The Witness: Candy Floss
Updated: Jul 21
Jonathan Blow’s (game designer and indie auteur) previous game Braid was an artistic platformer/puzzle game released in 2008. It was an interesting little title; twisted perception fascinate me as a story device. I also love storytelling subversion of classic fairy tale tropes. The man clearly has talent to make great games with narrative depth. The Witness is the second game by Jonathan Blow. Surely Jonathan Blow would push a wonderful story with a finely polished gameplay that is beautiful in its simplicity? Well, it’s nice candy floss.
There is no story in The Witness. No reason to start or end, as a result there absolutely nothing, on its own that is not a problem or even noteworthy. Glass Masquerade is an outstanding example of a story less puzzle game. Glass Masquerade didn’t need a story to be good. Indeed, all it had to have was fantastic gameplay (which it most certainly has). The Witness would have been perfectly fine if it had just allowed the player to explore the environment and solve the puzzles.
The problem is that The Witness wants to be profound. It wants to say something deep. The problem is that it regulates itself to various audio logs play poems and quotes from various poets and philosophers. They are seemingly thrown in at random with no care given to thematic cohesion. The ending is the worst with this, just a bundle of words of phases tossed together like the most haphazardly constructed salad, complete with a dusting of pretentious nonsense. The Witness wants to have its thought provoking cake and eat it. However, it cannot be bothered to be legitimately thought provoking. It is content to be candy floss.
The Witness (much like Glass Masquerade) has one basic core mechanic. Glass Masquerade is succession of jigsaw puzzles with pretty lighting and colours. The Witness is a succession of line puzzles with pretty lighting and no music. I personally find nothing wrong with this. The puzzles are kept interesting by adding new challenges. What starts out as a simple guiding a line from one side to the other and ends with twisting perceptive and grouping suns into special sections of the puzzle. The escalation of difficulty is smooth and well executed. It insures that the player does not get bored of the single mechanic. Gameplay is kept interesting and enjoyable through escalation and introduction of new challenges.
An empty world
As I will mention in my graphics and art style section. The Witness is a beautiful game; the map is expansive with dozens of ways to get from point A to B. Not an inch is wasted on the island and navigation is essay and fun. However it's totally vacant of personality. The island never escapes feeling that it’s a theme park,instead of a place one could imagine themselves going to.
Unlike, say the Finch Household in What Remains of Edith. Which, (despite the bizarre proportions it took) felt like a place that people lived in. Not in small part to how messy the house is when Edith Finch arrives along with the rooms that had been turned into Shines. In conclusion, it’s memorable while telling a story in every room. The Witness’s lack of context does not help matters. For all I know Jonathan Blow could have intended the island to be some sort of convoluted test area. (It could be considering where it goes but information is weak regardless.)
A line in the graph
There is also a wasted opportunity with integrating the puzzles into the environment. No matter how beautiful the scenery, you will have to stare at a graph and draw a line through said graph paper. For instance there are some examples of the environment being integrated into the puzzles (lighting in the desert area for instance). However there are only in a few select locations. Majority of the time you will be staring at graph paper.
Graphics and art style:
The Witness is a beautiful work of art. The bold choice of colours, bright and stark in their distinctiveness allow for some of the best visuals I have seen. The somewhat cartoonish stylings make The Witness not only timeless but even more beautiful. I just wish the world itself had more personality to compliment visuals. In other words, The Witness looks pretty but has all the depth and interest of a paddling pool.
There is a quote from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that I cannot help but feel appropriate for this game. Its Macbeth famous soliloquy starting with the words “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and Tomorrow .“ Here it goes:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This, along with my candy floss metaphor is what I feel about the game as a whole. A game full of sound and fury but signifying, nothing. Pompous but ultimately worth nothing special in the long term. Its candy floss. It tastes and looks good but has little of memorable substance. Games that mean something, that are memorable in some capacity will always be remembered. The Witness is above all, pure entertaining sugar. But not much else compared to the filet mignon (Bioshock or anything in my Hall of Fame ) that it seemingly wants to be. There is no shame in being candy floss but you cannot turn it into fine dining with a few poems and phases.