After 8 years of leading the development team for The Witness, Johnathan Blow has delivered an exhilarating puzzle experience. I don’t play as many puzzle games as I should. I’ve always felt like it takes me longer than the average person to solve any kind of puzzle (and that’s probably why I stray away from them), but The Witness provided a fantastic mix of puzzles at various difficultly levels to keep me interested and engaged. Many are easy enough to keep a steady momentum, but many are hard enough to make you turn off the game for a much-needed “frustration break.” This does not affect the playability; if everything about this game was easy, there would be no reward and no personal satisfaction.
If you have ever started to learn another language via RosettaStone, learning the rules to solve these puzzles works in the same way – no instruction is given to you in your native language, yet through a scaffolding technique, you are able to take the information you learn from the easiest puzzles and apply them to the more difficult ones. The beauty of The Witness is that the puzzles transcend language itself. They pull you through a broad range of emotions – anguish, despair, desperation – but, once you finally solve that seemingly impossible puzzle, you can raise your fists in the air, victorious, and maybe taunt the game a little bit.
The puzzles resemble Celtic knots or Zen garden mazes. While it may become frustrating to solve some of them – even I needed to walk away from a few and go try something else – the symmetry is soothing. Dragging the cursor to draw lines in the paths feels like painting. The pace you set is your own. Every section, divided into over 15 different biodomes – a serene Japanese garden, a castle courtyard complete with stone statues, or a tropical forest, to name a few – has a different set of puzzles with a different set of rules.
There’s mazes, hexagon dots, black and white squares, multicolored squares, symmetry, Tetris blocks, environmental-based clues, even hedge mazes – and that only covers a portion of all 600-plus puzzles. Every puzzle activates something: doors, platforms, or provides power to the next puzzle. They can also test your dexterity and some are timed. Some puzzles have more than one solution as well; some easier Tetris block puzzles can be formed by either drawing lines horizontally or vertically.
Tapping as far as I could go into my spatial awareness skills, I found it very difficult to figure out how to best draw the line that accounted for all the Tetris squares in the proper formation. Figuring out what puzzle I needed to go to next was relativity easy; I followed the powerlines. But, if I wandered too far away from an area, I’d be confronted with an entirely new set of puzzles that would have different rules than the last and not a clue as to how to solve them. However some sections–unlike the rest of the game, which allows you to roam freely from puzzle section to puzzle section if you get stuck–force you to solve the puzzles in order to move away from where you are. You can’t backtrack once you have crossed the first moveable bridge. These puzzles were some of the hardest for me to solve and led me to being stuck for a long time.
As a lovely addition, there’s recorders scattered around the map for you to play and discover things about the island’s past. These recordings don’t build a traditional narrative–a deviation from Blow’s critically acclaimed Braid–but they serve to enrich the whole player experience and get you to think about why the island was abandoned. (You may even find yourself making up stories for the stone statues like I did). This piecing together of the story is similar to Homesick, where players discover things about the building’s former inhabitants by reading letters scattered throughout the apartment units.
In a similar vein, The Witness allows players to discover information and then come to their own conclusions; you could say that there are puzzles in the story. Some of the voice recordings that you can find include quotes from famous people like Albert Einstein and musings from Nicholas of Cusa (German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer) and Douglas Hofstadter (researcher and professor of cognitive science). Each recording is carefully placed to tell the story of the island to create the story in an abstract way, to stimulate creativity so you come to your own conclusions about why a particular audio recorder was placed in a particular spot.
Unfortunately, there were some players who had accessibility issues related to colorblindness or hearing impairment, as well as motion sickness. For those who did experience motion sickness, Blow is working on an update that will hopefully address the matter. He also noted that solving every single puzzle is not necessary to finish the game, and subtitles are also provided in English and several other languages, as well. The sound design overall was intentionally kept minimalistic–ambient sounds only, no music. Blow did not want to distract players from their main task of observing the world around them.
Overall, what really makes this an amazing game besides the variety of puzzles is the beautiful, serene island itself. Walking through a brightly colored field or looking at the leaves of a tree is calming and does a good job at getting rid of some of that why-can’t-I-solve-this anxiety. This island was designed to be explored, to take you on a virtual walk to “clear you head” when it seems like the puzzles are plotting to defeat you. In an atypical way, it’s connecting you back to nature and the audio recordings expand the game beyond the screen.
For me, only one thing could make this game better: playing it in VR.
Developer/Publisher: Thekla, Inc. | Genre: First-Person Puzzle-Adventure/Indie | Platforms: PC, PS4 | ESRB: E | Release Date: January 26, 2016 | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard
The Witness was played on PC and was provided by the developer.