I’ve been wanting to play The Witness ever since Ryan Davis talked about it years ago. He, and Brad Shoemaker, managed to get a secret tour of Jonathan Blow’s studio years before the game even had a proper name. Everything the guys said about the game sounded right up my street – an entire island made up of little puzzles where they all interconnect with each other and expand on each others rules sounded amazing.
Suffice to say, after 30+ hours in the game with my other half, The witness delivered on most, if not all promises that were made in the run up to the game’s release, and in interviews afterwards.
So what is The Witness? Simply put, it’s a walking simulator whereby you walk around an island and solve line puzzles. If anything, that simplification may actually be doing something of a disservice to The Witness, because it’s so much more.
You start off in a tunnel, where the only way your player can go is forward. From the very offset, The Witness is telling you that there’ll be no hand-holding in this adventure, with everything you need to know being conveyed using the world and the environment itself. This point is pushed home not just 5 seconds later, when you come across a door which has the first puzzle you need to solve on. Before you can begin the game properly, you need to press X on the first puzzle, which is impossible to fail. On this first board/screen, you’re presented with a simple line – at one end, a circle, at the other, the end of the line. Simply pressing X within the circle at the left begins a line to wherever you direct it – pressing X again once you’ve directed the line to the end solves the puzzle. Simple right?
Well, whilst it starts off simple, this premise soon gets expanded upon no end, with other boards adding symbols or colours to represent new untold rules. These new rules will always be introduced in a nice, gentle manner; similar to the way the first ever puzzle was introduced. Once you start to get used to a new rule, the proceeding puzzles will push your knowledge of this new rule to the limit, even pushing you so far as to combine your knowledge of other puzzles too. This introduction -> expansion -> mastery loop is genuinely fantastic, and constantly makes you feel like a genius each time you master a new rule. There are times where a few guesses will successfully get you through a few puzzles, but these moments , if anything, help you to master a new rule even more – as you’re constantly looking at why your guesses succeeded, and what the difference is between new puzzles.
I seem to have gotten ahead of myself a little – as I haven’t explained why you’re solving these puzzles. The genuine answer is intrigue. As per the core gameplay loop whereby nothing is explained and it’s up to you to figure out the meaning of the puzzles, the same happens on the island you play upon. As you explore and walk around the island finding new boards, you’ll notice little structures and untold stories – all of which are, as their names imply, completely untold. It’s up to you to decide, or interpret what happened on this island, and why all these boards exist.
On top of this, there’s many hidden tapes to find throughout the island. When found and activated, the tapes go ahead and play a fantastic, and somewhat unrelated speech by a philosopher or scientist in the real world. Whilst I enjoyed finding this hidden tapes, my other half was certainly confused, and found their presence annoying, as she couldn’t make sense as to why they existed. For what it’s worth, whilst I agree they felt a little abstract, I enjoyed listening to these thought provoking statements whilst stretching my brains capacity in trying to figure out puzzle solutions.
The island you explore is huge, and the amount of variety in the puzzles you find is insane! I was about to go into detail in how they all differentiate from each other, but I feel in knowing what to look out for would ruin the surprise and satisfaction you get from learning a puzzles rule by yourself. Don’t take these words lightly; The Witness will have you feeling like an idiot, and a genius, all at the same time.
Graphically, The Witness is stunning. Minimalism is the theme here, but it’s not minimalism without detail. Everything on the island is bright and saturated to high heaven, with geometry standing out to make sure you notice subtle environment cues which could help solve puzzles. It’s not a stretch to say that any screenshot you take within The Witness is frame-able, with stunning views and amazing attention to detail even in every nook and cranny. All this stunning art on display becomes all the more vibrant on a PS4 Pro with a 4K HDR screen – so much so that when I tried to play the game again on PC I couldn’t get over how much of a difference the transition made.
There is one cause for concern – the core of the game itself. Whilst I personally loved the theme of The Witness, and lavished every moment I spent figuring out puzzles or exploring, I can see why for some people this type of game would rub them up completely the wrong way. The lack of instructions, direction, or anything to propel you along any given path can be seen as a disadvantage to some gamers. Bear this in mind if you find “walking simulators” like Dear Esther a little too dull or non-linear.
So should you go out and buy a copy of the Witness? Wholeheartedly yes. Even if it’s just to experiment with a puzzle game to see how far you can get, The Witness pushes the limit of what it means to be a puzzle game, making you as a player feel simultaneously clever, and stupid, all at once. I didn’t finish every puzzle in the game, and certainly didn’t find all the island had to offer me, but I know for a fact I’ll keep coming back to The Witness, just to chip away at it time and time again.