Jonathan Blow’s latest takes the player on a journey unlike any that they have yet known.
The Witness is an exceptional game, but when I am asked to sit down and articulate why I like it as much as I do, I find myself at a loss. The feelings that The Witness arouses in me are extremely abstract- much like the game, its story, storytelling, and its structure itself. Feelings of wonder, and awe, and epiphany, feelings of frustration, and subdued melancholy, all of which came together to communicate a message far more effectively than written or spoken words ever could.
I find myself thinking back to the vast, gorgeously rendered island I found myself a lone survivor on, to how the game gently placed me in its world, and then trusted me to be intelligent and perceptive enough to find my own way, make my own story. I think back to the excellent puzzles design, and the passive, subtle storytelling. I think back to the interplay of the world I find myself in, and the puzzles I must solve, and of how these, in turn, gradually unfold a larger narrative. I think back to the puzzles I was stumped by, which I just decided to stop attempting, and which suddenly made sense to me in a moment of epiphany brought on by the game’s larger world.
The Witness is a masterpiece of game design, and of interactive storytelling. Rarely have I seen a game that so thoroughly takes advantage of the medium to deliver a story that is concrete and definite, and yet still unique to the player who plays through it. Rarely have I seen a game that so intuitively communicates to the player the rules of its world, and its structure. Rarely have I seen a game that actually trusts the player to do the right thing, to learn from their mistakes, to follow their own instinct for curiosity.
"The Witness never explicitly tells the player what it is that it expects of the player- instead, it trusts the player’s own curiosity, their intelligence, their observational skills, their patience and persistence, and their perceptiveness, confident that the player is smart enough to make the connections and figure out the rules of the new puzzles that they are confronted with."
The bulk of what would be ‘gameplay’ in a traditional game in The Witness involves the player solving maze puzzles- over 600 of them to solve in the game in total. The puzzles start out extremely simple, and the very first puzzles you come across are simple Point A to Point B mazes, which wordlessly manage to communicate the basics of how the player is supposed to tackle them. And yet, soon enough, new layers and additional wrinkles are thrown into the mix- puzzles which demand that the player separate certain cells from one another with the paths that they draw, players that demand that the player navigates through certain points as they try to exit the maze, puzzles that demand that the player make a certain kind of silhouette.
The Witness never explicitly tells the player what it is that it expects of the player- instead, it trusts the player’s own curiosity, their intelligence, their observational skills, their patience and persistence, and their perceptiveness, confident that the player is smart enough to make the connections and figure out the rules of the new puzzles that they are confronted with. And yet, that is not the most wondrous thing about its approach to being a puzzle game.
Instead, the reason that The Witness succeeds as a puzzle game where so many previous games have failed is because of how thoroughly and tightly it integrates the puzzle and game parts- most games have very clear delineation and differentiations between their puzzle portions and their game portions (think back to the Professor Layton games, for example, where the puzzle parts and the visual novel parts have a very clear line dividing them). The Witness does not work that way. Instead, the larger world that the game takes place in and the puzzles are inextricably related.
"The Witness forces players to understand the world, to understand the puzzles (and eventually, it forces them to come to terms with the realization that the two are the same)."
Some of the puzzles that you solve only make sense in context of where you are in the game world at the time- unless you take stock of your surroundings, you may miss the epiphany necessary to navigate the newest maze that you are confronted with entirely. Sometimes, when you are confronted with a puzzle that you are having problems solving, it is best to step back and take a break. Walk around, take in the surroundings you find yourself in- the island you wake up on in The Witness is a collection of all the various kinds of environments you can find on the earth, from frozen wastelands to forests to mountains, and more. Sometimes, understanding your environment is necessary to understanding the puzzles you are confronted with- The Witness forces players to understand the world, to understand the puzzles (and eventually, it forces them to come to terms with the realization that the two are the same).
Sometimes, simply walking to some other part of the island and attempting some other puzzles is enough- all of a sudden, your brain is able to make the connections necessary to go back to that one puzzle that was confounding you, and tackle it now with your newfound understanding. Sometimes, walking around nets you an understanding of the game’s story- told brilliantly and expertly via multiple hidden media, such as log tapes (and more), and the island and the environments themselves, as you try to understand what this island is, and what you are doing here. Sometimes, those story bits give you the perspective necessary to go back to the puzzle you were stuck at.
"The Witness is a game that inspires awe."
But the interplay between the puzzles and the game world goes both ways- just as the world is a clue to the puzzles, the puzzles can also be a key to the world. Solving puzzles affects the world around you- and once again, the game relies on the player being observant enough to know how. Sometimes, a wire on the ground can light up once you complete a maze; sometimes, beacons of light shoot out, pointing at something in the distance. And as you follow these effects, guided by your own curiosity, you have the game’s most startling realization of all- the world itself is one giant puzzle, and all the smaller puzzles in it are just interconnected bits of this one large puzzle.
The Witness is a game that inspires awe. Its gorgeously rendered island makes an impression on the player, and amply communicates a feeling of wistful desolation, of melancholy, of contemplative meditation. The sound design is minimal, but incredibly effective. The story and storytelling are incredible. The Witness is a game that trusts the player to be perceptive, intelligent, persistent, patient, observant, intuitive, and emotive. It is a game, in other words, that gives the player the kind of the benefit of the doubt that no other game on the market does today. The Witness is perhaps the best example of a puzzle game I have seen yet, and it is also one of the most effective instances of interactive storytelling that I can recall. For this game, I have nothing but the utmost respect.
This game was reviewed on the PS4.
Gorgeous, minimalistic, meditative, contemplative; excellent passive interactive storytelling; difficult but fair puzzles; the interplay of the game world and the moment to moment gameplay is a thing of beauty; the game trusts in the intelligence of the player
Absolutely nothing. As a puzzle game, it is inconceivable how The Witness could possibly have been improved.
The Witness is perhaps the best example of a puzzle game I have seen yet, and it is also one of the most effective instances of interactive storytelling that I can recall. For this game, I have nothing but the utmost respect.