I have become the maze.
You know when you get so into a game that it’s all you can think about? That’s what The Witness has done to me. I accidentally play until 4AM and I’m thinking about that one puzzle I couldn’t figure out when I wake up in the morning. I’ll sketch out a puzzle I’m stuck on and play with solutions in my notebook while I’m out. I’m (im)patiently waiting for more of the real-life people that I know to play it so we can share theories about the backstory of the mysterious island and its wealth of hints and snippets of story. The point is: I’m hooked.
Let’s back up for just a moment.
Since his breakout hit Braid all but defined the potential quality of indie games in 2008, Jonathan Blow became something of a controversial yet renowned figure in games. Say what you want about his perceived pretensions, he damn sure puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to his product.
The Witness was announced in 2009, and it’s been nearly 7 long years in development. It’s a game that takes one idea- a classic line-drawing maze puzzle- and stretches it far further than any sane person might consider possible (in much the same vein as Braid’s time-warping tomfoolery) while you explore a mysterious island to uncover its secrets. Make no mistake: while all you’re doing is solving puzzles, this is not just a puzzle game. It’s much, much more than that.
Loading up the game for the first time, you’re greeted with a cold open- BAM, you’re in the starting area. There’s no text anywhere in the game; the most direction you’re given is a brief flashing of the keys for walking, running, and interacting with puzzles. The Witness isn’t a game that patronises its players. Every new mechanic is taught to you through being presented to you in its simplest form and letting you figure out its quirks. You’ll come across puzzles early on that you have no idea how to tackle, but you’ll stumble across an area that teaches you the solution later on.
The Witness perhaps runs the risk of being too non-linear for some people, but if you keep an open mind and are willing to explore a bit when you’re stuck in one area, you’re soon rewarded with progress in another area. You’ll be getting stuck a lot; lots of areas require significant leaps of logic to progress, and some mechanics that you’ll come across nearby the starting area are explained to you on the opposite end of the island.
But that’s not necessarily a point that goes against the game. Jonathan Blow and co. have crafted a truly captivating place to immerse yourself in the game’s nameless island. It’s maybe the most visually arresting game that I’ve ever seen, with its gorgeously vibrant palette and clash between nature and architecture. It’s positively dripping with mystery, and packed to the brim with puzzles and secrets. I don’t know how quite to much stuff was packed into this island, but it’s a masterclass in world crafting from both aesthetic and design standpoints. Learning more about the game’s many puzzle mechanics is only another reason to strike out into places unknown.
I initially found it hard to believe that The Witness would solely consist of maze puzzles, but as I mentioned before, the game takes that idea and runs with it to startling lengths that I wouldn’t dare spoil. You’ll just have to believe me when I say that there’s a very good chance you’ll have your mind blown multiple times as you eke out how to solve a new puzzle. Every interaction with the world is via completion of a puzzle; often you need to solve several sequentially, following power lines as completed panels activate the next one down the line, until you power up whatever you need to progress. It soon becomes apparent that you need to activate certain objects in each different area to get to what I’ll tentatively call the game’s “final” area.
There’s very little in terms of narrative; in fact, there’s nothing in the way of a narrative thread. It’s all about the thrill of inching towards the next snippet of the world, peeling back the mystery bit by bit. That might not be enough for some people. I’m certain that lots of people won’t find the core gameplay loop of “puzzles beget puzzles which in turn beget yet more puzzles” satisfying enough to persevere for more than a few hours. But I personally found the solution of puzzles engaging enough to carry me through the game. The Witness has a way of filling you with pure, fist-pumping elation when you finally “get” what you’re supposed to be doing. That moment, that sudden flash of inspiration, is where this game comes alive; it’s the whole crux of the experience.
The Witness is yet more evidence of the presence of auteurism in games. Even though it’s a completely different style of game than Braid, The Witness feels indelibly like a Jonathan Blow Game. It’s in the dogged committal to expanding the core mechanic and ingenious applications thereof. It’s in the appealingly handcrafted visuals. In more esoteric ways, it’s at the core of the game’s identity and feel.
The Witness is a distinguished achievement in terms of mechanic design, world design, and aesthetics. Its committal to ever-expanding puzzle mechanics and employment of mystery are captivating, creating an experience that has drawn me in something fierce. It’ll frustrate and confuse the hell out of you, but a little bit of perseverance pays dividends. As a product it comes highly recommended with its hours of worthwhile content. As an experience, it’s downright unmissable.
I can’t wait to get back to peel away a little bit more of the mystery.