The Witness from developer Jonathan Blow is a work of sheer genius. Following the success of the mind-bending Braid in 2008, Blow takes the idea of the puzzle game to all new heights.
The Witness places you onto a mysterious and isolated island. You are not given any introduction or context, you’re simply thrown in headfirst. The bulk of the gameplay is solving puzzles on panels. The puzzles are deceptively simple. You must guide a single line through a maze-like grid. The catch is that the line can never cross over itself, and there are specific rules to adhere to. Simply drawing the line from start to finish will not suffice after the first few panels. Over the course of the game, additional rules get added to the mix. It doesn’t take long for the complexity to build – you’ll be staring in bewilderment at some of the more challenging ones. You’ll likely discover this around one hour in and quickly realise that this is no ordinary puzzle game.
How the game advances, and how new rules are introduced is a masterclass in game design. They are introduced in the same format as the puzzles: on panels, usually in rapid succession. Using logic, you must deduce the rule for yourself. There is no tutorial or explanation offered by the game. Blow understands that providing this would defeat the entire purpose of the game. Discovering a new rule, then applying it successfully is a deeply rewarding process. It is also extremely addictive. Once you’ve got a taste for solving these puzzles, your hunger can never quite be sated – you’ll find yourself thinking about them even when not playing.
The Witness has a curious way of tunnelling into your mind. Just as you must constantly rewrite rules and logic within the game, it appears the neurons in your brain are being rewired. Unfortunately, this is also an area where The Witness stumbles slightly. The leaps of logic required for some of the puzzles are unreasonable. Sometimes rules get inverted and successive panels are not logically consistent, making The Witness an unfair experience at times.
Outside of solving puzzles, you’ll be exploring this abandoned island. There are many remarkable sights and curiosities to uncover. The vibrant, lush colours bounce off the screen, making the island a joy to explore. The island is unexpectedly large, being divided into numerous regions, ranging from a dense jungle to an arid desert. Each section presents its own set of puzzles and rules. Having so much variety is key to The Witness’ pacing. As you’d expect, the pace is slow. You must take time to think and work through puzzles. But if you get stuck on one, there are always other options to explore, always another puzzle to figure out elsewhere preventing frustration. There are many puzzles to solve and undoubtedly many hours will be spent pouring over them. Blow estimates that solving all puzzles will take over 70 hours with 4% of players solving the very toughest challenges.
And some of these puzzles really are tough. Often, you will be glaring at the screen, endlessly drawing incorrect solutions. But when you finally see the solution, when you see a brief flash of the answer, your heart rate climbing as you draw the line, it all becomes worth it. Never has a puzzle game had such a mesmerising effect on me. Indeed, to call it a puzzle game almost seems like a disservice. It has more in common with classic Point-and-Click adventures, than any traditional puzzle game like Tetris or Bejewelled. At times, The Witness feels like a tribute to the Myst series, an undeniable source of inspiration. Yet, it surpasses this and all conventional puzzle games to become something more.
One of the game’s finest moments is discovering environmental puzzles. Most of these puzzles make use of negative space in the environment, presenting moments of epiphany when noticed. It suddenly occurs that you have passed so many of these without knowing it. At this point, the game really opens as you hastily scurry between locations trying to uncover each pattern in the environment. The hunt possesses you with feverish tenacity. You simply have to uncover the next secret at all costs. Before long, you’ll be tracing lines on your ceiling and seeing patterns in the branches of trees. The layout of the world, and the arrangement of the puzzles within it are nothing short of breath-taking. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the complexity of the design numerous times. The fact that The Witness can absorb and consume you so readily is evidence of the strength of its design.
When exploring, you’ll come across strange audio logs. At first, they appear to discuss irrelevant topics, but as you listen to more, you begin to piece together broken fragments of the mystery. Although, that’s all you ever get: fragments, owing to the distinct lack of traditional narrative. There appear to be two major themes: science and religion. What bearing these have on the meaning of the game (if any) is entirely up to the player. Blow is displaying the utmost respect for game design in the presentation of the narrative. The narrative is invariably tied to the gameplay with major themes being presented through gameplay. Gameplay and narrative are usually viewed as separate elements of a game. Blow marries them, taking full advantage of the uniqueness of games as an artform. The narrative presentation is not merely a mimicry of cinema like so many other games. What is achieved in The Witness could only be done in a game.
All narrative aspects are optional. And what is there is not explicit. Like other classics such as Dark Souls or Shadow of the Colossus, you are given ample space to come to your own conclusions. Additionally, strange statues are scattered across the island. Align the statues with certain shadows and you often get eerie and intriguing results. Again, it is up to the player to attach any meaning to these scenes, discovering and pondering them is its own reward.
These statues and the dominating silence of the island provide a surprising amount of atmosphere. You truly feel remote, and in some of the more unnerving moments, like you are being watched. It’s in that silence that you begin to ask questions. The answers to those questions are found in another kind of silence: the silence when you are trying to sleep. Such is the grip that The Witness had on me, it is an experience that extends well beyond the confines of the screen.
The Witness is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Blow takes a simple idea, transforms it into an intriguing game mechanic and runs with it. Those seven years of development paid off, taking the necessary time to masterfully design and polish the vision. The Witness manages to show that games are indeed art. By layering additional complexity through game mechanics and coupling this with a curious world and narrative, Jonathan Blow elevates the puzzle genre. The Witness has left an enduring mark on me. I will be puzzling over its mysteries for many months, even years to come, at least until Jonathan Blow’s next daring vision.
- Rewarding and challenging puzzles
- Excellent world design
- Beautiful graphics and artwork
- Intriguing narrative
- Some puzzles are not logically consistent