This review contains spoilers
This is a really tough game to review.
As a meditation on obsession and the value of quiet reflection, this game only succeeds the same way La Croix succeeds in tasting like fruit: kinda. I found the audio log in the mountain endgame area about "zen moments" made the latter click with me, and the optional cave section and secret ending made the former make a good deal of sense to me. Here are the ramblings of someone trying to make sense of this game at 1 AM:
The effects of obsession are portrayed in subtle ways throughout The Witness. Your character closes their eyes to pause the game, and floating puzzles drift by as afterimages, inescapable even inside their own eyelids. The constant environmental puzzles, too, reinforce that ALL they can think about is puzzles, even when you're not looking at the puzzle panels. (Although that may be somewhat of a stretch on my part)
A secret ending in which live-action footage of a person waking up (perhaps the player character) and ambling about, gesturing towards certain household items, features of the house, and shapes in the backyard plays with this idea. Perhaps inspired by the phenomenon felt by many whom have played this game, only to see circles and lines they desperately wish they could trace whilst on their commutes. Becoming far too invested in The Witness, like anything, can upset the delicate balance of one's mind, and perhaps their whole life.
The Witness contains inherent contradictions. At once both seeking to be a zen experience where one can find a meditative experience coupled with eureka moments, and a game that stresses the importance of balance, not becoming too immersed in any one thing. However, where it falters in the delivery of this message is largely down to timing. Having the player consider how they're spending their time while they're playing would be one thing, but by the time they hit the caves they likely will have already cleared most of what they intend to clear. In the context of a post-game cave, the message delivered is this: you could have spent your time better. A shame, really, as spending just a little more time gets you that wonderful timed challenge to complete, which might have been my favorite part of the whole game.
As far as puzzle game design goes, this one's got lots and lots of great stuff. There's a wide array of puzzle rules to follow, and without fail they are explained wordlessly and in such a way that mindful players should have no problem figuring out what all the symbols and puzzle types are, if given enough time and patience. The sheer variety of environmental puzzles is to be celebrated, as well. It boggles the mind to think of how much was considered when designing this game, and yet it feels largely effortless.
Puzzle-related nitpicks aren't plentiful but I did encounter some things I didn't enjoy. Firstly, boat puzzles were always a slog. Even if I could clearly see the solution, if I failed there was always an awkward boat ride that lasted way too long while I tried to reset and go again. They also made me somewhat motion sick at times, a perfect segue for my next, and biggest nitpick: accessibility.
The Witness is not a very accessible game by any stretch of the imagination. For those with hearing disabilities, colorblindness, an inclination towards motion sickness, and so on, this game could be rendered impossible or incredibly difficult, without the use of a guide. In my case, the boat, along with the spinning/scrolling panels in the endgame mountain area proved the most challenging parts of my time with this game.
Wrapping up my assorted thoughts on The Witness, I want to stress one thing: I actually did really like it. Most of what I wrote may seem negative, but that's in large part due to the scarcity of genuinely negative aspects of this game, in my eyes. The notebook I keep by my side while gaming (and my friend Bret's DMs) were constantly being updated with new things I was appreciating about The Witness, big and small.
At the end of the day, I think it's well worth a shot. It's a mindfully crafted experience, a real sipping on whiskey type game. Do a small chunk of an area when the mood strikes you, finish a section of the map over an afternoon and set the game down again until you want to sip on it a bit more. My advice? Just like the game, and the whiskey bottle say: enjoy in moderation.
Reviewed on Jan 24, 2023