The Witness review
After Braid’s great success, creator Jonathan Blow took all of its profits and poured them into a new ambitious game. Eight years later, the result is The Witness, an incredible first-person exploration puzzle game. It is a game that truly embraces a sense of wonder, making every discovery worthwhile and rewarding. This is a wholly unique game experience brought on by a developer who clearly put his blood, sweat, and tears into every aspect. That being said, The Witness is not a game for everybody. It requires a huge amount of persistence and dedication, which can be frustrating to those lacking patience.
Throughout my many days playing from start-to-finish, it was all I thought about. I would begin to see lines, grids, and shapes in my sleep and have an epiphany upon waking. When we discuss video games as art forms or as transcendent experiences, this is the game that should be at the forefront of our conversations.
In written word, it is impossible to explain why this game is so amazing; it truly must be experienced first-hand. At its core, there are two mechanics: walking around in first-person and solving maze puzzles. Every puzzle is solved by tracing a line from designated starting and end points using the correct route. For some reason, tracing lines feels incredibly good and satisfying. Moving the analog stick propels your line with graceful, smooth precision. It may seem like a minute point to discuss, but it just goes to show how carefully executed every aspect is.
Perhaps what is most incredible about The Witness is its ability to teach intricate lessons without ever speaking a single word. Puzzles are divided into “sets” and you will need to learn the unique mechanics of each puzzle set in order to progress. For example, simpler puzzles may involve tracing your line over scattered black dots before reaching the endpoint while more difficult ones may involve forming and arranging Tetris blocks within the borders of your line. Doing this abstractly in your head can prove to be mind-numbing, so The Witness is best experienced with graph paper by your side. Fans of old-school dungeon crawlers will love the pen-and-paper aspect.
This game is not for those who give up easily and you will certainly have to work hard in order to succeed.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects to keep in mind is that no accomplishment will go unrewarded. Keep in mind that using a guide will drastically take away from that experience. The feeling of finally solving certain puzzles after being stuck for a long period of time is very similar to that of a difficult boss fight. It is a feeling of relief and victory that only a gamer is familiar with. Taking time to learn the “language” of a puzzle will yield breathtaking results, which cannot really be discussed as that would be approaching spoiler territory.
What is most important to remember when playing The Witness is that it is often helpful to take a break from puzzles you are stumped on and come back at a later time. Upon returning, what seemed impossible before will now seem simple and you’ll be kicking yourself for not understanding. More often than not, that particular puzzle seemed impossible because you had not “learned it” yet.
Each puzzle type will be taught to you thoroughly in a specific portion of the island. An emphasis is put on exploration of the entire island, so focusing too hard on one area can be counterproductive. In this way, there are similarities to the Metroidvania style. In Metroid, certain portions of the level are locked behind a closed door and the only way to open it is to backtrack at a later time with a new item such as an ice cannon, rocket, bombs, etc. This same principle applies to The Witness except doors or sections are is unlocked solely by knowledge within your own head! For example, if there is a puzzle that features black and white circles and you have no idea what that means or how to solve it, you must return at a later time after the game has taught you how to solve that specific puzzle type.
Masterfully composed of different landscapes, biomes, and structures, the island itself is absolutely beautiful. Every color imaginable is present and you’ll want to take plenty of time to marvel at the breathtaking scenery. As a first-person exploration game alone, it’s a marvelous experience. Places like the orchard will fill your eyes with the brightest color pink imaginable. This is similarly true for the color-coded botanical greenhouse and “shady trees” area which perfectly illustrates the fall season. These breathtaking areas are just a portion of The Witness’ incredible atmosphere and rich world. Its sense of discovery is only reinforced by the simple-yet-complex puzzle panels scattered throughout the various environments. Together they work in perfect harmony to deliver a beautifully mysterious adventure.
After getting through the game’s simple beginning maze puzzles and stepping out into a vastly rich open world, I soon began to understand that the objective is to completely solve each puzzle area. After a lot of dedication and perseverance, I managed to get through every single one of the desert temple’s grueling puzzles which resulted in a giant laser beam being activated and shooting directly at the mountain’s peak. The feeling of satisfaction I got from this was that of completing a difficult temple in a Legend of Zelda game. In a sense, each of The Witness’ “puzzle zones” is comparable to the many temples scattered throughout Hyrule. Completion of a certain number of zones unlocks a mystery within the mountain. Seeing what secrets were inside was enough motivation for me to continue racking my brain and trudge on with my journey.
I found myself unable to put this game down and unable to think about anything else during my 30+ hours of gameplay. I was completely taken away into a beautifully detailed world full of discovery and wonder. I always wanted to keep exploring and discovering mysteries. All of the island’s secrets were out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered by me. Throughout my playthrough, I found a fair amount of the secrets and solved every “zone”, but I knew there was still more to The Witness. The amount of depth held within The Witness is astounding on so many levels, whether it be from a content standpoint or a philosophical discourse. A game with no clear narrative and no written or spoken instruction has taught me so much. The Witness is a must-play for 2016 and one of the most important games of this generation.
- Beautifully detailed environment
- Incredible sense of discovery
- Brilliant puzzle design
- Highly rewarding
- Tons of secret content
- Engaging world