You know you’re in the presence of gaming greatness if, even after a year of painstakingly slow progress, you’re still utterly enamoured with a game when you finally manage to cross the finish line. Such was my experience with Jonathan Blow’s arcane yet truly exceptional first-person puzzler The Witness.
Now, although I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen of my accomplishment over the past couple of weeks, I promise it’s not my intention to brag. Okay, so maybe that’s part of it – I am pretty damn proud of myself, which is unusual for me. But, as I’ve already mentioned, it took countless hours of trial and error, note taking, head-scratching, and sheer bullheaded obstinacy to get anywhere near the end credits, let alone complete the post-game challenge mode. Which is hardly the sign of a puzzle-game savant.
What I want to do instead is try and articulate what it is about this wonderful title that makes it so engrossing, despite the investment of time required to, and the not insubstantial challenge of, clearing even one of the mysterious island’s unique regions, and why it fully deserves to be called a modern great.
The tone and themes explored in The Witness are set early on. Materializing in a dark tunnel with no text or dialogue to explain where the unnamed protagonist is or why they’re there in the first place, the player’s eye is immediately drawn to an unassuming square of yellow light in the distance. Upon reaching it, they’re greeted by the silhouette of a thin, horizontal line, differentiated at one end by a small circle, followed by what is, essentially, the game’s one and only tutorial: an innocuous button prompt in the bottom right corner of the screen that shows the player how to interact with the mysterious panels. That’s it.
From this point on, the player is left to their own devices and must work out not only the solutions to the game’s numerous puzzles, but also the very concepts governing each region’s eclectic selection of brainteasers too. Armed with nothing more than their own powers of perception, logic, and the subtle environmental signposting The Witness utilises so masterfully throughout the adventure.
Intimidating as this might sound, however, players aren’t simply left to flounder in a sea of opaque riddles and ambiguous ideas. After completing a set of preliminary puzzles that, when compared to the rest of the game, are actually pretty straightforward, the difficulty increases only gradually. More complex principles and obscurer tasks are introduced gently as the player grows in experience and confidence – and that’s absolutely crucial.
Because, while any puzzle game worth its salt will endeavour to offer at least a reasonable level of challenge, it must be fair to the player too. There has to be balance. So, while The Witness by no means holds the player’s hand, neither does it add jarring, artificial difficulty spikes or attempt to make the player feel stupid with nebulous solutions to equally vague puzzles. From the very beginning, The Witness makes it clear that, if the player is persistent, takes the time to thoroughly analyze their surroundings and past experiences, and isn’t too proud to use either their chosen platform’s screenshot function or a pen and paper to take notes when necessary, they will (eventually) find the solution.
This combination of factors makes working out any given puzzle, and the underlying principles of any given region, indescribably satisfying; with the possible exception of Portal 2, I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so clever playing a video game.
That being said, The Witness wouldn’t be quite so rewarding or feel as well-balanced as it does if it wasn’t for the game’s sandbox structure.
As soon as the player escapes the initial enclosure, every area barring the final underground base is more or less open to exploration. Get stuck on one of the Town’s many esoteric puzzles, and there’s nothing stopping the player from wandering off to another corner of the island in search of less taxing brain-teasers – perhaps something in the Monastery or Quarry – returning a couple of hours later with a raft of fresh ideas and reinvigorated spirit to try again.
By contrast, if the game followed a linear path, the player would have no choice but to keep plugging away until they succeeded or gave up in frustration, resigned to the fact that they might never get to sample the delights of the island’s dense Jungle, sun-dappled Beach, or magnificent Castle for themselves. The puzzle game equivalent of banging one’s head against an especially sturdy brick wall until it either breaks or they lose consciousness.
The Witness understands that people have different strengths and weaknesses, in other words, and so lets player’s approach the game in whatever way best suits their abilities. I, personally, found the memory and visualization puzzles quite tricky, and consequently left the Shady Trees and Desert Ruins areas for last; focusing on the Marsh, Treehouse, etc. instead during the early stages of my adventure. By flitting around the island in this manner, I was able to keep some semblance of momentum going and never found myself truly stumped. This, in turn, allowed me to gain invaluable insights from disparate regions that would prove vital further down the line, when I eventually bit the bullet and tried, once again, to complete these tougher sections.
There were still many hurdles to overcome during my journey through The Witness, and, at various times, I had to fight back those nagging doubts that kept telling me I’d plateaued. But I was inspired to continue my journey, albeit intermittently, not only by virtue of the freedom afforded me by this non-linear structure, but because of the air of mystery that pervades the game’s array of gorgeous, evocative locations.
I’m certain that, if not for my ever-expanding pile of shame splitting my attention between countless high-quality titles, I’d have finished it much sooner than I did. Yet, strangely, because of the contemplative and surprisingly relaxing ambience of the game, The Witness is perfectly suited to this kind of intermittent, drop-in/drop-out style of play.
Aside from the philosophical, existential discourse that pervades the game – presented through a series of short Dictaphone messages scattered throughout the island and a handful of longer FMV film reels – there isn’t a traditionally structured story to keep track of that would otherwise prohibit taking such long breaks and thus breaking narrative continuity. If you tried doing the same thing with The Witcher 3, for example, you’d need to spend an hour or two reading through plot synopses on the internet before you could jump back in.
Nevertheless, there are several interesting themes permeating the game that the player can sink their teeth into if they so choose, the most obvious two of which are the conflicting approaches of science and religion, and humanity’s place in the cosmos. The second of these is particularly interesting for me (as a stalwart atheist, the first is pretty cut and dry as far as I’m concerned), not just because of the subject matter, but the way it’s presented. Directly through the game’s various hidden audio logs and symbolically via the protagonist’s own isolation; stranded on a relatively small island in the middle of a broad ocean, the player’s mysterious avatar cannot be certain if they are alone on this planet or one of many introspective creatures cast adrift in a vast world – just as humans look to the unimaginably vast abyss of space and wonder if there are other intelligent species out there.
I’d be lying if I said I understood the finer points of these discussions, but fortunately, almost everything else about the game’s presentation exudes the same sense of humbling calm in a way that the philosophically uninitiated, like myself, can understand.
Admittedly, the textures aren’t the most impressive – on that I agree completely with Goomba Stomp alumni Matt De Azevedo. Nonetheless, there’s real artistic beauty to be found in every corner of The Witness’s spectacular game world: from the soothing Arcadian greens and oranges of the Shady Forest, to the shimmering blue coastline of the Ruins and the evocative statuary that litters every region.
The game’s sound design is no less soothing, but errs toward the understated rather than the vibrant, stylized aesthetic of the game’s visuals. There’s no intrusive soundtrack accompanying the player on every step of their journey, attempting to manufacture a sense of the grandiose, and music is used sparingly instead. This allows the player to focus on the puzzle at hand or devote their full attention to the intriguing concepts discussed in the various Dictaphone messages, providing plenty of quiet moments in which to appreciate the outstanding voice acting and superlative game design, as well as the space to stop and consider their own views on science, philosophy, the universe, and religion.
If ever there was a game capable of sharpening a player’s mind, giving them pause for thought, or fostering in them a newfound appreciation of the genre and the wider medium, The Witness is it.
Currently available at no extra cost to Xbox Live Gold subscribers, I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest in puzzle games to download it right away. It’s not easy and it can take a while to finish, but you won’t regret it.