Warning: this post may contain spoilers
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING
What I Did
The game took me around twenty hours to beat, and I stretched that out over the course of about two months. Sometimes I would dive in deep and play non-stop for an hour or two, but most of the time it was me playing it almost piecemeal, for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Enough to get through one or two panels that I had been stuck on and then stop again.
I would have liked to do longer gaming sessions with it, but I found that I sort of had finite mental resources to apply to the game. I would hit a panel, be thoroughly perplexed, stare at it for 10 minutes while trying different solutions in my head, on paper, and in the game. Nothing would work, so I'd stop the game. The next day I would boot it up and, more often than not, have the solution in a minute or two--sometimes even the first try! I think my brain was working on these in the background.
Something that helped me massively was not letting myself get intimidated by the game. As I would work myself farther and farther down a strand of puzzles, I would instinctively start to feel the pressure that they were getting harder and harder each time. Rather than feed into that feeling, I simply reassured myself that each puzzle was its own thing, and each one had a solution right there, staring me in the face. I just had to find it.
What I Loved
I think the game is gorgeous. Stunning. Beautiful. An absolute joy to look at. It made me realize that we don't often get vibrant color in games that aren't pixel art. I also think the world is beautifully designed. The island is a memorable place with lots to explore.
I also loved the game's ability to teach you its rules wordlessly. The line puzzles aren't just puzzles--they're a language. The whole game felt like some geometric force was trying to communicate with me, but first it had to teach me its alphabet, grammar, and syntax.
Furthermore, I can't tell you how many times I would fight for a solution to a difficult puzzle, feeling it was nearly impossible all the way, only to find the seemingly one right answer. The only way it could possibly work. The next panel? The same damn layout but with an added rule that ruined my prior solution! I loved that the game made me rethink my own thoughts and forced me to see, quite literally, that there is often more than one way to solve a problem.
What I Felt
I was probably 12 to 14 hours into the game when I accidentally stumbled onto the knowledge that there were lines that could be activated outside the panels. I can't remember where I was but holy hell can I remember the feeling. I've got goosebumps right now as I type this from revisiting it in my memory. It was the sublime feeling you get from a great plot twist. There was a sense of revelation, the feeling of frission, and a newfound respect and appreciation for the design that went into the game.
What's sad is that it shouldn't have taken me that long. I saw the circles and lines throughout the environment as I made my way around the island and just assumed that it was a sort of visual motif, or maybe a stylistic flair, much like the game's sort of cartoony, polygonal look. Finding out that I could, in fact, trace them just like every other line I'd been making for the past ten hours was absolutely flooring to me. Experiencing that moment is one of the high points in all of my gaming history. It was the moment the game went from "this is definitely a clever game!" to "FUCK...this game is SO. DAMN. SMART." After that moment I think I spent two hours frantically running around the island hunting environmental lines. Now that I knew what to look for, they were EVERYWHERE. Hiding in plain sight! I was stunned. In absolute awe.
At probably about the 15 hour mark, I found the movie room and had the input for one movie. It was a scene in which a man lights a candle and attempts to walk across a courtyard, and each time the candle goes out, he returns to the beginning. I took this to be a metaphor for the game--specifically that it is about the journey rather than the destination. As such, this was the point that I realized I wasn't going to get some revelatory story at the end of the game, and that making it to the end of the game, while definitely a goal, was not what gave the game meaning.
The sub-takeaway from the film was the idea that the effort is worth it. The man in the film could have just crossed the courtyard and lit the candle at the end. The fact that he didn't showed self-restraint and a committment to the rule. I took this to be a comment on how the game is played. I could have looked up solutions to the puzzles online and just inputted them easily as a way of breezing through the game. While it would get me to where I was going (the end), what was the point? My playthrough was the lit candle route--harder because I was forcing myself to put in the work rather than taking the easy way out.
Oh, and did I mention that the film also had an environmental line at the end you could activate if you went behind the screen while it was running? Genius. This game is SO. DAMN. SMART.
What I Didn't Love
Because I didn't pay attention to detail and made assumptions when I shouldn't have, I didn't realize that I could enter the mountain without all the beacons activated. My gamer mind simply saw OBVIOUS GATED DESTINATION and OBVIOUS DESTINATION GATE KEYS and went "yup, gotta get all of these to unlock the end!" As such, I overplayed my game a bit by doing all of that first. I was all set for entering the mountain to be the ending, especially because the village beacon felt like a "final exam" to the game, incorporating all of the other puzzle types. I kept coming back to it after learning a new symbol/rule and would chip away here and there until I finally got through all of it.
As such, when I got into the mountain and there were even more puzzles I was miffed. My steam had run out. Add to that I'm pretty susceptible to motion sickness in games, so the flashing, scrolling, and color-cycling puzzles were deeply unpleasant for me. I literally had to look away from the screen for the scrolling ones. I solved them on paper and inputted them with the panels in my peripheral vision.
