Initial Release Date: January 26, 2016
Developer: Jonathon Blow
Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Publishers: Thekla, Inc
Note: So for this review, there will be a little different style. The Witness was a game that I played through with my significant other. It turned out to be an awesome co-op game – when one person cannot figure out some of the more fiendish puzzles, the other may be able to give a fresh look. Given the way I played through the game, I will also include my SO’s thoughts following my analysis.
The Witness is a tightly presented puzzle game by Braid creator Jonathan Blow, that manages to make solving hundreds of line puzzles fun. Exploring gorgeous environments, learning the secrets of the island, and pulling your hair out at times, the player is left feeling like an expert on all things logical.
The “story” of The Witness is hard to talk about without getting into spoilers. The basic premise is the player walks down a dark hallway and opens a door to an island, which contains tons of line puzzles connected by wires to doors, roofs, and other puzzles. There is no explanation to any of it, and you only know you are a human from your shadow.
Throughout the game, there are little voice recordings, mostly of influential philosophers. Some of these range from a few lines to 10+ minutes long. The player simply walks around solving the puzzles and wondering what it all means.
There are two “endings” one of which is cleverly hidden right in front of you, but plays up the whole “look at something in a new and different way” maxim that is pushed the entire game. Both endings are very interpretative, and do not necessarily explain why this singular person is meandering about an isolated island solving what appear to be deliberately placed puzzles. I have some ideas as to “what it all means” but that is best saved for an entire post.
All in all, given the wide interpretation of the ending, the story can be either somewhat clever, or downright pretentious. Initially I was left incredibly unsatisfied and craved tp know more. The more I processed the deliberateness of the ending and symbols involved, the more I could respect the choice Blow went with in concluding the game. I would definitely be interested to hear reader’s opinions on the ending.
The story was really quite mysterious, I never felt like I truly grasped what the story was trying for. However, I did enjoy the different vibrant venues that housed each of the puzzle sets. These were often littered with statutes of humans doing any manner of things – singing, dancing, eating.
The ending was very much “its about the journey, not the ending.” I was not satisfied with the ending – I was actually kind of disappointed. Once we got to the other ending, I was left with even more questions. I expected some grand reveal to explain everything that we had just seen and done. Perhaps there is something more to all of it.
The basic loop in The Witness is player discovers new themed area, learn a new rule for the puzzle theme of the area, slowly get acquainted with that rule, solve each individual puzzle while also accounting for a larger puzzle involving the zone, and finally activating a giant laser which points toward the large mountain in the center of the island.
That may not sound glamorous or even exciting. However, the game manages to sink its claws into you early on, and the sense of accomplishment and discovery motivates you to continue the journey from zone to zone.
The basic puzzles are simply a line puzzle. You start by placing a cursor into the circle start point, and draw a line through the puzzle to the end point. Easy enough, until you start learning more and more of the rules and wrinkles that different areas introduce. For instance, one area adds white and black squares inside the puzzle, and these must be separated by the line you draw between the start and end point.
Learning each of the rules and ramping up the difficulty of each rule is the marvel of the game. Without any tutorial, any text, or any guide, the game manages to introduce all of the different rules (some being very complicated) to the player. This is done through a moderate progression of the concept, ramping up the difficult slowly, and then throwing some curveballs at you.
Later, the rules start to pop up alongside other rules in later zones. This adds to the complexity of the rules, but also makes it very difficult if you stumble upon such areas before playing through their “introduction” zones. You can enter or solve any zones puzzles – their is no set path and everything is open (minus the final mountain) from the beginning.
In addition to the basic line puzzles, there is usually greater environmental puzzles at work within each of the zones. Beyond that, there is an even larger environmental puzzle at work, that requires an extreme dedication to solve, and to date, I have not been able to find anything online that purports to have unlocked what solving this “big puzzle” truly does. I don’t want to spoil much more.
