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The Witness (PC) artwork

The Witness (PC) review


"The answers are there and consistent with the game's logic."


The Witness (PC) image


It's pretty much impossible to bring up The Witness without comparing it to Myst. This is an unfortunate situation for me to be in, because I hate Myst yet strongly recommend The Witness. They're both first-person puzzle games that drop players, with no initial explanation, onto mysterious and seemingly uninhabited islands littered with illogically convoluted mechanisms. There's no getting away from how similar the two premises are, so if you're as impartial to the 1993 graphic adventure as I am, Jonathan Blow's latest is a tough sell.

And yet I loved The Witness because it dodges what I'd argue is the defining characteristic of its inspiration: obtuseness. I always felt that Myst lacked a central, driving mechanic; its puzzles were only "related" in that they shared disc space. This robbed the game of any sense of accumulating knowledge or skill, since we were essentially wiping the board clean every time we encountered a new challenge.

That's not an accusation that many people will raise against The Witness. It is, singularly, a game about solving maze puzzles. It is never not a game about solving maze puzzles. That consistent, unifying objective is what keeps The Witness engrossing for such an impressively long period of time. While Blow and his team at Thekla, Inc. throw us curve balls constantly, the game never rewrites its rules so much as it adds to them. When we're confronted with something we haven't seen before, we know that it'll end with us drawing a line from a starting point to a finishing point. We might need to work out how, exactly what shape the line will take, but we know where this is going.

The Witness (PC) image


The Witness demonstrates one of the most impressive juggling routines I've lately seen in a game, in that it's aggressively tutorialized and yet steadily maintains the illusion that we're master problem-solvers, figuring this stuff out with zero help. One of the big reasons it's so successful is because Blow refuses to employ text, narration, or any sort of concrete explanation for what we're meant to be doing. He eases players into progressively more complex situations, dead-set on never thrusting them too quickly into challenges that they're ill-equipped to solve. So committed is he to this slow pace that the campaign took me nearly 30 hours to complete, and there's still more content here than I'll ever touch. The puzzles supposedly number in the 700s.

The opening minutes are spent getting the basics down, players being introduced to this whole maze thing, beginning with a puzzle that consists of literally a single, straight line, and gradually adding more dead ends to the point that a couple of the panels might take you an extra second or two to solve. Then you're free to roam the island at your leisure, with virtually no restrictions. It's divided into at least a dozen major sections, each visually distinctive and hosting their own mechanical "themes."

While I'm hesitant to spoil many of the twists, since most of them are quite clever and figuring them out for yourself is kind of the point, one of the first that you'll run into is the inclusion of black and white dots on the standard grid. The point, you'll quickly realize, is to separate them; you need to draw lines that divide the two colors into their own groups. The first puzzle to utilize this mechanic is a two-square grade with one black dot and one white. You need only draw a single, straight line splitting them. Then the grids become bigger and the colors become more scattered, more interspersed. Later, the dots will come in more colors, and will be paired with other rules from other areas.

The Witness (PC) image


Just about any region on the map can be accessed right from the start, though you'll often lack the understanding required to get there until you're formally trained. If you come across an early maze sprinkled with stars and propeller symbols before you've been taught what those signify, yes, technically those are solvable now, but you're unlikely to figure them out until you've been more gently eased into these concepts elsewhere. The game feels a bit akin to the way a Metroid world opens up as your inventory expands, except instead of gaining new items, you're uncovering fresh knowledge.

That wonderful exploratory direction – coupled with the crisp, attractive and colorful look of the island itself – is part of why The Witness works so well, and one of two reasons that Blow couldn't have just slapped the base puzzles against a static menu and called it a day. The other reason is a bit more practical: because the environment itself often plays a role in the solutions. Again, I won't spoil how it works, but the frequent revelation that these computer monitors are not entirely unrelated to the world around them is among the game's best surprises.

So you'd be surprised how much material they mined from a seemingly simple concept, but a game as long as this obviously isn't airtight, and it's got some subjective highs and lows. Just as everyone who plays The Witness will walk away with a unique favorite area – mine was the bonsai temple – they'll also almost unfailingly hit a brick wall, a spot that broke them and forced them to finally consult a guide. It was the sound-based puzzles that did me in, particularly when they revolved around listening for pitch changes that, even after knowing the answer, I couldn't really discern.

The Witness (PC) image


But as much as I'd have liked for the game to never let me down, in a title spanning dozens of hours and housing hundreds of puzzles, it's an impressive batting average that there were maybe five that I felt were sloppily designed. And in every case where I didn't cave, I was ultimately happy that I did so – for as impossible as some of these seem, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answers are there and consistent with the game's logic. Trust The Witness to know what it's doing. And hell, take as much time as you want – aside from one optional challenge area, nothing on this island is timed or reflex-based. I can't remember the last time a game this difficult felt this relaxing.

The Witness is brilliant – beautiful, almost perfectly paced and a joy to explore. The one outstanding question is whether there's any meaning to all of this, and due to the game's complete lack of exposition, it could take months of fans obsessively routing through the island's visual details before we have an answer. The ending is impressively ambiguous, the sort of thing most people will either find delightfully pretentious or insufferably pretentious.

Unusually, I fall into the middle – I don't think that the story ultimately has much meaning, but that lack of a point is, bizarrely, a point in and of itself. As you probably know, Blow became an industry celebrity when his last piece of work, Braid, turned out to be a smash hit. That game is largely famous for doing some subversive stuff with interactive narrative and player perspective, and I'd imagine that there was tremendous pressure for his follow-up project – seven or eight years in the making – to similarly carve new territory.

And yet, having experienced The Witness in its entirety, and loving it and knowing why I love it, I really don't think that this was Blow's intention. To my mind, he just wanted to create a big, lovely world full of imaginative puzzles. He wanted to make a fun game, in other words, and that's not a low standard to hold oneself to. I imagine that The Witness's strange and likely nonsensical ending is Blow flipping the bird at those expecting his games to fall into a predetermined category. Don't play The Witness for its story; play it because it's refreshing to be this challenged by a video game unconcerned with mortal stakes. It's unquestionably one of the deepest, richest releases of its kind.

5/5

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (February 03, 2016)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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holdthephone posted February 03, 2016:

Interesting take! Pretty accurate on how Blow works or even tries harder than he needs to. Braid is one of my favorite indie games and I personally thought it could've done without its post-game explanation of its own meaning. The game speaks for itself and was pretty powerful without all the nuclear bomb nonsense. In fact, I like to pretend it's not in there. I'm sure the Witness is also just a straight up enjoyable piece of game design and doesn't need all the extra layers to be considered something masterful.
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Suskie posted February 03, 2016:

Weirdly enough, I just learned that The Witness has a secret extra ending that I haven't seen. I'm a little afraid to look into it precisely because I'm so happy with the theory I've come up with here, but eh, if I don't like it, I may do what you did with Braid and just pretend it's not there.

Thanks a lot for reading :)

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