The double-sided room below those was equal parts brilliant and frustrating, though I was impressed as hell with the room with the four sub-puzzles that fed into the larger one on the floor. Unfortunately, I ended the game on quite a low note, as the pillar puzzles at the very end turned my stomach on account of the rotating camera. I was able to power through those only because I knew I was so close to the end.
What I'm Left With
While I didn't love the ending, I, as previously mentioned, don't think it's about that. The game gave me 20 hours of puzzle-solving bliss in a beautiful, rich environment. It gave me legitimate chills when I figured out its secret. It made me think, it made me work, and it made me feel legitimately fulfilled. Good puzzle games make you feel baffled and then they turn around and make you feel brilliant. This one made me feel all sorts of brilliant.
The game has so many legitimately clever moments. I loved the pagoda area where you have to look through branches at the right angle to see the solution. The last puzzle has two pieces of the answer, but a section is missing. After traipsing around, trying every possible visual angle, I look down and find a branch broken off at my feet. The missing piece. Brilliant.
It was filled with little things like these. Little thoughtful twists or nudges. Each puzzle strand was an iterative sequence, and each time you thought you knew where it was headed, they'd push it further. Then further. More and more. Often in ways you wouldn't expect. It's not just that the idea of the game is good but that its execution is so rich and thoughtful that it makes me reverent.
As for post-game stuff (because I know there's a ton I haven't gotten to), I'm taking a break from the game right now, but I might return to it a little later. I kept screenshots of puzzles I didn't solve or environmental elements that I was pretty sure were really activatable but that I couldn't quite figure out (the brown railroad tracks in the white limestoney area, for example).
I have the inputs for a couple more movies that I haven't watched, so I'll probably go back for those. I know there's a challenge area as well, and I'm presumably equipped for it given that I did all of the beacons, but I don't know if I'm up for that. Not just yet, at least.
What You Can Help Me With
For those of you that have gone through the post-game content, do you recommend it? Are there certain things I should focus on? I'm not terribly concerned about spoilers, but if there's something "big" like the environmental line revelation, maybe just give me a hint or point me in the right direction.
I also have a couple of lingering questions. Feel free to answer them unless you feel that it's better if I try to figure it out by myself.
What do the individual, standalone panels lying around the island do (the gray ones with the triangles)? I've figured out the rule, I just don't know their purpose.
Does finding all the environmental lines serve any larger purpose?
Is there story or lore in the game? Does the island or its frozen inhabitants get explained? I activated a few audiologs, but those were mostly philosophical ponderings rather than narrative.
How on earth do I get that environmental line with the railroad tracks? Of all the ones that I haven't been able to figure out how to get, that one's bothering me the most.
Finally, to anyone who's played the game (which is hopefully anyone who read this), I'd love to hear your experience and thoughts. What was The Witness like for you?
EDIT: Writing the post inspired me to go back into the game instead of sleeping. I watched two other videos I had found inputs for. One was a woman talking about freeing yourself from want, and the other was a man talking about science and knowledge. Interesting stuff.
Then I started exploring and I found an environmental line made by the negative space in the sky when properly bounded by a cloud and wall from the exact right angle. This game is SO. DAMN. SMART.
EDIT 2: Disregard where I said I was going to take a break from the game. I'm diving back in. I want to explore and find these environmental lines. It's so satisfying when you find one.
There was one on a bridge leading from the village towards the foresty area with the orange trees. I could see it from the ground and knew it definitely was one, but I could never quite position myself right to actually trace it. I tried climbing in the castle area since it seemed like I needed to be elevated, but that didn't work. I tried it from the rooftops in the village, and that didn't work. Then I looked: the tower in the middle of the village! I'd forgotten to try from there because once I got to the top of that I headed straight for the mountain. Sure enough, that was the spot.
Also, can we talk about how the sound is so satisfying when you get one? So good.
EDIT 3: The game might be trying to teach me a lesson in freeing myself from want. Now that I'm fired up to dive back into it, it's hard crashing after I start it up. It loads fine and I can walk a few steps, then it locks up my whole system.
I'm running it on Linux through Proton and tried all the different Proton versions assuming that was the culprit (it has crashed before) but the outcome is the same. I might be technologically barred from going further, which I guess is in the spirit of the game's ending and philosophy, right?
EDIT 4: My OS had some graphics library updates for me today, and after installing them I'm back in business--no more crashing! (Sub edit: I spoke too soon. It crashed after about half an hour, but that's way better than what I was getting before). I spent a while traipsing around the island, looking for environmental lines. It's amazing how, in hindsight, so many areas or destinations that I thought were just kind of dead space are actually strategic locations for environmental lines.
A good example is the very beginning of the game. You can get onto the roof of the overhang you first walk out from. At the beginning of the game I got up there, saw some pillows, and just thought it was set dressing in an ultimately useless space. Nope! Not only is there an environmental line you can get from there, but there's an audiolog as well if you're paying attention to detail (which, of course, I wasn't in my first go-around).