Thoughts on: The Witness and Samorost 3

It might seem strange for me to pair these two quite different adventure/exploration/puzzle games into one post, but there’s a good reason for that, I feel. That is, apart from me playing them one after the other and not feeling like making separate posts. They’re both beautiful but flawed games. Flawed at the execution of the key ideas they aim to shine at.

Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is a game that, unlike his previous hit Braid, tries to be even more simplistic in it’s approach. Where Braid tried to turn the Super Mario-like platforming into a logical puzzle, The Witness is a first person exploration game about drawing lines. It does have an influence, Myst coming to mind, but it does things very differently. What The Witness tries to achieve is the magic of exploration, of discovery. Of seeing patterns in simple things, finding new perspectives, understanding rules and acting upon it. By drawing lines. It’s a brilliant concept, constantly reinforced with fantastic art design, that makes your first hours with the game be of genuine joy of wonder. An open island full of simple puzzles that can be approached and tried to be understood at any point.

But then the disaster strikes. While the game manages to keep up the magic and excitement of just finding and doing line drawing puzzles for a bit without any motivation apart from discovering more puzzles and doing them, it constantly shoots itself in the foot while trying to introduce “challenge” and clinging to bad ideas. For example, there’s a really nice puzzle with sounds and tones that gets dropped almost immediately despite the potential. But at the same time, the game stretches the “puzzle” of finding the correct pixel perfect spot on the map to see the solution for a very long painful time, despite the fact that it never really iterates or changes. And by the end, it starts outright hating the player by “challenging” them with completely random timed puzzles (and “random” means – actually random, including unsolvable configurations), epilepsy-inducing puzzles and puzzles that are exceptionally simple if you write them down, but “difficult” because of the perspective they’re presented in.

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And even the “ending” of the game is a complete misunderstanding of itself – it just drops you right back at the beginning with all the puzzles switched back to unsolved. Despite the fact that vast majority of puzzles cannot really be re-discovered and have a very clear set solution. So, instead of sense of wonder, you get annoyed the more of The Witness you play. And all the out of context audio quotes or documentary and movie segments feel like Jonathan Blow tried to make a game about a sample of himself, but painted the portrait in a way that feels a bit too flattering and pompous. Which is a shame, really, because the game ideas are fantastic and I’m not regretting that I played it. Then again, I did buy it not for a full price and it’s not like a vastly superior implementation of similar ideas doesn’t exist in Antichamber – the game that I highly recommend.

With Samorost 3 things are quite curious. It’s far from the first “proper” game by Amanita Design, but it’s the first “proper” game in Samorost series.

Original Samorost was what they excel at – something I tend to call “toybox design”, due to the fact that it wasn’t as much a game, as much as it was a little screen by screen world of interactions. Little things you click and pull and touch, which sing, dance, start strange sequences of events and etc. It was a simple Flash-based thing that was followed up by a slightly more “proper game”-like Samorost 2. Which, really, was still more of a fun experience to partake, rather than a game.

But after they started switching to doing the commercial releases things slightly changed. Machinarium, for example, was almost all about rather annoying puzzles with toy-like experience considerably lessened. Botanicula, on the other hand, was almost perfect in how playful it was and yet, how you still solved puzzles to proceed. Samorost 3 is, sadly, another case of unbalancing. While it’s full of fun little things to click and play with and you will be smiling most of the time you spend in the game, the rest of the game you will probably spend thinking “okay now what” or “ugh, really?”.

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The puzzles in the game, apart from few really fun exceptions, are show stoppers and some of the screen design just doesn’t make sense until you click everywhere and then finally notice that something is somehow related to something else. It’s not like this all the time, of course, and a lot of parts in the game are genuinely fun. But the flow is so much less fluid and fun than in Botanicula, the animations often have awkward pauses when you don’t know if you did something or not and the game, overall, just feels less exciting than Botanicula was. Even the story and world, as simple as they are in both, are so much more fun in their previous project. At least Floex’s music is as fantastic as ever.

But I loved the game as well, of course. Even if it felt failing being the fun playful experience it clearly wanted to be a lot of the time. Just as Witness failed to be the journey of wonder, discovery and learning a lot of the time. Yet, both games are very much worth the time if, perhaps, not the full price. Although, Samorost 3 is definitely going to be a more fun experience for most than The Witness.