As director and mastermind of 2008’s award-winning puzzler Braid, anticipation was high for Jonathon Blow’s next foray into the genre. While it took a while to reach us (originally announced in 2009), The Witness is a high-water mark in the conception of video games as art. Brutally challenging, visually superb and meticulous in detail, The Witness represents a labour of love from Blow’s indie studio Thekla, Inc. Years of passion for a concept and dedication to its faithful execution shine through in absolutely every aspect.
The Witness takes place on an unnamed island. Your adventure begins innocently enough with you taking control and learning the very basic rudiments of the game’s admittedly highly simplistic control scheme. Basically you press X to bring up a cursor which can be used to solve puzzles on a series of panels which are littered more or less everywhere. From a designated start point on the panel you draw a snake while navigating a grid that must end at a designated endpoint. In addition to these simple base rules your snake is not allowed to cross itself. Once you solve the game’s first few puzzle panels you are able to open a gate that spills out onto the island’s vast expanses and this is where The Witness’ experience opens up.
What will most likely strike you as you take your first tentative steps on the idyllic island is just how staggeringly beautiful it all is. There is a joyful use of vivid colour and the effect is like a glorious sensory assault. Textures are bold and have a clean, cel-shaded quality to them. Everywhere you care to look you will find some intriguing tiny detail. It feels like you are walking through an expertly crafted and constantly shifting painting. In my honest opinion its visual style and execution is unmatched by any game.
Your task throughout The Witness is very simple. You will wander around solving the panels which will in turn do things like unlock another puzzle in the series, operate machinery or open up pathways. The island is split into several distinct regions each with its own flavour of puzzle. Without spoiling anything, some puzzles panels might demand you obey a certain logic such as segregating shapes using the snake you draw. Others demand that you pay attention to how the environment interacts with a puzzle panel to unlock its solution. You are never told explicitly how to solve each conundrum, however as any good puzzler does, you are given the tools to solve them by the game itself. Generally a region will begin with some introductory puzzles to ease you into an area’s specific puzzle mechanics, and then slowly but surely ramp up the complexity. Make no mistake, The Witness has some of the toughest puzzles you are likely to have ever faced. Whoever constructed them has an alarmingly keen eye and mind for their work. As you make your way around the island it is inevitable that a few puzzles will stop you dead in your tracks and the solutions will elude you for substantial lengths of time. To put it plainly many of The Witness’ puzzles are simply… diabolical. Impressively, despite the fact there is approximately six-hundred of them, the mechanics shift and combine in so many interesting ways that you’ll rarely feel you’re simply solving the same puzzle repeatedly. As soon as you become comfortable, a new level of complexity will be thrown in and you will be forced to rethink your approach. It can often turn into a maddening struggle involving equal parts frustration and elation. There is no finer feeling than conquering a puzzle that appeared to be all but impossible, and often things can be made easier by spreading yourself around the island and learning skills from particular puzzles that you can apply elsewhere.
There are endless stop-and-stare moments in the game
Where will you be when the acid hits?
Everywhere you care to look you will find some intriguing tiny detail. It feels like you are walking through an expertly crafted and constantly shifting painting
More and more, puzzle games are revealing themselves as very interesting vehicles for stories. The Portal series, Catherine, The Talos Principle and Braid all proved that a puzzler can do more than simply present the player with rooms of puzzles, and indeed the very cerebral act of solving a difficult puzzle can naturally extend itself to high-concept storytelling. The Witness takes a subdued stance on storytelling, however its rich world does tell a tale of sorts. Much like a painting that can’t verbally describe its story, The Witness often says very little and allows many perceptions. Look hard enough and you’ll find audio log quotes that detail the philosophies of famous thinkers such as behaviourist B.F. Skinner and writer Henry Miller, and these will give you insight into the inspiration behind The Witness. Again, to say too much is to spoil the experience and you ought to be allowed your own take, but there are certain thematic similarities to the original Bioshock, in which you are forced to contemplate the complex nature of player agency. I felt like the game lived and breathed and somehow knew me, as if it had drawn my entire being and presented small pieces of it for me to examine.
The Witness often plays with perspective to great effect
This is where the Ewoks come to chill and solve puzzles
I have spent approximately twenty hours traipsing across its island’s beautiful topography, but alas I am yet to finish The Witness. The game’s immensity is such that you could spend well over fifty hours and still may not have finished every puzzle or discovered every secret. I have completed seven areas of the island and have made headway on many more, but the puzzles have gotten to a point that progress has slowed. I know that every solution is undoubtedly in front of me, if only I could just reach out and grab it… Perhaps one day I will find out what’s at the end of Satan’s rainbow, but probably not soon.
Ain’t no mountain high enough
In deciding a score for this game I decided to not question what was right with it, but rather ask what was wrong with it. The answer to that is nothing, and for this reason I am giving it my first perfect score. Blow’s team should be commended for their creation which has been sculpted with a painstaking eye for detail and manages to execute a well-conceived vision perfectly. The mind-boggling challenges and unparalleled visual splendour of The Witness combine into something truly astounding. A word of warning, if you do not like puzzle games that test your logic and observation skills you will neither enjoy nor appreciate the game. For those that do, The Witness represents one of the finest, most rewarding and ludicrously challenging experiences out there.
Reviewed on PS4