About an hour into The Witness, I finally got it. It wasn’t a sudden revelation, but rather a slow creep. As I worked my way through a particularly puzzling set of puzzles, the game’s ever-present sunshine dappling the landscape around me, the silence of the moment as I stared at the board in front of me, I realized that I had been entirely absorbed by its world.
The Witness is a labor of love, seven years in the making, and the latest title from developer Jonathan Blow, whose 2008 game Braid was a masterpiece of brain-crushing, time-bending, wonderfully-scripted 2D puzzling. The Witness takes Blow’s penchant for ingenious puzzles and turns it into something else. I say this without any trace of insult: The Witness is perhaps the greatest example of a smartphone game — and it’s only available on PS4 and PC.
Let me explain that. It’s centered around a very simple concept. Players interact with boards and screens containing line puzzles — the goal is to move from one side of the puzzle to the other, following the line from a circular entry point to a rounded exit point. It’s almost painfully simple — it’s easy to imagine users tracing their fingers across such puzzles on their smartphone screens. And, just like the smartphone genre’s greatest hits (no, Candy Crush, that doesn’t include you), The Witness builds on that core concept to keep its puzzles ever-changing, ever more challenging and almost mind-warpingly infuriating at some points.
After its initial simplicity, The Witness introduces shapes, colors, pickups, mirror lines, and other ideas to compound on the original concept. After a certain amount of time, you’ll no longer be simply tracing from one side of a board to the other. You’ll be forced into puzzles that demand every brain cell to successfully navigate.
What transforms it into something worthy of a home on your console or computer is that the puzzling is entirely free-form. The Witness opens in a dark tunnel. You’re offered no context, no hints, not even a start screen. As you walk towards the end, you’re presented with one of only two prompts in the entire game, telling you how to complete the first line puzzle. Complete it and you’ll exit into the main setting of The Witness: an island. You’ll then work through a few arbitrary line puzzles in an overgrown courtyard, before a gate unlocks and you’re allowed to explore. After the second prompt — how to run — that’s it. The Witness will leave you completely alone from this point on. That’s both daunting and impressive.
The main hook of The Witness is a desire to uncover the mysteries of its existence. There’s no story, per se, no narration, no cutscenes. It doesn’t guide players to uncover certain areas, or complete specific puzzles. Indeed, there’s nothing here to “hook” someone in a traditional sense. Instead, The Witness forces players to pique their own curiosity. Its island setting is rife with unanswered questions: an abandoned village, an Egyptian-style temple, a medieval castle, a crashed ship. What caused their decay? Why is there no one else here? What is the purpose of the statues that dot its landscape, like people frozen in time? And just why are there puzzles absolutely everywhere?
These are questions you’ll have to figure out at your own pace. The beauty of The Witness is that you can uncover as much or as little as possible. Blow estimates that there are over 700 puzzles in his game, but not all of them are as obvious as those situated on the displays dotted around the game’s various landmarks — yes, even the very land in some instances can be a puzzle.
If you want to complete the story — the main quest, of sorts — you’ll be completing specific sets of puzzles, each of which cause a laser to be fired at the island’s main landmark, a looming mountain. Atop that mountain is your ultimate goal, but how you get there — and if you get there at all — depends on your own explorative nature, capacity for puzzle-solving, and engagement with The Witness.
It’s entirely possible that many will be turned away by its hands-off approach. With no guides and no obvious fast travel system (it exists, but like everything, you’ll have to find it), some may vacate The Witness after they’ve wandered around for a bit and tried a few puzzles. I wasn’t one of them. I was completely consumed by it.
I was also utterly enraged by it. Some of the puzzles you’ll encounter are almost ludicrously complex. It’s here that exploration is key, as finding new puzzle areas will teach you the skills you need to complete puzzles you’ve previously encountered. The only problem is that the game’s total lack of guidance means that it’s sometimes hard not only to find where certain puzzle areas start, but also whether you’ve learned the technique it’s trying to teach you correctly. Several times I was roadblocked and ended up quitting the game in a rage. Other times, I would back off, wander around, come back and get it first time.
What’s remarkable is that I was more than willing to break my own immersion to complete a puzzle. Not only did I find myself taking notes while playing — marking out puzzles, secret areas, and other things I’d uncovered — I was also taking photos of solutions to apply them to another. One rather engrossing puzzle involves four mazes that the player must first walk through, then use to complete a puzzle. In addition, you’ll have to remember the solution to every maze for a later puzzle. The satisfaction of finishing it successfully created one of several standout moments during my time with The Witness.
However, there’s a fine balance between a puzzle being hard and a puzzle being so obtuse as to be off-putting. The Witness doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes the solution isn’t so much unclear as it is entirely opaque. But when you finally work it out, the sensation of accomplishment is intoxicating. That’s where the hook lies in The Witness: these incremental moments of success, the joy of not only learning a new technique that can be used on other puzzles, but of successfully clearing another of the island’s areas.
What’s even more remarkable is that this $40 download-only game can offer dozens of hours of gameplay for the truly dedicated. Uncovering everything this small world has to offer, completing every puzzle and finding every secret, will take you up to 100 hours. That’s a staggering amount of content for the price.
Whether the content actually appeals to you or not is entirely subjective. The Witness isn’t a perfect game; it’s enraging, occasionally misguided, startlingly obtuse at times, and possibly too independent for its own good. What it is, though, is a fascinating, challenging, intoxicating, mysterious, often haunting example of what a puzzle game can be. This is a mystery adventure where puzzling is both incidental and absolutely necessary. It’s a game that marries the best examples of mobile gaming — simple hook, easy navigation — with traditional games — open world, gorgeous visuals, stunningly simple sound design — to create something new, something exciting, something wonderful.
The Witness certainly isn’t for everyone, but everyone should certainly wander into its desolate, difficult, delicate world.
The Witness is $40 and available for download on PC and PS4.
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