The Witness

The Braid Guy came back with another game for the suckers at IGN to take too seriously. Braid had a decent Prince of Persia-esque mechanic where you never run out of the going-back-in-time potion. It also had some walls of text that people gave far too much credit to. In The Witness, you solve line puzzles. That’s the whole game. It kind of reminds me of the circuit-board routing puzzles I saw in System’s Twilight as a kid–they were quite a bit different, but mostly because they were just one small part of a diverse game that didn’t cost 6 million dollars to make, wasn’t sold for $40 (it was shareware), and never made me want to vomit.

The motion sickness is a real problem. People have blamed all kinds of things, some of which was adjusted in post-release patches, and obviously didn’t stop me from feeling it, a year late to the party. I think most of the so-called causes were harmless; when you’re starting to feel ill, every little thing you sense just exacerbates that. So, while the annoying humming sounds coming from every object in the world aren’t going to cause anyone to throw up, they’re especially unwelcome when your head’s already spinning. One interesting root cause I heard suggested was that the camera pivots on the face of an imaginary sphere when you turn, instead of on a point. It could also just be the the coasty way you move that calls the original Half-Life to mind. What I can say is that this revolution in motion sickness is certainly the most obvious thing to show for the immense costs of the new game engine. God forbid Blow could’ve made this game in Unity and saved me a few helpings of Dramamine.

The most charitable thing I can say is that some of those line puzzles are very cleverly set up. Often, though, it doesn’t even feel like a good puzzle game, in the manner of Portal, where you feel like you’re a genius for solving something. Often my reaction to figuring out how to do something was, “Are you fucking kidding me?”Some puzzle mechanics are just awful, like the sunlight-glare puzzles where you have to look up from an incredibly small area to know that there’s even anything to see. Even worse are the ones where trees cast shadows on a line puzzle and you have to incorporate the shadows into the solution, or the silhouettes of other objects. And a lot of the game’s difficulty is just keeping arbitary color and shape rules straight in your head. Okay, so the different colors of asterisks are allowed to share space, as long as they remain in sets of two of their own color, but if colored dots are in the same space, then…

I can offer up no substantive reason for this to be a big open-world 3D perspective-changing game when its best puzzles would work as well stripped of their context and used in a bargain game for phones. You’d never have to squint at some Piccassoesque interpretation of a path, frustrated and unsure if you were tracing it correctly even after finding the hints, and you’d always encounter puzzles in the best order, instead of tripping over the advanced combo-forms of something you’ve never seen before.

And what a load of shit Blow’s idea of interactive storytelling is. Even Braid seems earnest and true after the absolute nonsense here. The audio logs, talented voice actors aside, are just the most Blow-esque drivel imaginable if the couple I found were an accurate sample of the whole, which I can be reasonably sure of. Then there are the film clips and other little easter eggs, like that embarrassing ego trip of a secret ending. The less said on that, the better.

But is it art? Are games art now? I think it’s funny to suggest that we could ever be boldly treading new ground with a line puzzle game where you walk past pretty sculptures and architecture. Games where you’re endlessly shoved around by people trying to reduce your hitpoints, where you never speak a word, or where a couple of loosely-defined systems interact, things break, and hijinks ensue–these can be a hundred times more boldly creative, useful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and so on. But I’ve probably said this stuff a thousand times by now.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.
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