Review: The Witness (PS4)

2016 Golden Minecart Awards:

  • Most Unique Experience (PS4)

Formats:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • PC
  • iOS (TBD)

Format/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: The Witness
Format: PSN (3.76 GB)
Release Date: January 26, 2016
Publisher: Thekla Inc.
Developer: Thekla Inc.
Original MSRP: $39.99 (US), €36.99 (EU), £29.99 (UK)
ESRB Rating: E
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Almost immediately when beginning the journey into The Witness I was reminded of NASA’s Voyager missions 1 and 2. Both launched in 1977 and carried with them a golden record album containing the natural sounds of Earth along with music. They’re also marked with images of humankind along with an indication of the position of our planet in our solar system.

I mention this because I have always been fascinated by the idea that an intelligent life form which evolved extra-solarly in some far-off part of the galaxy might find this weird disc and decipher it having utterly no reference.

The instructions for reviewers which came with the download code for this game required that the reviewer not spoil anything by way of the review. We at PS Nation abhor spoilers, even when, as with Episode Four of Life Is Strange, the spoilers were necessary to explain the score. You will find nary a spoiler here.

Gameplay:
You begin at the beginning. Where are you? Why are you where you are? Why is this the beginning and what came before the beginning? I won’t tell. You don’t want me to tell.

The game begins and you find out to not expect something to happen every time you’ve finished a series of puzzles. Sometimes something will happen, like unlocking an area. Sometimes nothing will happen. At least not immediately. Maybe you need to work-out all the puzzles in one area. Maybe you do not.

Solving each puzzle is its own reward. That reward is knowing that you’ve solved a series of puzzles, the creation of which has been overseen by one of the greatest minds in game development. I know how that seems. It seems as though I am giving the game a pass. I’m not. If there was no fun or satisfaction quotient that would be different. But for a puzzle-solving aficionado it’s hard to deny that Jonathan Blow is a craftsman.

There is no tutorial, as such, apart from an on-screen instruction about which buttons to push for “running”. Perhaps a reaction to the outcry over The Chinese Room not instructing players about fast-walking controls in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. These “running” controls are quite fast, unlike the ones in EGttR.

… entirely up to you …
You are playing in first-person, which is wonderful considering all the magnificent vistas and views on hand when you reach the outdoors, which is where a great deal of the gameplay resides, initially.

You may wonder, “Where am I and what is this place about?” You’ll have puzzles to solve in order to progress from your immediate environs. When you have solved the initial puzzles you’ll find yourself in a gorgeous open-world with varying structures and natural environments so beautiful you’ll wonder. You’ll be in a state of wonder. And then you’ll wander.

You’ll wonder if your wandering should be of a focused nature. Should I do one thing before another or should I just behave like a kid in this candy store?

That is entirely up to you.

The Witness_20160118180055

“I can solve most of the puzzles in this series but I’m stumped by the penultimate puzzle!” That’s perfectly fine. Leave it and move on. Or don’t. Stick it out and dig-in your heels. My own advice is to leave it after a time and come back later. Maximize your enjoyment and minimize your stress.

You shouldn’t let your stress level regarding these puzzles ruin your enjoyment of the game. There are plenty more where that came from and, as importantly, sometimes in life we have to know when to fish and when to cut bait. I think I just made an Indie video game joke.

In some series of puzzles you may move to the next puzzle by tapping R1.

In some puzzles the game may instruct by limiting movement.

Hieroglyphs?

Oh Jonathan Blow, you are a beautiful, mad bastard.

I found a spoken quote hidden in plain site, (HEY EDITOR: NOT A MISSPELLING) (HEY REVIEWER: AS YOU WISH) by Albert Einstein. You can listen to it more times than one. Do that. Achieve understanding and implied intent. Or go crazy when you find another from the 15th Century which seems in opposition. There was another which went on and on for some minutes. The problem with these is that they are pretty dry. Even outside the context of a video game they are dry.

… Because you have to …
The audio recordings all seem to be from various epistles written by different people and spoken by some talented voice over artists who don’t seem to be performing impressions of the writers. I have coined the two following terms to describe these letters.

Epistlobvia: /əˈpisəlˈäbvēə/ A letter of great intended importance read aloud in the video game The Witness, the point of which the gamer understands long before the recording concludes and long after the gamer wishes they hadn’t pushed the play button.

Epistlobscura: /əˈpisəl’opˈskuː.ra/ A letter of great intended importance read aloud in the video game The Witness, the point of which, the gamer begins to think, is to make the game designer feel smarter than you.

