The Witness is a puzzle wrapped in a puzzle inside a puzzle


I’m looking at a puzzle. I’m considering how to solve it. I’m pretty sure there’s no way to solve it. Literally no way to solve it. It simply can’t work. It’s nonsense. It’s clearly impossible. You might as well ask me to make two plus two equal five. But then something clicks, suddenly and decisively. A Copernican shift introduces itself into a simple set of inviolable rules. The center has moved and now everything turns into something else entirely. It feels like a miracle of geometry, of logic, like oh, hey, a fourth dimension has opened up where a wall used to be. Maybe Newtonain shift is a better way to put it. What seemed impossible is now as simple as letting gravity take an apple.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Disappointing! I've bought it, and spent an hour or so. It is gratifying to learn the language of the puzzles, and the puzzle language opens new puzzle worlds to you. But... I was concerned that it'd be much like Braid. Brilliant mechanics, that mean nothing from a narrative sense. Sure, Braid had meaning... to one guy, Jonathan Blow, but not to me! Looks like he doesn't even bother w/ Witness.

It IS exciting in the sense that I can now return to learning the language of Lara's ice axe!


Such a great looking game with so many terrific puzzles, but at about my fifth hour in I realized this was going to be it. There's no story in The Witness to explain what happened to the island or why you're there. It and you just are - because without those two things, there would be no game.


While I love The Witness--and am happy to keep playing it for the little squirts of endorphins I get each time I have moments of revelation and successfully learn its admittedly meaningless rules--I also totally get and appreciate this fascinating review. I think it touches on lots of profound points about the nature of enjoyment, and challenge, and what constitutes a game, and extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, and much more.

Tom, I'd love to hear you discuss the game on a podcast with Rob Zacny. Perhaps an Idle Weekend appearance?


To be fair, though, James Burke is awesome. The Day the Universe Changed blew my mind in the 80s.


" I might have preferred The Witness as a long-term proposition, taking time off to let my head clear, to occasionally ponder it, to spend time elsewhere for a while."

Indeed, this seems to be the ideal way to play The Witness. It seems to me that your distaste for it has to do with you solving so many complex puzzles in a short period. It's probably best to chip away at this game over time.

"But there’s no other way to play The Witness. As with any language, your Witness skills will atrophy if you don’t use them."

Fair point, but it does seem like you beat this game fairly quickly assuming you started on tuesday. 500 puzzles in three days.. that's a lot.

I'm not sure if this game is for me. I wish there was a demo of it.


So that's the Witness. Now what about Western civilization?

I have this idea for a game. Really more of an "AI" like ELIZA though. The great insight behind ELIZA is that a certain kind of conversation has essentially no content, only form. Does the same thing apply to Plato's dialogues?

The game would be implemented entirely as Windows message boxes with "Yes" and "No" buttons. Your computer is trying to tell you something. But of course it can't, because it's a computer. It doesn't know anything. But maybe if you keep banging your head against it, you will go crazy and be willing to believe it. Or something else. Maybe anything.

But, you know, it's a lot of work. It would be a lot of work to play. It's a lot of work to make a civilization. And for what? To understand something? Understand what? And is there even really any understanding of anything at all, there?

I keep coming back to this, and things like it:

The philosophers of Greece have made much ado to explain nature, and not one of their systems has remained firm and unshaken, each being overturned by its successor. It is vain to refute them; they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another.


Review copies went out well before the release. I've had more than a week with it. In fact, the reason my review didn't go up as soon as the embargo lifted last Monday is that I was taking my time finishing it.


How does it compare to the Talos Principle? I loved Talos: it was puzzles for puzzles' sake, which I didn't mind since they were great ones, but there was also the cherry on top of the storytelling, which was also very nice.


Yeah, I don't think this one would be for me. I didn't really click with Braid, although I appreciated what it did from my perspective as I watched a friend play my copy and occasionally contributed insights. I never would have finished it on my own, though. I kind of suspected that The Witness would prove to be equally ill-matched with my puzzling preferences, and your review reinforces that impression, but it's the $40 pricetag that means I'll probably never find out one way or the other. It seems reasonable for a game that's reportedly dense with content and certainly took a lot of effort to create, but... it's a lot to ask for something I am just not sure about.

I think a big part of it is that although I really enjoy learning how to apply rules in puzzles and figure out the tactics and tricks of them, I do not like being asked to suss them out on my own. This is why I never got on with Myst. I also like some narrative in my puzzle games - Portal, DROD, Talos Principle, these games all worked for me in substantial part because of the story trappings around them - but it's not always required. I did beat Hexcells, after all.