Given the amount of puzzles, and the prior use of the words “complexity,” “ramping up difficulty” and “fiendish” some players may be wary of playing something too hard. The Witness is well balanced to ward off any outright brick walls of confusion. Yes, you may get stuck on a particular puzzle for awhile, but taking a step back, solving some puzzles elsewhere, then taking a new look is often the special ingredient needed to progress.
We often drew out the puzzles, cut out little tetris pieces, and took pictures of the puzzles in order to help get through the game. No puzzle took days or weeks, most were solved within minutes. We never had to rely on guide or playthrough instruction in order to get through a puzzle.
Overall, the game was incredibly fun and addictive to play through. Rushes of accomplishment from completing puzzles which had stumped you initially was incredibly satisfying. Working with the new rules, and coming to the Aha! moment when working through the nuances leaves the player feeling smart.
A few times, I booted up the game with other friends that were over, showed them the game (they were not video game players at all) and once they understood the basic premise, were drawn in immediately. They actually followed up and asked how to get the game (like I said, they don’t play games ever) and if I ever found out the ending.
Playing the The Witness with friends was really the best way to experience the game. My strategy revolved around determining what move of the line was required by the rule and working from that. My SO simply liked to throw some interesting ideas at the puzzle and see what happened. Other friends had different styles as well. All of the styles complimented one another, with one persons “breakthrough” helping to augment the thinking of another. I really believe playing through with others was the best approach into avoiding frustration, but also promoting the whole message of the game.
I would echo the above thoughts concerning the gameplay. Without introduction or tutorial, it was jarring to try to figure out how the puzzles worked. However, learning the interactions and coming to reasoned conclusions was very satisfying.
Oftentimes, we would get stuck on a puzzle only because we missed some small detail that may have been overlooked in the “introductory puzzle.” The rule involving the star pieces (stars must be grouped in pairs alone) was of particular trouble, but that was because we had missed the introduction puzzles from a different zone. That incentivized us to go back and find that zone and learn the rule.
I personally enjoyed the tetris rules the most (as those became my specialty). I don’t think I would’ve really enjoyed the game playing alone – I would have gotten frustrated early on and probably not come back to the game. However, playing the game together was a really fun experience.
Jonathon Blow has managed to bring an extremely tight and deliberate experience in The Witness. While the gameplay is addictive, the environment, sound, and graphics are also all an integral part of the experience. Not that they make it better (they do), but these factors are critical in the whole puzzle solving loop.
Soundwise, their are very basic effects as you traverse through the game. However, sound at times plays the key role in solving some of the puzzles. This may not be obvious at first, and the player must turn up the volume in order to progress.
Graphically, the game is very well polished, and the zones incorporate a blend of color and uniqueness. Again, everything is deliberately shaded, colored, or placed for a reason. It’s the magic of this meticulous planning which adds to the awe of the island. It’s also nice to look at.
Replayability relies on he players willingness to explore and really dig deep at these larger purposes Blow has seemingly planted (or intentionally not planted) into the game. Blow had a mysterious tweet where he said there is one puzzle he did not believe anyone would ultimately solve. After “beating” the game, there is a large set of puzzles that remain for the player, but as previously said, it is not yet clear what effect this has on any additional content.
The Witness is a game I wish had more to keep playing, but I am in no rush to replay from the beginning. Solving the puzzles was fun and satisfying, and we worked through all of the zones (even though you only need a handful to access the final area).
The graphics were highly pleasing. The colors, the aesthetic, it all came together wonderfully. I take credit in discovering the sound significance – it came into play twice through the game, and both times I was the one who figured it out. Feels good man.
The Witness is an extremely detailed and deliberate puzzle solving experience wrapped up in a well polished and detailed package. The bouts of inevitable frustration as you stare at a devilish line puzzle are cured by the antidote of pure satisfaction when you overcome the trial and think “Why didn’t I think of that to begin with?” The Witness is a modern day masterpiece, that deserves a shot by players everywhere.
+Brilliant attention to detail
+Genuine feeling of satisfaction working through the game
+Unintentionally perfect co-op experience
-Lack of satisfying ending (which is intentional)
-No jump button (joking)
Total Score: 8.9/10
Significant Other Score: 10/10