A Sight to Behold
I recently got the chance to review Jonathan Blow’s The Witness for AdventureGamers, and it impressed me so much I’m telling everyone I know about it! It isn’t in any way, shape, or form a follow-up to Blow’s previous game, Braid, other than the fact that, like its forerunner, The Witness will really and truly challenge your puzzle-solving skills to their utmost measures.
You wake up…well, to be honest, it’s not so much clear whether it’s actually waking…okay, you find yourself completely enclosed inside a small, black tube at game’s start, not much taller than yourself. The only light comes from up ahead of you; as you move closer, you see it’s a door set into the sealed end of the tunnel, with a panel set within it. An on-screen prompt urges you to press the ‘X’ button, causing a cursor to appear on-screen, which you can then click and drag across the panel, following a linear groove horizontally across its face from left to right. Pushing ‘X’ again, you’re rewarded with a computer-y swish sound, and the door swings open. You’ve just completed your first puzzle in The Witness. One down, 600-plus still to go.
This, and the next ten or so puzzle panels that appear within an enclosed area, is how The Witness teaches you its most basic tricks; by the time you leave this area ten to fifteen minutes later and embark upon an open-world exploration of a whole island absolutely teeming with puzzley goodness, you’ve already learned everything you need to know to play the game. The controls are truly that simple, and nothing happens for the remainder of this 20-30 hour (or more, depending on your mental acuity and drive for completion) adventure that makes the gameplay any more complex – no unlockable abilities, no items that let you interact with the world in new ways, no upgrades or stat increases to access new areas.
The Witness is as simple to play as it is elegant to look upon; in fact, it became frustrating knowing that I failed to solve some puzzles not because I didn’t have the required item or ability, but simply because my brain wasn’t picking up on the necessary clues. Puzzles get harder – much harder, in fact – but all of them can be solved if thought through in the right context. When you’re stuck, the only thing keeping you from moving on is yourself. That’s about as fair as you can expect from a puzzle game.
And get stuck I did, quite a lot. The Witness featured a very satisfying phenomenon, where it is actually advisable to walk away from a puzzle, maybe even the game, when you get stuck, mull it over in your head, and come back to it later or the next day, with a fresh approach and maybe a new idea or two. There were numerous times I solved a puzzle in the shower the next morning or on my way home from work, just by letting my mind wander. It felt great knowing I was capable of solving these puzzles on my own!
The game takes a simple premise of drawing a line to reach the end of a puzzle maze and incorporates it into so many unique and challenging forms that the formula rarely ever gets old. But even more than the puzzles, the environment literally pulled me to keep going, just one more, and explore every nook and cranny of the island, even after I could have entered the final area to finish the game. The island is gorgeously detailed and spooky at the same time, all deserted structures and buildings, and my imagination quite literally ignited with a fever-pitch trying to picture it all as a lived-in community, to infer how its inhabitants must have lived before they, well…disappeared? There are definitely some questions raised while exploring the island, though most of them sadly go unanswered; the game doesn’t provide much of a narrative or payoff, or I’m simply too dense to grasp it from its few scattered audio logs. This was one of the only aspects I knocked it for in my review, though ultimately it’s a small price to pay for a more enigmatic sense of exploration.
If you can deal with puzzles at all, and enjoy giving your imagination a bit of free reign as opposed to being spoon-fed a narrative, do yourself a favor and give The Witness an honest go. It’s already one of the best games I’ve played in quite some time!