That would be fun, but I thought Rob was contractually allowed to only talk about strategy games! :)

I just recorded a *really* gratifying podcast with Stephen Totilo from Kotaku and Matt Peckham from, both of whom loved the game. I'll be posting that next week.


The Witness is more open than Talos Principle, which is a big part of its appeal. And, yeah, if you were into Talos Principle -- I wasn't -- you'd probably love The Witness. Just keep in mind you probably won't get the cherry.


This response changed my mind on whether to buy this game or not. Your above review presents a persuasive argument that the game is just a bundle of pointless exercises. But if you put it on par with Talos, that means you either didn't get the large philosophical undercurrent to Talos or you didn't care for a game that presents its elements in a deep, meditative approach. So I guess I am going to buy the game and hope that whatever distaste you have for what I think of as a meditative puzzle experience (more enjoyable, in a way, than the distractive bonkers and ridiculously easy puzzles of a game like Portal 2) is a point of personal preference.

I guess what I am saying is that I think you simply dislike a genre. Which stinks, because it so happens that that genre is one of my favorites just as your reviews are some of the best out there. Unless, of course, I am mistaken and am reading too far into your Talos comparison.


Sounds like it's existentialism: the game.


If you like puzzle games, and you enjoy just solving puzzles, The Witness will certainly satisfy you. My only reservation with the game, is I'm not sure it's worth spending $40 on. That's a hefty price, but as I'm currently only 8 hours into the game and 200 +20ish puzzles into it, maybe that will change. I will say the developer certainly had to put a lot of time into the game to do what he did.

One huge plus is the game has a ton of unique elements to the puzzles that I've never seen in other puzzle games.

I'm pretty sure if The Witness had a sarcastic, witty robot talking at you the whole way through, it would be game of the year.


The reviewers who gave the two low scores on metacritic go to great pains to justify their positions and offer apologies for not liking The Witness, almost saying "It's not you, it 's me." Odd.

* * *

The problem solving parts of our minds exist because we must manipulate the environment in order to survive, or wrt other people, coordinate in order to survive. We learn the rules of the world in order to effect change, we learn language in order to communicate--that is our nature. These things are means to ends and have no value in and of themselves. Good videogames understand this, like Portal or Minecraft.

Yes, solving puzzles can be fun as intellectual masterbation: the popularity crosswords, Sudoku, etc are proof of that. But their appeal lay in exercising parts of the mind that do affect the world. Math and words are connected to the real world and that is why we have learned those languages. The puzzles that I've dome in The Witness are wholly divorced from real life. They are connect-the-dots puzzles with no picture at the end, or maze puzzles with no cheese.

So I'm left trying to understand the adoration. Maybe the game allows those who never get the rush of insight or the pleasure of solving a problem to feel that way. For those who do, the Witness is a huge waste of time, our most precious resource.

Now I'm off to Ikea so I can feel the rush of insight when I solve the conundrum of 'bulid a standing desk', using nothing but a single Allen wrench and a vague pictogram.


There's a line puzzle game with similar mechanics. So some of what you've learnt might carry over. It's called Alcazar. Your point is mostly valid though. In his talks Jonathan goes on about how there are "fundamental truths" and how you can find them everywhere in nature. So in theory those puzzles could be of relevance outside of this puzzle game. Maybe that's what he tried to illustrate with those environment based puzzles. But those felt a bit too forced or accidental, and if they are of relevance it's of highly technical and specialized nature (e.g. "witness" is a mathematical term relating to solving problems/puzzles). It doesn't give general insights to people, emotions, relationships. That's what made those statues feel so out of place. They clearly exhibit relationships but it doesn't connect to the puzzles. It's about the individual doing science, how it feels to explore a technical space.

What's interesting is how The Witness decision to have players figure out the rules caused the panel interface to be less enjoyable to use. Alcazar's interface is much more in line with how you would actually solve those puzzles. You fill in segments. When you draw a line in The Witness you have to hold a button all the way through. You basically already have to know how to solve it. In fact I took screenshots of harder puzzles and then solved them in Photoshop because that made it more enjoyable and easy, especially for tetris elements.

I wonder where cheating starts with this game. Are you supposed to play it without any tools, not even pen and paper? If this game is about science, then it should be OK to build your own tools to the point where you overlay multiple screenshots in Photoshop to make it easier for yourself. But strangely it is not okay to ask other people for help by going on forums though science is all about collaboration and exchange of knowledge. Ultimately it's only a videogame. An artificial challenge. A space within you create no value except maybe make yourself a more valueable person. None of us have really discovered something new. We're only retracing the developer's steps.


small point - in the witness you can tap the button to start a line and tap it again to finish, you don't have to hold it all the way through


Have you found any environmental puzzles?


Can someone give me a summary of the philosophy or worldview or empowerment agenda that supposedly underlies the game?