Has your friend ever found a partner that you just couldn’t stand, but they were hopelessly in love with? It’s almost as if Thursday game night is not important anymore, and your friend’s entire world is encapsulated by a person who you think resembles a buffalo. But enough about my high school years – The Witness by none other than Braid creator Jonathan Blow is exactly like this. You’re either going to love it and it’ll consume your thoughts, time and emotions; or you’ll fail to understand why everyone seems to be playing a thinly veiled IQ test instead of Counter Strike.
Regardless of how you feel, The Witness is game that not only demands your attention, but deserves it.
Digital dog treats
Without ruining too much, The Witness begins by locking you up in a claustrophobic’s nightmare. You can’t move anywhere but forward – mainly because if you tried you’d hit the wall. After you do some menial puzzles in the form of basic mazes, you open up into a larger area where you do some puzzles that are connected to each other… which opens into the main play area.
This is the first example of how the game rewards players. First, the game presents the player with a simple puzzle so that the player can understand what is required from them. Then they present the player with more complex puzzles using the same principle (or others that they learned in the past). Once the player solves this, the game rewards the player with a beautiful vista, an intriguing snippet of the game narrative or with more freedom.
Throw in some basic exploration and there, in a nutshell, you have The Witness in terms of gameplay. The game essentially consists of the player walking from area to area solving maze puzzles with different variations until they unlock the next area or bonus. The beauty of these maze puzzles is that they can all be solved without the player exploring much or even looking for clues… but then the player needs an IQ comparable to Einstein. This is where the game becomes a little more interesting.
The player is bound to encounter a puzzle which their mind cannot solve through logic alone. This is where being a Witness to the environment helps – clues are scattered all around the player, from broken twigs on the ground, to the movements of the clouds above the player. In fact, certain areas use logic from areas that have no locked door or reward – they just look similar to the art style of the harder version, linking the two for the player to figure out for himself.
This is fortunate, because The Witness does not hold your hand in any way. There isn’t even a menu screen before starting. The player is essentially alone – and it creates a beautiful, haunting atmosphere.
Did you Myst me?
A lot of people are thinking by now, “Hey this is the spiritual successor to Myst!” Well, not quite.
While the utter loneliness, and even the atmosphere the game is able to achieve feels similar to Myst, it doesn’t achieve the same effect at the end of the day. This is due to a few differences. Myst had a complex story and characters as well as a world that felt rewarding when exploring it. While The Witness does have some of these elements, they are not the primary focus, and if the player is expecting something like Myst they will truly have an empty experience and will probably end up a little more than disappointed.
However, that is not to say that The Witness is bland or unfulfilling. It’s not trying to be the spiritual successor to Myst. It’s its own game, and quite a personal one at that. Jonathan Blow has said that Braid is game of personal reflection, and I suspect that The Witness is no different. This is a rare treat of expression from a game designer who sees the creation of a game the same as an artist forges his vision with any other medium. And this comes through in more ways than one.
The scenery of the game is full of symbolism for the observant player, with some obvious and some not so obvious. The game constantly surprises players with recordings from the past, filling in the blanks to the story, or perhaps inspiring the player’s own imagination to reflect on what is being said. I often felt like The Witness evoked a similar feeling players get when they play Journey or Flower – because the game is majestic in the way it is created and the way it delivers on its promise to the player.
However, even the Mona Lisa has a few cracks.
Bear witness to your frustration
The game is hard – but fair.
Often the game would make me want to throw my PS4 out of the window onto some unsuspecting passer-by.
This is because sometimes the game would stop you in your tracks by changing the rules of the puzzles – and just when you thought you had it all figured out too. The Witness is really good at making you feel like a Neanderthal at a spelling bee – utterly clueless.
Luckily the game’s peaceful open world allows you to wander through it, notice some things you haven’t before and then go back to the puzzle and wonder why it was so hard for you in the first place. This is just one example of how well the game design of brutal puzzles meets open world in the game pans out.
However, the game only offers puzzles in the form of these maze panels, which could become tedious for some players, and sometimes unlocking these puzzles or exploring the world doesn’t offer the same kind of reward players are usually used to. A cynical interpretation of the game could boil the experience down to walking from point A to B and solving maze puzzles.
This could cause some players to give up on the game early and challenge some players to grind on through. Either way, I would have liked to see more of a variation of puzzles, and I had to leave the game for a while and come back to it to push on through sometimes.
Sentencing The Witness
Overall, The Witness delivers on challenging puzzles in an atmospheric world. The variety of the puzzles sits squarely on the different rules the game introduces, and only the patient will be able to really appreciate what The Witness has to offer.
While other games rely on humour, action or short bursts of adrenaline to keep the player going, The Witness takes a step back and just asks that the player participate. In the simplest way, the player himself is The Witness to something that can be incredibly painful, or incredibly beautiful – depending on what they’re basing their judgement on.
Last Updated: February 4, 2016