The Witness captures the purest form of the term “puzzle game,” and does so while looking and feeling like an atypical paradise.
Wind and waves are set as ambient whispers in the distance, often serving as your only reminder that the land is still alive as you pass across the island you now solely inhabit. There are only echoes of past lives and actions, at least some probably having led to the island’s now desolate state, but you don’t know. The Witness is brimming with unknowns and variables in a pure, academically-driven state, and that’s a large part of what makes it feel like such a unique and rewarding experience that challenges you to earn every piece of the answers you seek.
“The Witness is a game about drawing lines in so much as Mario titles are just about jumping.”
This nameless island of yours is a visual monastery of exaggerated colors and carefully placed shapes that both serves to sell you on this world’s stillness and reinforce the game’s native language. Jonathon Blow and his team have crafted a land mass of glowing venues that is completely open for you to explore – minus one late-game area. The environments are all angled and given pathways that encourage you to observe outside of the puzzle panels, and explore you should. Off-the-beaten-path areas are often filled with interesting observations and alternate views of the island that reveal secrets, or yield yet more puzzles to feed your academia.
The lay of the land feels more important and chiseled for purpose here than in just about any other game out there, which is made to seem even more amazing when you consider that The Witness offers you next to nothing for these observations. You’re not given a single on-screen prompt beyond movement and running; you’re never told the end goal, never told how to approach the different areas, not the order of difficulty, not that there’s a fast-travel system, not how to quickly scroll through connected panels, nothing. You are the sole driving force forward with your wits and craving for answers, on a puzzle-to-puzzle basis, all that is risked and all that is gained. There are no obvious pats on the back for a job well done, but you may sense yourself creeping forward towards some inexplicable goal.
Purity of puzzle as a priority may disappoint some when it comes to the story, which is loosely present but not the main focus. As with everything else in the game, it’s only your desire and will to find the answers that will bring them to you with the “real” ending requiring a lot of puzzle commitment. Without spoiling much, the pieces of the story that I’ve found all feel appropriate for the setting and how the game itself is structured. That’s not to say that no story is present, but those looking for connecting threads and motivations may be frustrated to find neither.
Structure is key as the puzzles are all sutured together in fascinating, varied ways that rotate within different aspects of the world. The Witness is a game about drawing lines in so much as Mario titles are just about jumping. Lines and grid puzzles are the core through which a prismatic globe of fascinating variables add and subtract your available answers. Each area of the island hands you a different set of tablets to decipher in a way that is clearly experimental at first, but does become a little obtuse in some areas. Sometimes you may want to revisit previously solved puzzles just to re-translate what you saw and confirm the behavior of certain symbols.
You’ll want to do that because no other game teaches you a completely different language quite like The Witness. Dark Souls is similar in its non-compromising approach, but most obstacles in that series have an angle of salvation that’s slightly off the beaten path and recognizable if you’re paying attention. This game is literally teaching you a brand new language in symbols and colors, and its one where the only reliable touchstones are on the island in which you wander. There were some puzzles that I solved without having any clue what the symbol meant and multiple areas that were skipped until much later. Learning these symbols is done at rows of monitors that slowly ramp up the concept and allow you to discover their meaning for yourself at your own pace. Of course, that may not last long when more and more variables are added just one or two puzzles after you felt confident. There were areas where Blow and his team could do nothing against me; I went ahead nearly unimpeded by their designs, feeling like I was in their heads and predicting their every new addition to the variable list. Other areas caused a lot of pauses and considerations for the seemingly paradoxical question ahead. That created a natural pacing, an ebb and flow that felt natural outside of cutscenes and set piece moments. Frustration never became an issue because it felt like my fault when something wasn’t progressing, showcasing that high tier of trust Blow and his team have for player intelligence and giving this game a feel all its own.
None of the areas are mandatory outside of the small opening, and the bare minimum ending can be obtained by completing about half of the zones. That freedom – that ever-present belief from the development team in the player’s abilities – brings about a lot of desire to see the entire experience again, this time able to speak the language from the beginning. There are some secrets in the world that will take a keen eye to see and that full lexicon to unlock, but with the precise serenity of The Witness, decoding those secrets will be a timely expedition worth undertaking again. And even if you don’t want to start completely over, the quick load option in the Options menu is handy for keeping track of your puzzles and time counts as well as coming back out of the end-game area.
The Witness doesn’t hold you down in almost any of the manners that gamers have become accustomed to. Movement is simple within the world, taking away the fear of death or progress loss, loads are precise at your exact last point, and you’re almost never locked into a situation with the whole island yours to solve. This is puzzle game purity without distillation or impunity, perhaps to a slight detriment in regards to the story that is locked behind many hours of gameplay and hundreds more puzzles. After about 400 puzzles (with a +5, which is sort of another mystery), The Witness still feels full of meaningful, unyielding content that will demand your mind and desire to see it through. Without both, you will be missing out on the fullest picture in one of the best puzzle games of all time.
Braid was Jonathan Blow’s first shot into the indie market, but The Witness may be his best. There is simply no other puzzle game that so completely embodies the idea of solutions feeding into the desire for further inquiry as Blow’s second main game. Those that don’t desire quite as much, however, may never see anything but hints at a deeper story and meaning.