Review: The Witness

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The Witness throws out pretty much all standard conventions from the very start of the game. There is no tutorial stage, there is no introduction, there is no expository cutscene showing players what to expect. There is just blackness fading up to a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel is a little symbol. A screen prompt offers the only real explanation of controls: pressing X frames the view and brings up a cursor which can be moved around on screen and specifically onto the symbol. A large dot indicates the starting point, and once the cursor is moved onto that portion of the screen and the X button is pressed, the cursor draws a line within the symbol. That is basically the only mechanic to learn. The rest of the game is simply learning the variations on the rules for the puzzle panels that are found throughout the island.

The setup is simple and yet rarely do games come along and provide a mental challenge of this degree but do so effortlessly and so compellingly.

[Editor’s Note: Just a quick spoiler alert before moving on. Be warned that there may be potential spoilers ahead with some of the puzzle descriptions and analysis.]

Puzzle games aren’t new, but marrying a fantastically gorgeous open-world tropical island with line puzzles (which is what The Witness basically boils down to) is definitely something never seen before. (Trust me, Myst never looked this good.) Puzzle panels appear in single instances with power cords running between them, as well as in long grids of puzzles in a row where completing one puzzle will power the next in the chain. Ultimately the game presents these puzzle chains as a means to progress into complex stations found throughout the island. Once progress is completed in a particular station, a final puzzle unlocks a laser which activates and points to an arch structure on the top of the mountain on the island.

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Each area of the island presents a different set of puzzles and even incorporates previous rule sets into new puzzles. The Witness doesn’t just throw players to the wolves with insanely hard puzzles right off the bat. Instead the succession of puzzles provides a means for learning and growing a concept until what at first seems impossibly complex is just as easily tackled.

For example, early on the puzzles are fairly straightforward. A 3×3 grid is displayed, and in one square is a black dot and in another a white dot. Moving the cursor along the lines of the maze-like grid from the start point to the end while separating the black dot from the white dot means the puzzle is solved. The next evolution of the puzzle may be a 4×4 grid with 2 black dots and 2 white dots. It’s up to the player to figure out how to draw a line through the grid to separate out both white dots from the black dots. Some puzzles are just simple separation of colored dots. However, in another section of the game the grid is swapped out with a Y-like tree branching puzzle. The solution is actually right in front of the player in the form of an apple tree where the branches of the tree mimic the puzzle (or rather the puzzle mimics the tree) and the solution is drawing the line from the base of the puzzle up to the branch of where the sole apple in the tree is. Additional complexity comes with needing to be in the correct location while looking at the tree to figure out which path is the correct line to fill. 

Things become truly devious when the succession of puzzle progress is hampered if the 3rd or 4th puzzle in a series is filled in incorrectly and all of the previous puzzles need to be re-filled before the 3rd or 4th puzzle can be attempted again. This design logic means players have to be right in order to move forward or suffer the frustration of redoing puzzles time and again.

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Other puzzles found on the island can only be solved by looking through colored filters. A grid may appear with four or five different colored dots on it, but once the grid is viewed through a yellow filter, three of the colors end up looking the same. Color plays a huge role in the overall experience of the puzzle-solving mechanic and I feel really bad for anyone who may be color blind. At times I felt the color saturation was so harsh (most likely intentional to reinforce the need to be able to solve the puzzles) that it was almost painful.

Another puzzle type, found in the island’s jungle area, translates high, medium, and low pitched sounds to positions on a grid. A grid puzzle is presented while a bird chirps behind the player’s head. High, then low. Meaning, draw the line on the grid, high then low. Puzzle solved. Move to the next. High tweet, low tweet, medium. Lines drawn accordingly. Puzzle solved. Move to the next. High tweet, car horn. What? That’s right. The devious mind of Jonathon Blow fucking with players not only with potential color blindness, but also folks with poor hearing. I struggled to hear the correct pitches so many damn times. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the audacity to create a series of puzzles like this and then mask it with obnoxious noise.

It was about halfway through my time with The Witness when I realized that I was enjoying my time with the game in spite of myself. The puzzles are challenging until they aren’t. Yes, I have doodles on a notepad as I tried to figure out how to solve various sets of puzzles. At the same time, I kept asking myself why am I doing this? Why am I exploring and bashing my head on puzzles? What is the end goal? I’d put fifteen hours into the game and had maybe explored half of the island but not once did I get any indication of why the island was there. What the purpose was. Every once in a while I would see someone who had previously lived on the island frozen as a statue. Or was it just a statue all along? The game is as vague with the history of the world as it is about the reason the player is on the island in the first place. Even when you find a bunker with a secret briefcase inside no real information is revealed. 

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And then something clicked. I was walking away from the mountain, down along the river and I was looking up at the clouds and realized that the large dot found on all of the grid puzzles was beginning to take shape in the sky. I shifted left and right and forward and back and then pressed X. I suddenly could solve a puzzle floating in the middle of the damn sky. The island doesn’t have any meaning other than it is a vehicle for more hidden puzzles. My perspective shifted.  As I moved through the various areas of the island I realized there were puzzles all around. But did they mean anything? Did they provide substance to solving what this island was? Halfway through the game I suddenly had this urge to just quit thinking about it. To just accept that the island was nothing more than a vessel for perspective based puzzles.

There are two endings to the game. I’ve finished the non-secret ending. It was fairly satisfying (if nothing else it provides a unique look at the rest of the island in the end), but I still ponder how much of my time devoted to exploring every aspect of the game will reveal an absolute satisfaction. Before I got to the end, though, I had stumbled across a room buried deep under a windmill. The room has speakers and a theater screen. Of course there is a puzzle grid and then I remembered finding a drawing in the briefcase in the bunker. Flipping through my notes I figured out how to relay the drawing on the grid and suddenly the screen flickered to life. A video presentation played out of an old James Burke show from the BBC. The jist of the video provided a calming to my unease about whether or not the island had a deeper meaning. My sense of completion waned as I realized that in some ways, the island puzzles just exist. It’s all in how things are interpreted. Do they need to have meaning to provide a purpose? Or can they just exist and I accept that my time on the island means that I tackled a series of challenges without needing anything more rewarding than learning how to overcome the puzzles themselves?

The Witness is a remarkable game. But it can also be just as frustrating as it is clever and visually stunning. What is mind blowing is how everything fits together. Every little detail is accounted for. And this is why The Witness should be experienced. Conventions of what a game should be are thrown out the window, and I can understand why some people may not enjoy the game or “get it.” The game isn’t fast paced. It is deliberate and requires introspection and paying attention to every little thing. It is different. And it is good.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Visually interesting world
+ Smart puzzle design teaches through progression
+ Clever environmental puzzles
+ Tons of extra, optional puzzles
+ Puzzles. Yes, lots of puzzles

Cons:
– Some puzzles are very frustrating
– Folks with color blindness may have trouble viewing some puzzles

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on PC
Publisher: Thekla
Developer: Thekla
Release Date: 1/26/2016
Genre: Adventure/Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: PlayStation Store, Steam

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.