At times The Witness feels as though it was never meant to be placed in the hands of your archetypal gamer. When I say that I’m not retracing that vague line commentators are fond of drawing between casual and hardcore players, but with such a unique identity, in both how it looks and plays, developer Jonathan Blow and his studio Thekla Inc. have carved a niche for their latest project. It’s clear to see that plenty of hard graft and passion has gone into making The Witness, but it’s also safe to say only a handful of those who embark on this puzzle-solving pilgrimage will walk away one hundred percent satisfied.
Despite that intimidating introduction, the game’s core is easy to get your head around. With no immediate narrative of story thread to follow, you find yourself navigating a lush island composed of various locations and biomes, from mountain and monastery to windmill and marsh. Clustering together to form a seamless open world, each of these environments plays host to a string of puzzles alongside towering machines that fire laser beams into the sky. Naturally, there’s more than meets the eye and it’s not before long you’ll find yourself searching for whatever secrets the island may be hiding.
As you’ve no doubt gathered from the handful of screenshots and trailer above, this is all done in first person, exploring through the eyes of a mute avatar that players control using rudimentary actions. This mode of navigation, using one stick to move and another to change the camera position, will feel instantly familiar to most gamers and it provides a perfect vehicle for the player, allowing them to explore the The Witness and marvel at it’s many lavish backdrops.
Needless to say, The Witness is one of those games where you’ll find yourself stopping every five minutes in an attempt to snap postcard shots using the DualShock 4’s share button. It carries a vibrant aesthetic that continues to morph as you step from one area to the next while remaining both elegant and blissful. Like very few games out there, it will leave you breathless without resorting to the kinds of photorealistic imagery many studios employ on the current console generation. My biggest gripe with The Witness, however, is how all of this visual splendour can seem like an illusion when taking into account the game’s raw essence.
Although stunning to look upon, the island is essentially a winding path punctuated by many variations of the exact same puzzle. It’s a gargantuan collection, spanning several hundred puzzles in total, yet they all share the same common goal. Using either the left stick or directional pad, you’re tasked with drawing a line between two designated points on a grid. Do so in accordance with the puzzle’s particular rules and you’ll unlock the next puzzle in a sequence, triggering doors, bridges, ramps, and opening pathways as you go.
Naturally, these puzzles start out fairly easy, adopting smaller grid panels and a limited set of rules. As soon as you clear the first area, however, the stabilisers are torn away with no compass or rulebook to guide you. Chances are, wherever you dare to venture on the island, you’ll come up against a new set of variables to overcome. These will take the form of small icons or glyphs that will influence the route you sketch, as well as other, less obvious layers. For example, many puzzles will look to obscure your view in some way while others require the player to stand at a specific point in the 3D world before making an attempt.
Instead of levelling up or acquiring upgrades, it’s the player’s own learning that is the measure used to chart your progress in The Witness. Much like studying a new language, there are specific chunks of theory that need to be consolidated and combined in order to speak clearly through the game’s cacophony of mind-bending mechanics. To that extent, The Witness feels more like an virtual puzzle book rather than an actual game. It’s something I can see myself going back to whenever I need to kick my brain into gear, but it also shares some negative traits as well, fatigue being the main culprit. In the same way that I can’t bring myself to tear through twenty sudoku challenges a day, I can’t boot up The Witness and play it for hours on end.
If there’s one advantage puzzle books have over The Witness, it’s the ability to turn the page whenever a particular arrangement is simply too challenging. Getting stuck while exploring the island, meanwhile, will often force players down one of two routes. They can either keeping banging their head until a solution presents itself or backtrack with their fingers crossed, hoping the next puzzle they encounter won’t prove to be such a roadblock.
Of course, this sense of being impeded is exacerbated by the complete lack of any written tips or guidance. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game’s minimalist approach, but to neglect implementing any kind of hint system whatsoever seems like a misstep which restricts accessibility. Maybe Thekla Inc. simply ran out time, or maybe they felt that any hand-holding would be seen as “dumbing down” their great vision for The Witness. Either way, the game suffers for it. As a result, there will doubtless be plenty of players who resort to turning to the Internet and online walkthroughs at some point, robbing of the satisfaction of piecing together the solution, even if it had been diluted by hints.
At its worst, The Witness can feel like a test, stroking the egos of those who excel at problem solving with one hand, while dealing a backhand to those who don’t with the other. This unexpected vein of intellectual elitism presents itself elsewhere in the game, through a string of scattered videos and audio clips. Take a moment to pause and they’ll indulge you with chatter about art, science, and other high brow concepts and debates that seemingly have no impact on what’s happening in-game. The fact that they exists suggests that they have some purpose, yet trying to work out why can feel like another unnecessary complication and an unwelcome barrier that feels mocking in a way.
To me The Witness is kind of like that one guy who always shows up to a party with the most convoluted joke you’ve heard all night. However, when the punchline drops and no one’s laughing, instead of clarification all you get is a smirk and a condescending “Don’t worry, you wouldn’t understand anyway.”
It’s a bizarre analogy, I know, but one that helps illustrate my ongoing relationship with The Witness. This feeling is no doubt inflamed as I look for comparatives within today’s gaming industry. Where most developers look to accommodate their players in every conceivable way, The Witness is unapologetic in its silence, quietly watching from the windows of its imaginary panopticon as players explore its vast island complex.
Despite occasional pangs of belittlement, The Witness refuses to release its hold on me. Although there are aspects of the game that I clearly dislike, part of me longs to be immersed within its fascinating world. It feels strange, therefore, to try and put a score on this review, given how each individual will react differently to it. That term may be overused but if you were to spend just an hour or two with the game, you would know it to be true. Unique, divisive, and fiendishly clever, there are bound to be those who love it and those who absolutely hate it. Then there are those, like myself, who fall somewhere in between, able to appreciate Thekla’s achievements but frustrated at how The Witness continues to build a wall around itself, as if guarding a secret from its players.
Version Tested: PS4