The Witness – What We Think:
You start in a tunnel, with only one door, and no clear way back. Passing through, you discover a diverse and gorgeous island. In exploring it, you find various interactive flatscreens with bizarre symbols scattered across the land, indicating a purpose that isn’t immediately apparent. Solving the hidden codes on these screens is your only hope of making sense of things.
Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, has another triumph on his hands with The Witness. The action takes place on a vibrant, yet ethereal island. There are no inhabitants, and no story to be found. It’s just you, an open world, and a grand mystery to unravel. Tonally and technically, it is a superb puzzle-solving experience.
The Right Path
The rules that govern the puzzles are mysterious and diverse. Figuring each out is a riddle in itself. The flatscreens display a grid, and the correct path must be drawn through it. Successfully finding the path through one will often power up the next screen connected to it.
Even in the starting area, you are within range of some puzzles that require combining more than one rule in order to find an answer. I found this first bit frustrating, as it wasn’t clear if my failure to solve anything was due to my inability to figure it out, or because I had not yet unraveled enough of the lore of the land.
The best course of action is to take a prolonged hike around the island. Each individual biome houses a primary puzzle type, and the first few screens will gently introduce the rules that govern that set. By starting with an easy-to-solve two-square grid and slowly expanding into larger problems, the lingo of a type is illuminated, all the while leading to more difficult solutions.
The “A-HA!” moments are frequent, and once you get the “trick” of a puzzle set figured out, you can return to other areas that house the puzzles that had previously daunted you. Still, the tight game design ensures that this will only get you so far before a new snag is tossed into the formula, forcing you to rethink everything you know.
The balance between triumph and temporary mental paralysis is delicate, though the level of challenge will likely put off those not already inclined towards this genre of game. Should you get stumped on one type of problem, you can always travel to another part of the island to test your skills there.
After having solved several of the game’s mysteries. I would find myself asking, “What is the island trying to tell me here?” It truly feels as though everything is interconnected and placed just so. The answers are always there, sometimes obscured only by the sheer beauty of the landscape. Finally revealing the answer is how the game digs in its hooks. Each new “trick” will remind you of a place you found but couldn’t enter when its puzzle language was new and unknown.
Senses of Adventure
This is enhanced/exacerbated by the myriad elements that must be considered when solving puzzles. Most, follow a simple maze format and have only one correct path, though the clues that hint at the answers are going to require some keen observation: Are there shadows falling on the screen? Can you line up an object in front of the screen to block out certain paths? Does your line need to outline a combination of Tetris-style blocks?
Sometimes the rules are there on the screen, and in other instances you have to scout out the surroundings for hints. Sounds, light sources and obstructions can all play a part in the solutions.
Not all of the action takes place on screens, however. Some puzzles leap out of the very landscape. Be suspicious of anything that might be another trial to solve; chances are, you’ll be right.
In particular, I enjoyed a section of hedge mazes that require you to figure out the correct path by first walking it. Though there are many ways through, you’ll have to discern the correct way by seeking out the clues hidden within the area. Once you’ve charted your course, draw it on the screen mounted to the gate to continue.
Lovely, Dark and Deep
Visually, The Witness stuns. Favoring a luminous spectrum over hyper-realism, the result is a landscape that feels like a series of oil paintings come to life. While there is evidence of past inhabitants, there is never a solitary tone. Instead, a hodgepodge of influences is woven together, yet done so in such a way as to accentuate the overall sense of whimsy. In a game that requires you to pay close attention, it is a treat to have something so aesthetically appealing.
Miles to Go Before I Sleep
The lure to continue is strong, even without a cohesive narrative. Though there are numerous paths to the center and a sizable map to explore freely, it felt as though an unseen force was gently guiding me on, like the viewer on a Ouija board, towards an answer. The sequential stacking of problems and the cables linking screens are simply too convenient to ignore. Regardless of your starting point, you will be drawn, however gradually, to the same destination.
The Witness is a game that requires some patience, a lot of divergent thinking, and a willingness to walk away on occasion. The majority of players are going to get hung up on a screen or two. But upon stepping away, you may find yourself tinkering with the solution in the back of your mind. It’s when you jump back in and find your way over these hurdles that the island in The Witness starts to feel like a second home – or at the least, a desirable vacation spot. Its rules and structure are a welcome respite from those of our day-to-day grind. Puzzle game enthusiasts: welcome to paradise.
The Witness is available for PlayStation 4 and on Steam.
Watch the trailer for The Witness below: