I just first want to congratulate Jonathan Blow and the magical minds behind this particular project on yet another success. Since Braid, I’ve been eagerly anticipating projects that cater not only to my sense of curiosity and wonder, but also provide a solid experience and aesthetic pleasure to go along with mind-bending and detail-oriented gameplay and stories and clues galore. The Witness definitely accomplishes this and pushes the buck a little bit further along, daring others to attempt to do the same or (so I blasphemously must say) surpass it altogether. Within this game, puzzles, environment, and story- what can be gleaned from your actions and from the mysterious picture you must slowly build around you, are top tier and top notch.
For those of you interested in some of the design process or perhaps just in the creators’ intent and thoughts surrounding this project or other ones, feel free to visit the semi-official website for The Witness here as well. As for my own opinions about the game, I suggest you continue reading in order to find out just how well I have received it. Without further ado, let’s get to the meat of this review. As usual, apologies for any ill-made mistakes, typos, or edits that may or may not be found within the base text of this review.
I appreciate the fact that games often come around once or twice in a console generation that challenge players to think differently or to otherwise revise their stance on how exactly games themselves are supposed to work. Oftentimes puzzle games fill this role, but sometimes it’s a much simpler archetype such as the shooter revolution that came first with Halo: Combat Evolved, and later with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Last console generation we had the (arguably) strongest part of Valve’s Orange Box- Portal, and for the current console generation there could be a strong argument that The Witness fills these same or similar shoes in opening players’ eyes to new concepts. It may be too early to tell, but it is never too early to recognize a wonderful game for the concepts it leaves us constantly thinking of.
All great games and all great puzzle games start with a simple concept or two and then build upon that. Where most games that end up being sub-par make their mistakes or fall down is when they try to be something they aren’t or when they try to become too complex too early on. You can have as steep of a skill curve as you want in a game, however it has to be fun and genius at its core for that to work. Dark Souls takes your life in its hands and repeatedly crushes it, often alongside your hopes and dreams, but at its core the relentless punishment and extremely brutal bosses and challenging gameplay is fun because the experience is made entirely worthwhile by a plethora of other concepts and ideas along the way. Puzzle games such as The Witness should be treated no differently.
You awake on an island that has numerous nooks and crannies, ruins and hovels, scenic spots and shadowy hollows, mechanical and electronic devices galore. Your only real focus, other than figuring out just what is going on, is to connect monitors and grids like a circuit board essentially. For one inhabitant, the world of The Witness is easily one of the most impressive things about the game. The environment is gorgeously rendered and the way it in and of itself connects gameplay and concepts is also ingenious, proving that neither aesthetic pleasure nor pure gameplay need take from one or the other in order to craft a veritable masterpiece.
Think of Tron’s “grid” if you will, while thinking of an explanation for the bulk of gameplay elements in The Witness. Although you have some amount of freedom in exploration, you can’t break away from the grid for long in terms of puzzle solving or connecting start points with end points. Pathways that you create serve a purpose and are quite important. Each grid sports a different symbol- maybe its a polygonal shape or a character of sorts, but you must form that from start to end in order to solve a little piece of the bigger puzzle. Trust me when I say even the littlest of details make a difference in your surroundings, so if something seems off it is almost assuredly so on purpose or to hint at something else. Don’t expect to use the same trick or see the same clues every time however as the complexity and subsequently the difficulty and uniqueness of each grid area or puzzle increases over time. Just about the time you start to catch on, the game shifts perspectives and throws something else at you.
I’m going to make yet another reference to Portal here, and I hope you’ll excuse me if I continue to do so, but the action is appropriate in this instance. The Witness share some similar ideas, not necessarily in terms of puzzle ideas or mounting difficulty, rather in how it goes about presenting each puzzle or grid area. The majority of puzzles in specific areas, akin to the test chambers in the not-so open world of Portal, all fall into a similar or same category. For instance in Portal 2 there were a few chambers in a row focusing mainly on light bridges and goop. In The Witness, as with most puzzle games, you should expect to see newer elements slowly introduced and further ingrained into gameplay and built upon. It only makes sense to do as more and more opportunities and actions open up to players.
