Critical Play: Puzzles

For this week’s critical play I played The Witness a puzzle adventure game developed by Thekla Inc. on my PC via Steam. In this game you play as a young man who has just woken up on an island with amnesia. With no memories, you must walk around solving puzzles in the hopes of gaining clues.

This is a game aimed at people who enjoy paying attention to every detail they can in the hopes of solving one of the 500 puzzles this game has to offer. Unlike other puzzle games like Myst, which has a variety of different puzzles to solve, the core of each puzzle of The Witness is the same. Draw a line from point A to point B, but this is a game that truly exhausts every possible way this simple mechanic can be modded.

I think the three most important formal elements in this game are the rules, resources, and the boundaries. For each puzzle the rules change, there’s usually some prerequisite you need to accomplish before you can draw your line to the finish zone. But the game doesn’t provide a lot of resources, at least in the obvious sense. There is no hint system, no hand-holding. As soon as I pressed play on the game, there I was in the world, no title screen even just an unspoken “go”. As for boundaries, as this is an open-world game you are allowed to go anywhere on the island meaning if you get stuck on one puzzle, just leave and come back later.

I think the intended fun for this game was challenge and discovery, both of which I think were accomplished. These are not easy puzzles, and the difficulty can ramp up pretty quickly depending on where you go. But there is a sense of constant curiosity thinking about what kind of puzzle you may stumble along next.

I’m not the greatest at puzzles, so there was a lot of frustration with figuring out the rules of each zone, but even when I was able to figure them out, I still sometimes struggled with finding the correct path to take. I will say though that very few things come close to the sense of accomplishment at finally completing one of these puzzle.

As for changes I would make, I would add a map that marked what puzzles you have and haven’t done as I notice that it got hard to keep track of what puzzles I didn’t complete once I left them in favor of trying others. But, it would be a map that slowly gets filled in as you make your way around, to keep that sense of discovery.

Overall, I liked The Witness with the time I was able to play it, but I don’t know if I’m much of a fan of maybe receiving clues to the story for completing a puzzle, if every puzzle offered a clue then possibly, but it seems those are pretty sparse from what I was able to find.

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