Review: The Witness, So Many Puzzles
“The Witness” is the newest game developed by Jonathan Blow, creator of the critically-acclaimed, independent game, “Braid.” The player awakes alone on a mysterious and beautiful island with no information or memory to speak of. The only thing to do is solve puzzles–so many puzzles.
Unlike Blow’s previous game, “Braid,” which leaned heavily on metaphorical themes and used blocks of text to convey its narrative, “The Witness” is practically silent in everything but visuals and subtle nature noises. Aside from the pause menu, there is no written text nor spoken words anywhere in the game. While this might sound like a detriment to a game where the player needs all the rules and goals of the world, as well as for each individual puzzle, the minimalist approach of “The Witness” still manages to successfully guide the player.
“The Witness” takes place on a colorful, visually-stunning island where the player is free to roam at their own pace. There are no enemies or a fail state to be wary of and no real goal in mind except to solve puzzles. The puzzles are the stars of the game and practically the only thing the player can interact with. Thankfully, the game claims over 500 puzzles for the player to solve.
Puzzles are the meat and potatoes of “The Witness,” and the game possesses a wonderful learning curve even without written or spoken words. Every puzzle is a layer of complexity added to a previously-solved puzzle, and all puzzles take a similar form: connect the starting point to an end point through a maze. The very first puzzle is a simple left-to-right swipe. The second introduces a bend. The third introduces multiple paths and dead ends. The fourth introduces dots that need to be collected. The fifth has colors that need to be kept separate by the line itself. Eventually, the player finds puzzles that require careful observation of the environment, control of two lines at the same time or using the glare of the sun to find an invisible path. While this may sound overwhelming, the game always teaches new rules before requiring them.
The structure and format of “The Witness” makes it both frustrating and rewarding in the way only a good puzzle game can. There were times when a puzzle stumped me because the rules were poorly explained, but there were also eureka moments when I finally solved a tough puzzle or a surprise when I accidentally found the key to solving an impossible puzzle. At any time, a puzzle can be left alone to explore or find new ones as there is no punishment for a failed or unfinished problem. This, and the fact that the game is gorgeous, helps alleviate some of the frustrations of puzzle-solving.
Between writing this paragraph and the previous paragraph, I peeled back an entirely new level of the game, which had been unknown to me. My desk is covered in scratch paper, maps and numbers. The case is no longer “anything can be a puzzle,” it is now,“everything is puzzle.” From obvious puzzles, to the clouds in the sky, to the way certain shadows lay on the ground, everything in “The Witness” has the capacity to be a puzzle or a piece of a larger puzzle. I will not see the end of this game for a long time, but I will happily cover my walls in possible puzzle solutions. Although I have no doubt that the end of the game will lead to another new puzzle.