The Witness Review: A Puzzle Paradise
The Witness is set on an island, an amalgamation of the world’s landscapes: a sunny desert, an autumnal lumber yard, a verdant rainforest, and more sit frozen in time. Everything in the game gives off an air of artificial beauty, owing to the realistic cell-shaded art style used. Take the water around the island, for instance, which perfectly reflects light off its surface: it looks gorgeous, but never could be real. The island is a grouping of idealized landscapes, a group that comes together to create a lovely piece of land to explore. However, you aren’t just on the island to explore. You are also here to solve puzzles.
Puzzles in The Witness are very simple in their basic form: on a large square grid, made up of smaller squares, trace a path from the start to the finish. While this concept is easy to grasp, the game adds a number of different elements to puzzles that require the player to follow certain rules in order to find the solution. One example is having to form a Tetris-like shape (such as a T) around a specific square before tracing the path to the finish. In other cases, the visual and audio environment will hold hints to the solution, or perhaps certain squares need to be separated from others ones, with the traced path as the divider. The variety of rule sets and ways to solve puzzles is impressive. Each rule set is easy to understand in its simplest form, but each one is also capable of expanding into complex and thought-provoking logic systems.
Different areas of the island will introduce these new rule sets to the player through a series of simple puzzles. There are no tutorials through text or audio here – instead, the player has to discover the pattern themselves through these tutorial boards. The game becomes more difficult when the player moves on to the real puzzles, puzzles that will take the initial rules that the player has discovered, and change them in interesting, but fair, ways. After discovering each solution, the player learns a little bit about the rule set. This feeling of discovery really starts to manifest when puzzles begin to combine two or more rule sets from other areas on the island. At these points, the combination of rule sets make the player rethink what they already know, and apply this knowledge in a new way.
In fact, a lot of The Witness is about applying knowledge in a new way. The game should serve as a paragon for puzzle-game programmers who want to understand how to pass knowledge to the player in a slow, but constant, fashion. The puzzles in an area are generally set up so that they become more difficult as they go on, as you may expect. What isn’t expected though is the expertise with which The Witness balances teaching moments and moments where you need to apply the knowledge you have been given. Nearly every puzzle both serves as a challenge of your current understanding of the rule set while forcing you to modify that understanding ever so slightly. Going back and looking at old solutions will show the player that the new learned rule still applied in old puzzles.
The puzzles in The Witness are complex combinations of very simple ideas, and it’s how the player learns the rules for the complex combinations, all through experiencing puzzles, that makes the game so well crafted. The variety of puzzles types is also appealing, since the player can often go off and try a completely different type of puzzle if the one they are working on is getting too frustrating. More often than not, upon returning to a puzzle that stumped the player for a half-hour, the player will find that they find the solution almost immediately. This is a credit to the fact that there is such variety of puzzle types in The Witness that different types of logic and perspective are needed to find all solutions. After using one way of thinking to solve one set of puzzles, the player will find that this way of thinking can help them solve other sets, too.
There are a lot of puzzles in The Witness. About 500 of them lay around the island, some in obvious areas, and others in hidden, underground bunkers. While they share rule sets or solution concepts, there are hardly any puzzles that re-hash old ideas. Instead, each puzzle does something a little differently than the rest. Mostly all puzzles are realistically solvable, although there are a few dozen or so aimed at the most hard core of puzzle fans, requiring paper, pen, and a lot of willpower. The Witness’ island also has a lot of secrets along side the puzzles. Most are small things that make the game more enjoyable. Some lead to explanation of the game’s world and story. One surprising element in particular stuck me as especially awesome, as my discovery of it led me to believe that there are perhaps seventy or so puzzles on the island that require a completely different skill set to solve from all the rest. While I enjoyed solving this specific (and completely optional) set of puzzles, I can understand some people finding them a bit tedious to solve, as they can require time and patience.
So where does all this puzzle solving lead to? Well, solving puzzles in The Witness will eventually lead the player to the top of a mountain, where the final parts of the game begin. Along the way towards the game’s end, players will have discovered audio logs across the island that present seemingly unrelated speeches on different aspects of human nature. The story or lore aspect of the Witness is non-traditional, and any expected satisfaction that player’s want from a tight and twisting narrative will be extremely disappointed with this aspect of the game. However, The Witness doesn’t go out of its way to trick you into thinking there will be a big pay-off like there was in the game’s developer, Jonathan Blow’s, last game, Braid. Instead, each clue to The Witness’ story should soften the player’s expectation for a big narrative twist.
Not every person who plays the Witness is going to understand what is going on halfway through the game, but those who listen to the audio logs and think about the game with some consideration will quickly see that there is a theme running throughout. While not a traditional narrative, it is still a theme that is well explained and repeated many times within the game itself. On the one hand, having no narrative in the game can be seen as a cop-out by the developers, but on the other hand, the developers took care and showed thought with the route they did decide to take. The satisfaction delivered from the presentation of the theme, and the theme itself, will be very subjective upon the player, but I was more than satisfied with the game’s message and how it was delivered.
Despite its use of a theme in place of a story, The Witness is a must-play for any fan of puzzle or logic games. The genius of the game lies in how simple the puzzles begin, yet, through a few small modifications and rules, challenge the player to rethink what they have been taught. This constant cycle of gaining knowledge and gaining new perspective is a big part of what makes the Witness so good. It’s also, non-coincidentally, what makes reading or learning new things in real life so enjoyable. It’s not learning the basics that is fun, but it’s in discovering how those basic ideas can be expanded upon, combined with other ideas, and applied to the world around us that delivers a feeling of satisfaction from knowing that we have a new perspective on the world.