There are solutions within puzzles leading to caverns with puzzles inside solutions. This is in no way a casual game apart from the fact that you can solve a few before dinner and then move on. Maybe. While you’re dining you may find your mind wanders back to that last bit you played. Eurekas might awaken you at 3:16 AM as you curse yourself for being a gamer in the first place all the while loving how much you love this game. Also you might hate this game with every fiber of your being and want to strangle the developer for keeping you up all night… until you play it again tomorrow after work. Because you have to.

The Witness_20160119200834

You’ll get to some puzzles and have to think, “Considering my surroundings, what is it this puzzle is trying to SAY to me? Because there isn’t one obvious solution AT ALL!” Then you’ll reflect on your LIFE and maybe think, “Dammit! WHY didn’t I finish my post-graduate degree in ALIEN LOGIC and applied Hawking Thought Processes?!?!”

Actually that’s unfair. You can suss it out. Just back out of the area and find some more “remedial” puzzles which will eventually teach you the tools you need to come back here and kill this one. Maybe. It is all within your grasp. Also never forget that once you have unlocked an area it stays unlocked. So at least there is one puzzle you never have to solve again. *cough* Windmill. *cough*

There’s a map. You have to find it. You won’t know that’s what you’ve found until you do.

… burn the box …
Frustrated? Take a break. You’ve done enough. When you go back, particularly after a night’s sleep, you may find what you thought was too hard is far more obvious.

It may come sooner for others than it did for me but just at the point I was about to give up, although I could not get the game out of my MIND, I broke through a wall of perspective, comprehension, and partial understanding.

It’s like that Facebook meme: One Does Not Simply PLAY The Witness. Or this meme: So! You spent 40 bucks on The Witness and gave-up after 16 hours. Tell me again how much you love puzzle games. Those memes are coming and rightfully so.

Use the environment… think outside the box. Actually burn the box.

The Witness_20160120181328

Do you ever think, “I am not proud. I am perfectly happy with how smart I am. I tend to keep from setting myself on fire. I know where the toilet is. All things considered, I get by.”? This game may not be for you. It is probably not enough that we keep from browning our pants in lieu of the loo.

The downside is the frustration factor. Solve nine puzzles and get stumped on the tenth and last one for twenty minutes until you give up and move on. Rinse and repeat. I played for over twenty hours and apart from seeing gorgeous art direction I don’t feel I accomplished much.

… something’s more than afoot …
I heard some highfalutin’ ramblings, listened to wind and gravel and walked a lot. Running fast is also an option I enjoyed. I walked all over the map, as much as my puzzle solving allowed. I went to the highest point! My lowest point was a series of puzzles where you indicate the presence of something in a kind of array. And in typical fashion when you arrive at the final puzzle the indicator is not present at all. So do you have to guess the answer?

Did I mention every time you fail one in this group you have to re-do the previous puzzle to activate the one you screwed-up because the puzzle-maker left out the part about how to solve it? And so in frustration I screwed-up the previous puzzle and was now back two puzzles. It only all turned-out alright after a night’s rest and a day’s contemplation and the realization of how to solve this puzzle struck me. My reward was a few tantalizing hints concerning what might be afoot here on this island. And something’s more than afoot!

Visuals:
Apart from, “DAMN! It’s pretty” words fail. Look.

Audio:
Ambient sounds. Well recorded and/or reproduced. Wind, footfalls, surf. Mechanical and digital sounds. The sound can be subtle so I employed my headphones for better clarity. No music.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

… a work of phenomenal genius or the digital ramblings of a hipster lunatic …
Conclusion:
We are looking at the height of contemporary game development genius. Akin to Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda from the world of American Musical Theater or Stephen King or Martin Scorsese. These are artists whose works are accessible but can also contain a bitterness which challenges.

The major difference between those auteurs and Jonathan Blow, is that Mr. Blow seems to be so involved with his own cleverness and superior mind that he may have forgotten it is we normal folk who have to play this game which is the primary negative element of The Witness.

At times you may feel as though the game is designed by someone who needs you to read his mind and then perform some prestidigitation to solve a puzzle. Never mind trying to discern the meaning behind the whole thing.

The bottom line is that either this game will be adjudicated a work of phenomenal genius or the digital ramblings of a hipster lunatic. What is absolutely true is that we won’t know for some long time because Jonathan Blow has said that there are one hundred hours of puzzles herein. And therein lies the rub. The game arrived to reviewers nine days before the embargo ended. It is virtually impossible to beat the entire game before rendering a verdict with absolute certainty. I will give it my personal score but you, dear reader, as in all cases of reviewed media will have to decide for yourself.

Score:
8.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Keith Dunn-Fernández

Keith Dunn-Fernández

An actor/director and more lucratively an Administrative Assistant at a small paper company in NYC, Keith loves his games. And he loves to write. And he is a bit of a sarcasmo.

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