Although there are a plethora of puzzles to be solved in The Witness, I suppose you could say that they all fall into specific groups, or perhaps “focuses” as well. For instance, the island itself could definitely be broken down by the way the grid itself splits things up into specific areas of gameplay, each with its own focus in terms of puzzles and concepts. You could solve anywhere from say six to eight smaller puzzles in one longer “sequence” of sorts before you start to run into gradually larger and more complicated puzzles in one specific area of the island. If you think scratching your head over one small concept is giving you fits, imagine when that concept blows the doors wide open and hits you with a sucker punch in the face when you run into a larger, more complex and intense situation.
Don’t think that the game will be a cakewalk for fans of puzzle games or entirely too difficult for newcomers to the genre. In reality, I think The Witness performs excellently in terms of moderation- meaning it knows when to teach but it also knows when to assume players generally understand the tools and concepts they’ve been given and just what to do with a little brain power, elbow grease, and general spirit. Don’t mistake my comment as assurance that you will in fact be able to complete the game however. You may get stuck and find yourself forced to shut your brain off and come back to the game a week later, hoping that you’ll have a fresher perspective and be able to make more progress in the matter. By no means is The Witness impossible, but it’s also by no means easy. Definitely take notes and don’t assume you’ll remember everything you see or come across. It may take trial and error sometimes, but I’d prefer to associate that with experimentation rather than hoping you’ll get lucky and flick the right pattern or switch into place.
Unlike the largely linear experience presented in most puzzle games, The Witness actually allows you to freely leave a puzzle in progress in order to go solve other ones around the island. You also don’t even have to feel pressured to complete every single puzzle in the game in order to complete it, although I’d imagine that should probably be your goal if at all possible. In terms of storytelling, this jumping around isn’t prone to mess with much as the story is more of what you make it than really anything so established as a specific plot. Everything is all mysterious and nothing is ever quite fully confirmed, which definitely leaves things up to the player’s imagination which I thoroughly appreciated. You’re presented with the cold hard facts as they are- what will work and what won’t, and that’s simply that.
Now, there is some loose basis of a slight hint of a plot to be found, and that is through select recordings scattered about the island in sometimes devious, sometimes easy-to-access areas. These won’t do much to quell the questions, but they may sate some of your burning desire to get to the bottom of things, if only a little bit before the game’s ending. None of this should really detract from the experience however as at its core, The Witness is a test of logic. There are frustrating moments, but nothing beats the thrill of successfully completing a puzzle or a series of puzzles and discovering something new about the world you’ve been presented. Instead of questioning the purpose of things or asking the horrid “why” question, start exploring and figuring out how things work and what affects what. It’s all almost brilliantly philosophical in some ways.
Concept: Exploration and puzzle solving presented in a rich environment where no stone should be left unturned and no detail, however minimal ignored.
Graphics: The art-style is uniquely rendered and attention to detail beautiful to behold. Some may consider it basic or simple, but then things don’t need to be unnecessarily complicated to be gorgeous.
Sound: There’s more of an argument to be made for the ambiance than there is to be made for a soundtrack or voice work, but what there is of everything here is more than adequate and only adds to the sense that you’re isolated and surrounded by mystery.
Playability: Complicated puzzles can sometimes make games an exercise in frustration, but you should never be angered by difficulty even when you are stumped as the game is precise and easy to grasp once you get the hang of things.
Entertainment: It’s puzzle-solving at its finest or close enough thereto. Puzzle after puzzle will challenge how you think and what you know. Don’t stop to question motive or intent, but soak up the rich scenery and equally rich gameplay elements.
Replay Value: High.
Overall Score: 9.0