Join us all month as our staff looks back at the most influential games of the past decade. This is not a list of our favourite games but rather a look back at the games that left the biggest impact in the last ten years on an artistic and cultural level. After careful consideration, we narrowed it down to ten games that have most defined, influenced and shaped the industry as we know it.
In many ways, The Witness is the quintessential indie game. It’s an unconventional experience, set in an isolated world of stylized pastel graphics and inhabited solely by abstract puzzles. Between its elegantly minimalist design and enticingly mysterious atmosphere, few titles have challenged conventions and expectations over the past decade as much as The Witness.
Its status as an indie puzzling icon shouldn’t be surprising, considering that it was created by Jonathan Blow, one of the foremost indie designers in the industry. After jumpstarting the indie game boom of the late 2000’s with the seminal puzzle platformer Braid, Blow took a different direction to creating puzzles with his next project. While Braid is filled with elaborate puzzles about reversing time itself, The Witness is a much more stripped back experience, in which its obstacles are generally mere mazes, often tasking players with doing nothing more than drawing lines from one end of a board to another. Yet this simplicity is exactly what makes its brainteasers so enticing.
If one word could describe The Witness, it would be elegance. It lets its puzzles speak for themselves. It features very little overbearing lore and offers almost no narrative explanation as to why its gorgeously lonely island is filled with labyrinthine puzzles. Instead, its brainteasers are given room to breathe, allowing them to gradually unfold from their relatively simple beginnings at the start of the game into gradually more complex and mesmerizing trials of logic by the end. Such a nuanced design philosophy for its puzzles is one of the distinguishing factors that sets The Witness apart, a new approach to challenging players’ mental abilities that continues to influence its genre today.
For a puzzle game, The Witness is a surprisingly freeing experience. Unlike most other games in its genre, it doesn’t lock players into each task. Instead, its island is an open sandbox with the liberty to be explored freely, allowing players to tackle only the obstacles that they are fit to handle. Some puzzles are even designed to take advantage of this more flexible approach, requiring players to take a step back from the problem at hand in order to learn new skills and symbols. It challenges players’ abilities but never pushes them too far, instead letting them approach its many challenges at their own speed. This keeps it from ever succumbing to the greatest boogeyman of the puzzle genre – frustration. In this way, The Witness hooks players into its meditative gameplay loop without ever becoming tedious, making for an ideal puzzling experience.
The Witness created a new kind of mystery. It may lack a prominent overarching story, but this absence of narrative helps it create an elusive, enveloping atmosphere. This leaves the puzzles as the driving force behind the mystery of the game, and it is through solving them that the secrets of the island gradually unfold. Such a minimalistic approach creates a uniquely engrossing atmosphere, one that constantly draws players back into its beautiful world of abstract logical obstacles.
The Witness set new standards for what a puzzle game could be. Its structure is refreshingly open-air, which keeps its brainteasers from ever feeling too frustrating. Likewise, its level design is simple elegance, subversively challenging players through its deceptively simple first appearance. Beautiful, beguiling, meditative and mesmerizing, The Witness redefined the puzzle genre for the decade.