyed. "The angle matters!" When I figured out that the sounds—high, low, middle—coming from the speakers in the jungle were the key to the puzzles, I got so excited that I immediately held a little chat session for my game design class, showing them how that puzzle was implemented. "This is good design!" I jabbered, "showing the player that elements in the environment like this are important and constructed!"
For every happy moment of revelation, there were twenty of banging my head against solutions that didn't feel intuitive at all. The pleasure of finding angles in the early part of the desert led to a final room that I could not, for the fucking life of me, find the perfect angle on. I never lit that goddamned beacon, despite hours of tweaking my viewpoint. Nothing.
Related, from Waypoint: For performances that affected us in far better ways than those statues, check out our Drama Club writeup, featuring voice actors from some of 2016's best narrative games.
There's one puzzle in the Monastery—which has you making patterns on the circuit boards based on the shapes of tree branches around you—that requires you to look at the floor for a part of the branch that fell. I spent hours of my life in that section. Nowhere else in that area did it indicate that you need to look on the floor—it spent the whole area teaching you to look at the trees. At living branches that were upright against the light.
Much worse were puzzles that I figured out the trick, enjoyed that process immensely, and then knocked my head against actually implementing the solution. The Greenhouse is that personified. Different colored lights affected the puzzle board on each floor, and you need to bring an elevator up to the roof. But there's no intuitive way to actually map the colors, even once you've done the "harder" work of coming to that trick.
The entire last section of the game was a whole world of painful bullshit with this, with puzzle boards that are obscured in some way. I got to the ending area of the game, after dozens of hours of making terrible charts and cutout cardboard tetronimoes and literally making a crappy paper crosshair in the middle of the screen, because playing it without that gave me a massive, splitting headache.
But I turned in after that. There's was nothing interesting, or satisfying, or even fun in that "I hate this so much I'm going to beat it!" in a bunch of puzzle that I had to hurt my eyes to see properly. I was finished.
Don't even get me started on the melodramatic, so-far-up-their-own-ass-they're-coming-out-their-faces statues. Those sad statues. The terrible dialogue!
Above: the saddest and most dramatic statues in The Witness, (a video I edited earlier in the year)
I know that the "secret ending" sends much of this stuff up, that it's meant to be a kind of commentary on pretension. But that's twenty-odd hours of stuffy, neo-techbro, Gravity's Rainbow fanboy goatee-stroking to get to five minutes of reflective "look at how pretentious we are!" That ratio never bodes well to a finished product, particularly one that required significant effort to get to that special point.
Look. I am not an anti-intellectual, and certainly not against games that challenge their players mentally. What does rub me the wrong way is a work that purports to be satire, but does nothing to encourage its audience to engage with that point of view until a special secret ending. An ending only its biggest fans will ever suffer long enough to get to.
I love that a very beautiful, challenging, and ultimately cold puzzle game like The Witness came out this year. I'm glad that its creators felt comfortable making something that does, in many ways, go against the grain. I'm glad for some of the time I spent with it, making little mental voyages of discovery in its cleverest, most rewarding moments.
But The Witness can also, very seriously, go fuck itself.