The Witness is a refreshing change to the action heavy games that dominate the market. There are no enemies to defeat, no guns to fire and no characters to converse with. Instead, you awake on a deserted island with a series of puzzles to overcome. At first, these puzzles seem pretty basic, but they soon become more complex as the island begins to blow your mind with the many surprises it has hidden away.
The game’s puzzles take place on the many monitors found throughout the island, on which you are required to find the correct path through a maze. At first, I was concerned that these puzzles would get tedious, but as you progress more rules are introduced keeping every puzzle feeling unique. The learning curve that the player is guided through is one of the game’s strengths, as instead of simply being told how to overcome each puzzle element, you must find out for yourself.
There were many times when I came across a new puzzle feature of which I had no clue of how to solve. This is why exploration of the open world is key, as dotted around the island are introductory puzzles to each new rule. Again, the rules are never explained to you, but the simplicity of the introductory puzzles enable you to experiment and learn. Rather than gaining experience points or new gadgets, it is knowledge and understanding that you find to progress.
Once you begin to understand a new rule, the game immediately rips you out of your comfort zone and introduces new blends of obstacles that can make your brain melt. Some rules can range from separating the black dots from the white or drawing specific shapes on the labyrinth. At one point the environment starts to play its part in the puzzles, and so then you begin to realize that the puzzles are not all contained on the various monitors, but overflowing into the world. This realization comes as quite a shock, as you start to notice aspects of the island that you had never seen before and the more mysteries you solve, the more you find. Even following completion of the game, I’m looking forward to returning to discover more secrets.
The game originally relies on your curiosity to engage the puzzles, but as you become more immersed you become more addicted. This is especially true when you begin to realize the larger context of the game. After solving a few puzzles, a machine began to break out of an orange box. I watched in amazement as the machine fired a beam of light towards the mountain on the other side of the island. It soon became clear that the objective of the game was to activate a number of these machines so you could gain access to the final area. You are never told directly of this objective, but The Witness is able to direct you through the story without explanation or dialogue. This is one of the best examples of “show, don’t tell” that I can think of in any video game.
While the puzzles are extremely creative, at times they become so complicated that players can become frustrated. While the balancing act between frustration and satisfaction is ever present in the puzzle genre, The Witness handles it well, but leaves behind the more impatient gamers in favor of creativity and complexity. For the best experience, it is suggested that you stay away from any walkthrough or guide, but equally, spending hours on one puzzle can understandably give even the most calmest of people a mental breakdown.
The Witness will not appeal to everyone, but by ignoring the needs of the majority, The Witness excels with its creativity. This is especially true when Jonathan Blow conceded that players with impaired hearing or sight may struggle with certain puzzles. While I won’t ruin the surprise, I must admit that one puzzle in particular caused me great grievances due to my impaired hearing. You can avoid these puzzles and still complete the game, but it may still aggravate the perfectionists who like to horde platinum trophies. As said previously, while it is unfortunate that some players may feel left out due to these puzzles, the game benefits from the added creativity.
The island is so beautifully made that it feels as if you are exploring a 3D painting. From the blossom of the trees, to the winding rivers, everything looks stunning. There were times when I had been struggling with a puzzle and so decided to take a breather by exploring the island so I could take in my surroundings. This shows the extent of the island’s beauty with the various terrains and environments.
The omission of a soundtrack was a wise decision, as the ambient sounds of the island play a big part in creating this immersive world. The serene atmosphere excellently juxtaposes some of the more disturbing mysteries, such as the many statues throughout the island. It is made unclear whether these are sculptures or whether they used to be human, but it is these mysteries that makes The Witness so appealing.
The Witness reminds me of games such as Journey that are great arguments in favour of video games being seen as an art form. However, it does feel at times that Jonathan Blow actively seeks for this classification. The strange aspirational recordings that you can find are a nice distraction from the puzzles, yet contribute little to the overall game.
The ending was also quite peculiar, and lacked the hard hitting finale I had come to expect after being clouded with so many mysteries. The ending was clearly intended to to signify something metaphorically, but it wasn’t quite clear to what this was. Blow was clearly trying to create a piece of art with The Witness, and he is successful with this ambition when the game is true to itself. The added content that wraps the game in a cloud of uncertainty may heighten the player’s curiosity, but it is the intelligence and simplicity behind the puzzles that captivates the mind.
+ Intelligent and creative puzzles
+ Beautiful artwork
+ The open world island full of mysteries
+ Clever learning curve
– Difficulty excludes some players
Jonathan Blow has established himself as the king of puzzles as The Witness offers a memorable experience that is sure to be a highlight of 2016.
Ryan Jones is a writer for The Game Bolt. Being a Welshman doesn’t mean he only has sheep in his heart, as he loves film, tv and video games. Follow him on Twitter.