The Witness is one of the strangest games I've played. At times, it feels like an incredibly clever piece of gaming. At others, the entire thing seems like one giant joke by the developer on the player. Likewise, I could have gone some rather strange directions with this review, turning it into a rant on postmodernism, but I've decided to keep it grounded.
Jonathan Blow's first game, Braid, is widely believed to be one of the earliest independent hits, and inspired a whole generation of games which would take major creative risks, and be developed by a small team on a skeleton budget. Today, the independent gaming scene is thriving, and it can all be traced back to Braid.
As a first person puzzle game, The Witness' most surprising and commendable aspect is its open world. After an opening "tutorial" section, you are set free in an island. This feeling of freedom is quite unique for what's purely a puzzle game. There are different regions, each with its own theme, but you can approach them in any order. The open world is beautifully realized, with an unique, vibrant aesthetic. Aided by the rather creative use of subtle ambient sounds and music, there's a certain sense of immersion that I haven't really experienced in a puzzle game before. Further still, each region appropriately sets the mood for the theme of the puzzle.
Most of the games 650 puzzles are basically solving panels. I love puzzle games like Portal or The Talos Principle, but I'm not too fond of "2D" panels like Sudoku. Nevertheless, The Witness nicely mixes things up with a wide array of logic based puzzles - more than I would have expected given most of it is simply interacting with these 2D panels. Of course, as you'd expect for a game that offers you complete freedom in how you approach each puzzle, you don't need to solve all of them. That's for the best, because this game has some ridiculous puzzles. Some puzzle games have frustrating moments through some oversight in game design. But in The Witness, it feels very much like some puzzles are designed to frustrate and infuriate you.
Oh, and let me not get started about the "viewing rooms". Yeah, I won't get started. But I'll say that I'm convinced Jonathan Blow is just having a laugh.
Right, back to the puzzles. Like I was saying, fortunately, you don't have to solve all puzzles. About 2/3rds of them is enough to unlock the ending, and finish the game. Though there are hidden endings which I couldn't be bothered to unlock. I do love the hidden minigame where the enivonments turn into puzzles themselves, though.
Within those 2/3rds though, The Witness is a tremendous experience. The process of discovery, trial and error is endlessly rewarding, particularly when each puzzle is so cleverly designed, set in a surprising immersive open world. In a world where I could selectively delete my memories, I'd fondly remember the experience of the 2/3rds. But alas, The Witness doesn't just want to be loved, it wants to provoke and bewilder you as well.