I'd been looking forward to The Witness for a long time when it finally came out last week. My hopes and expectations were high, so when I sat down in front of my PlayStation 4 and started the game, I was crushed. It was nothing like I'd hoped. It didn't even seem that good, let alone like something special, worth eight years of development and directed under the wisdom of one of the industry's most renowned indie developers. Hell, it even seemed to have been making a lot of the most common, irritating mistakes every mediocre game does. Your movement was restricted, the world looked sterile, and there seemed to be a distinct lack of any tactile meaning to its features.
My first impressions of The Witness were not good.
Thankfully, my first impressions were also very wrong. Though it would have benefited unquestionably from some map or journal features, The Witness ended up being one of the most beautiful, rich, and fantastic puzzlers I've ever played.
Essentially, The Witness consists of wandering around an absurdly colorful, relatively open island to find and solve puzzle panels based around drawing a line from one point on a grid to another. The only mechanics directly tied to your character and first-person perspective are walking and sprinting and engaging the line-drawing puzzle mode, and through some very clever, satisfying puzzle ideas The Witness manages to get a ton of mileage out of those. It'll almost certainly take you over twenty hours to complete (with loads of optional content to add to that). That whole time you'll really feel like you're accomplishing something too, overcoming a real but (mostly) fair challenge, and only rarely does it ever feel stale.
That's sort of the brilliance of The Witness and one of its fundamental design philosophies: to be as simple in its premise as possible without sacrificing depth and intrigue in its content, the puzzles.
The weird thing about reviewing a game like this, though, is that to explain the mechanics of how it functions and to describe whether or not they function well (the contents of a general review) would be to spoil the game. The Witness is a game not only about discovering the story of its "abandoned island," but also — and perhaps more so — about discovering the rules under which its puzzles function.
So, I won't do that. Suffice it to say, The Witness has some wonderfully clever and very fun ideas at work in its puzzles. At times, they're a hair too obscure, and some of them are too complicated to make the epiphany of their function as satisfying as it ought to be, but all-in-all you'll find The Witness has deeply interesting and sometimes just fantastic puzzles. That "click" you get when realizing how some of them work is just as great as Jonathan Blow described it.
The one hitch in getting into this game is the disorienting first couple of hours. After a nice, short introductory area, The Witness just drops you right into the thick of its world, a world with which you are not yet acquainted and which is so open-ended that it seems impossible to grasp. A lot of people seem to be praising the game for this indifference toward the player, but honestly, I'd argue it's just too much. On its panels, The Witness generally does a fantastic job of explaining its puzzle premises, but in its world, the game leaves you with barely any idea of how it's structured or how to progress. The simplistic — albeit necessarily restrictive — movement controls (there's no jumping or falling off ledges) make it hard to even find your way around some of the tighter portions of the island, which are traversed sort of like polygonal mazes.
I imagine The Witness could have seriously been helped in introducing players to its world through simple, largely innocuous additions. The game doesn't need Navi, but a vaguely partitioned map accessible from a menu and a few slightly clearer visual indications of "what did that accomplish?" in the environments would have made the game immersive and intriguing for me from the start, rather than inscrutable and kind of boring as some of the early portion is now.
For those who truly want to figure out everything about The Witness on their own, I'm not going to explain here the structure of The Witness' world or your progression through it. But to the average player, I will say this: if you're playing this game alone and you get stuck thirty minutes or an hour in, feel no shame; look up a guide.
It's sort of a hard balance to strike, but you don't want to let the guide ruin The Witness' wonderful moments of epiphany by spoiling all the solutions and puzzle mechanics; if you use one, do so simply to orient yourself, to get a sense of what's related to what and to partition the game world into something with a bit more structure to it. Of course, that will likely involve spoiling a few answers, but it needn't ruin all the joy of discovery. I consulted some, and they certainly didn't ruin the game for me. With them to orient myself, I was able to really start immersing myself into the wonderful game Jonathan Blow and the rest of Thekla Inc. worked so hard to create.
See, The Witness does this really interesting thing with its world and your relation to it. Early on, the environments will all seem largely inconspicuous and kind of generic in terms of gameplay. It's all aesthetically pleasant from the get-go — impeccable, subtle, crisp sound design mixed with loads of amazing screenshot material — but the lack of tactile ways to directly "touch" it and the unchanging placement of the sun makes the island, at first, seem distant and a bit sterile. Then, as the game goes on, you'll find all this hidden meaning. You'll begin to see how particular and specific everything is. The island becomes like a brilliant still-life, giving The Witness an extra layer of subtle beauty and a calming, contemplative, atmosphere.
The world slowly becomes more meaningful over time, which is really cool, and, hell, I'll bet there are some great metaphors you could read into it all. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were even intentional, what with all the poetic and philosophical quotes scattered about.
Go in knowing as little as you can, don't rush, and don't expect anything to be terribly explicit. I wish there were a few small additions made for clarity's sake, but The Witness is an impressively expansive, undeniably lovely, and (eventually) satisfyingly mellow experience you'll be able to enjoy for 25 hours or more. Unless you're really hardcore, though, just be sure to do it with a little help from a friend or a guide.