The Witness

Looking at the city over the island's bay

Puzzles are something nearly everyone can get behind. Some are good at them, some are not so good at them, but completing a puzzle has this universal thrill to it, and the 2016 release The Witness taps into that by creating an entire island that is effectively a single puzzle for the player to solve. From the mind of Jonathan Blow, The Witness is an open world puzzle game reminiscent of Myst. The central game mechanic is simple in and of itself: draw the correct solution to a maze. Many other constraints and nuances present themselves as the game goes on. Some puzzles require the player to section off different colors of blocks or create certain Tetris style shapes with their path through the maze. The Witness communicates the requirements of these new puzzles intelligently. The method mirrors academic learning. It presents us with the simplest version of the new mechanic, and then slowly works us towards the more difficult versions, weaving in old puzzle styles we’ve encountered before along the way.

The style of The Witness is very minimalistic. Not much more is on this puzzle-filled island than needs to be. Just about every inch of it is important in one way or another. Maybe it’s less of a “minimalist” mindset and more “use every part of the animal” type of philosophy. Either way, the island is chock full of tricks that all add to this eerie feeling of the player being the only inhabitant of this island. The art and graphics are not cutting edge. I would be best off comparing them to The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker in that they are vibrant and inviting. Again, this choice of art style makes the fact that the island is void of all life other than the player kind of unnerving.

The island is divvied up into different sections, and a different style of puzzle inhabits each part of the island. The puzzles are fitting for each environment. For example, the sun is used as an asset while solving puzzles in the desert and trees help provide visual aid for solving puzzles in the apple orchard. Like most games, the difficulty of the puzzles ramps up as the player progresses through each of the areas. At the end of each section, a final puzzle is solved in order to rev up these massive lasers that focus in on the peak of the island’s central mountain. While The Witness is open world, there is certainly a sort of order through which progressing in the game is easiest. When I found myself confronted with a new puzzle mechanic I was not familiar with as the centerpiece of a puzzle, I backtracked and tried to find out where this one was explained. In most cases, I did find the tutorial-esque panels and was able to finish the other puzzles with my newfound knowledge.

The Witness absolutely nails the concept of rewarding the player for solving puzzles. Even though each puzzle rewards the player with more puzzles, the satisfaction of completing them and the mechanical whirr of the new puzzle panels lighting up keeps the player going. After completing an area, there's nothing more satisfying than watching the laser take aim and fire at the mountaintop. The atmosphere of mystery also keeps the player engrossed in The Witness. The island has a town, a monastery, and even a lab, but no inhabitants. There are even statues of people scattered around the island, as though the entire population is frozen in time. I remember knocking out puzzle after puzzle late at night because I just wanted the slightest hint as to what was going on with the island.

There is almost no music in The Witness, save for a few classical pieces that accompany specific sets of puzzles. The atmosphere is created with the ambient sounds of the island: birds chirping, the tide rising and falling. The only consistent sound is the noise made by your footsteps throughout the game. Whether it’s the “tap tap” of feet on stone or a light “paf paf” on sand, your footsteps are always there and always reflective of what you’re walking on. It’s this attention to detail on top of the complexity of the puzzles that reveals the amount of thought put into The Witness. Sound plays an important part in the puzzles as well, so the sound design had to be impeccable. And it absolutely was.

The real kicker of The Witness is in its story, or lack thereof. The game opens in this dark hallway with only one direction to go: forward. For the rest of the game, this same type of encouragement for progression is used. The player’s curiosity and drive to finish the puzzles spurs the completion of more and more of The Witness. The goal is always in mind. It is all a matter of why this is the goal. Why are we solving these puzzles? Why do we need to get to the mountain? These questions and more are never truly answered during the game, which is frustrating to the player at first. After thinking about it, I knew that the lack of knowledge and purposeful vagueness had to be the point of the game. The Witness fails to provide its own title. There is nobody there to witness the actions of the player. No townsfolk to congratulate the player on accessing the laser, no overt “good job” for finishing a puzzle, no revelation in the game to tie everything up, no “ah ha!” moment, no witnesses. So maybe that is the point of it all, to question the player as to why they are going through this. Why go through the motions and triumph over the intricacies of the game if in the end there is no witness to see the work that has been done?

Audio tapes are found throughout the game, comprised of quotes from great minds like Albert Einstein or people who have experienced paradigm shattering shifts in perspective, like astronauts aboard the ISS. All of them share a common theme of the pursuit of knowledge and its importance. They all talk about the world as a whole and emphasize introspectiveness. Listening to all of these gives a new perspective of the nature of the goings on in The Witness, and also forces that introspective view that they encourage. It was very similar to taking a philosophy course condensed into Jonathan Blow’s eight hour experience. The audio tapes themselves all individually provoke some kind of thought, but together they contextualize The Witness in a sense. The game is all about thinking, and that’s just what these quotes make you do, in a broader sense than the game’s puzzles. Tying in with the lack of a witness in the game itself, perhaps Blow is trying to say something about human nature and the yearn for someone to see our accomplishments.

I would easily recommend The Witness to anyone looking for a puzzle game or a game with a unique experience. It all felt very dreamlike as the environment and gameplay came together. Solving puzzle after puzzle continued to feel rewarding and the puzzles never felt terribly frustrating or tedious. A few tips I would give are: don’t be afraid to tear yourself away from a puzzle in order to solve it, explore the island as much as possible, and definitely be sure to have some scratch paper. I did feel as though I came away from The Witness missing something about the experience as a whole; sort of like I almost completed the puzzle but I was missing one piece. In all honesty, I feel like the game operates on another level, like an allegory that I can’t quite wrap my head around. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in The Witness, and would love to hear other’s thoughts on it. From my current point of view, The Witness is like a good book. You can’t read it, play it, or experience it, without wanting to talk it over with someone.