I’ve been thinking for a while about a funny, clever or analogous introduction to this review. But I’ve haven’t gotten anywhere because The Witness isn’t really like anything. On paper, it’s a first person, open world puzzle and exploration game from the creators of Braid; however, in reality, it’s so much more. The narrative draws on existential and psychological themes, while gameplay explores the various effects of non-verbal communication. You’re not given any instructions or storyline to follow. You’re merely guided, by trial and error, through a number of puzzles (523 +135 +6, to be exact)(this will all make sense, don’t worry) scattered around the game’s luscious open world.
You wake, at the start of The Witness, in a dark tunnel, with the only light source being the yellow puzzle panels. Undoubtedly, you’ll wonder ‘what’s going on?’ But after solving these first puzzles, you’ll emerge into a colourful and dynamic open world. As you can imagine, this initial transition is quite shocking. The juxtaposition between the dark of the tunnel and the flamboyant open world is, like most things in the game, unexpected and affective. The feeling is the same, I imagine, as the one you’d get if you actually found the end of a rainbow. This was probably the best introduction I’ve had to a video-game world, not just because of the creativity, but because it made me think about and appreciate the environment of The Witness. And that world is more than just setting: it’s a working part of the game.
The island (or, at least that’s what I’m calling The Witness’ world) is divided into distinct biomes, each with its own unique environment and set of puzzles.
Some puzzles introduce new symbols or mechanics, while others combine elements you’ve previously encountered. Of course, there’s no map guiding you through the island. So, it’s very possible that you could stumble, straight from the introductory area, into some of The Witness’ most challenging puzzles. Alternatively you could encounter puzzles with combinations of symbols that you haven’t seen before. If you find yourself in this position, it’s the game telling you that you’ve taken a wrong turn. The elements are there for The Witness to be an incredibly difficult game, but that’s only if you’re approaching it wrong. If played right, The Witness’ puzzles will progress logically, introducing you to new elements and strategies.
Like a textbook, The Witness should be tackled systematically. Sure you can jump to the final pages and hope to stumble or fluke your way through. But even if you succeed, you’ll have a bad time. If you follow the right process, this game will prepare you and condition you, so that when you do reach these final challenges, you’ll be more than competent. And you’ll reap that feeling of joy and achievement when you’re done. I know, I know: the obvious flaw in the ‘textbook’ metaphor is that The Witness doesn’t have page numbers. But half the fun is finding the way. It’s a simple strategy: if you can’t do it, come back later.
The game’s puzzles are based upon a general maze mechanic, whereby players must navigate from a starting point – symbolised by a circle – to an end point – a line with a rounded end. The mechanics function seamlessly. The A-button engages the puzzle-solving mode, in which the character cannot move, and the thumbsticks control the movement through the maze. The initial goal is to complete the maze without crossing your own path. However, as you progress, the game introduces new challenges: some puzzles require you to separate black and white dots, others require the use of the surrounding environment in discovering the solution. The list goes on. Eventually you’ll encounter the environmental puzzles, which I won’t spoil because there’s an immense sense of achievement in discovering these for yourself. Suffice to say, they’re probably the highlight of the game. Scattered through the world, like these environmental puzzles, are a number of audio logs featuring quotes from a number of influential people. These audio logs provide incentive for further exploration and function as prompts for interpreting the game’s story and themes. Realistically, you’ll collect these files after you’ve completed the main game, as they’re hidden behind puzzles you’ll require certain knowledge to solve.
As I said before, there’s a logical progression to the game and the difficulty of the puzzles is a good indication of the path you should take. There are never any written instructions, but the design of the puzzles will lead you to moments of epiphany where the meanings of symbols becomes clear. Not only is there reward in successfully solving these puzzles, the process itself is delightful and entertaining. My one and only criticism comes when, in the final levels and for a period of only ten-or-so puzzles, The Witness diverts from this formula. Probably one third the way through the final area, you’ll encounter a series of fluorescent flashing puzzles and moving puzzles boards. These will be the immense lowlight of your experience. Where every puzzle before – and, in fact, every puzzle that followed – was a test of memory and ability, these only test patience – and perhaps the player’s ability to resist seizures. They’re recipes for headaches and frustration. When I finished them I didn’t feel rewarded or triumphant; I felt relieved.
What I loved about this game was that everything was friendly. Even the difficult puzzles felt surmountable, and in that sense the process of completing them was fun. But these flashing/moving numbers were heinous. Rather than calmly solving a logical problem, you battled through a calamity of distraction. The only good part of these puzzles was finishing them. And just because something stops hurting, it doesn’t mean it feels good. Ninety-nine-point-eight-five (literally) per cent of The Witness understood this and that’s what made it so fantastic. These puzzles were a pithy but total diversion from the general essence of the game: like, just for a minute, the developers forgot what type of game they were making. Realistically this is only a small and brief blemish, but it’s made more obvious because the rest of The Witness is so perfect – and that’s a backhanded compliment, if ever I’ve given one.
Some may criticise the lack of story or characterisation in this game. But I’d argue that those people are missing the point of The Witness. And that’s to make you think. The colours, the landscape, the puzzles, the soundtrack and the recordings all exist to elicit emotional and thoughtful responses. And in that way, The Witness is a unique experience for every player. Of course, the game draws on obvious themes of dreams, thought and existence. But the narrative itself is fairly obscure. I’m approaching one hundred per cent completion in The Witness, but I’m nowhere near one hundred per cent sure of what it’s about. The sculptures and wreckage around the island can draw you to some scary conclusions, especially when coupled with the title. But it’s up to you to reach your own conclusions. And I don’t want to speculate much more because: a) I might be dead wrong; and b) I like the idea that each player can make the story their own.
The thing about The Witness is that it doesn’t force anything onto you: not a story, a character or even a way to progress. There are a number of things you should do (one of those things is to buy this game), but The Witness never makes you. It won’t force its way into your mind, but it’ll get there and it’ll stay there long after you’ve put the controller down. I’ve found myself trying to solve street signs, cereal boxes and furniture patterns, and though I haven’t been succeeding, I’ve still been having fun. And that should speak volumes. While I did criticize a certain series of puzzles, I can’t feasibly let such a small misstep impact my verdict because The Witness is closer to perfect than almost any other release. In this charming, yet challenging puzzler, Jonathan Blow and Thekla Inc. have created one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences in not just 2016, but gaming overall.