The Witness is an exercise in logic, applying your learning to hundreds of puzzles.
My desk is covered in pieces of paper, each riddled with lines, puzzle observations and crude, map-like drawings. The cause of this is The Witness, Jonathan Blow’s latest puzzle game – a creation years in the making that’s as beautiful and intricate as it is challenging and, sometimes, frustrating.
As the player you wake up alone on a brightly coloured island, making the trek along a dark tunnel into the light. After emerging you’re asked to wander the island and solve what puzzles you can; there’s no tutorial, no guide to show you how to do this – it’s a process of learning, making mistakes, giving up, and trying new things.
This learning is at the core of the experience. While the puzzles all take the form of line mazes, there’s a huge amount of variety and twists in how they work. The vast majority of puzzles on the island adhere to specific rules, dictated by the symbols on the puzzle or the type of puzzle itself. To discover how each of these rules work (other than sometimes getting lucky with a guess), you must journey further into the island and find the simpler, starter puzzle set which teaches you the ropes. It’s a neat system that encourages you to continue exploring and to leave puzzles you just can’t solve, ready to revisit with fresh eyes and new information later on.Without a traditional story the game relies on you completing puzzles in each of the different zones, with the goal of pointing beams of light to the towering mountain soon emerging. This isn’t as simple as completing just one string of puzzles – you’ll chase wires that weave across a town or through a castle in order to power up the beam. There’s a great sense of curiosity as you try to figure out what puzzle will unlock the next door or power up a wire; it always gives you something to chase when trying to move forward.
The problem comes when you get stuck, and get stuck I did. There’s no help, no hints, and no roadmap to progression (unless you’re willing to visit the internet for help). You’re left simply to wander and attempt new things till something clicks, which can take quite a while. This does however lead into one of the best aspects of The Witness; its vibrant colours and winding paths, which act like white space on a website, allowing you to refocus and relax as you wander off in frustration from a puzzle. The dead ends and roads less trodden often deliver a new perspective on the world – simple views of the island before you that feel very real. The simple visual style is a real treat here, making the island feel like a character of its own.After travelling around the island by boat and finding some of the voice memos and statues, returning to a difficult puzzle can be quite rewarding. The sense of success when you complete that one puzzle plaguing you, thinking critically about the rules that influence it, is unparalleled in puzzle games. There’s no gimmicks or sneaky tricks, it’s like completing a sudoku – you have all the tools at your disposal to solve it, it’s just a matter of making the right choices. The majority of the puzzles in The Witness are like this – fair but difficult, built around a logic you may not quite understand yet.
This cannot be said for every single puzzle though, with one type causing some painful issues – sound based puzzles. Sometimes the sound wouldn’t trigger properly, or would be mixed in a poor way so that important factors were completely indiscernible without a headset. After doing some research I found quite a few people were plagued by this, turning to brute forcing a puzzle or looking for help online in order to proceed. Since these didn’t really require the learning of a rule they don’t impact the overall learning progression too much, but it’s a bit of a shame to see after the majority of the puzzles are so well crafted. Unfortunately, a lot of my time in The Witness was tarnished by one major issue – motion sickness. Which is a first for me while playing video games. When I first started the game I couldn’t play it for more than fifteen to twenty minutes without getting a severe headache and nausea. After some research I found others shared my pain, with no crosshair, the field of vision, and character movement (or a combination of all three) seemingly to blame. Steam notes confirmed a patch is on the way to begin to address this, but I found placing a small blu-tack crosshair in the centre of the screen was a good temporary solution, vastly improving the amount of time I could play before feeling ill.
The Witness is a wondrous puzzle experience that gives you reason to explore and learn as you wander the vibrant world. Beyond the core puzzles there are beautiful views and tonnes of secrets to discover, suited to long play sessions and quick puzzle solving sprees. The feeling of success when you figure out that one puzzle you’ve been stuck on far outweighs the few less than stellar puzzles and, motion sickness issues aside, ultimately delivers a worthwhile and challenging game experience – just be sure to bring a notepad with you.
Developer: Thekla Inc.
Publisher: Thekla Inc.
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4 (reviewed), iOS (2016)
A review code was provided by the publisher.