Release Date: January 26, 2016
Publisher: Thekla, Inc.
Lead Designer: Jonathan Blow
A high proportion of our reviews thus far on Indoor Archipelago have featured albums or games that somehow reference or incorporate islands. Merely coincidence, I promise. That said, the trend will continue with The Witness, as it is a video game that takes place on a small island full of twisting paths and distinct eco-regions. You can walk from a forest to a dune-crusted desert in no time at all. Amongst these regions, you’ll find little mysteries to tease-out.
Before I begin though, you should know that I played this game over the course of a few days when I was sick and confined to the couch. During those inevitable bouts of illness that come once or twice a year, I usually just end up binging on video games for distraction’s sake. So, I started up The Witness and was greeted with its opening screen. The game doesn’t give you much to go on, but the first-person paradigm is such a standard archetype in games, that I was comfortable knowing I had to walk around and interact with the environment. At the end of the tunnel is a panel with a dot and a line. I clicked on it, traced a line across, and voila, the door opened. When I emerged from the tunnel, I came into a bucolic walled garden. Scattered around the garden were more of the puzzle panels. Was I supposed to do these in some specific order? More importantly, where was I and why did the walls look to be part of some old crumbling castle?
Questions like these abound in The Witness. It is a game about changing the way you look at the world. You see a puzzle, you figure out its rules and all seems right with the world. “All I need to do is trace a line through the grid from the start point to the end point.” You explore further into the world and keep encountering puzzles all making use of the same core principle–tracing a line from a start point to an end point–but with additional simple rules layered on top. “Hmm… okay, so the black and white dots need to be separated by the path I draw.”
I only resorted to a brute force solution a single time, which is remarkable for me in a puzzle game. Nevertheless, The Witness is set up in a way that a person could brute-force their way through. But even when you know how the rules of a particular puzzle operate, it often requires probing and iteration to be successful.
“Up. Right. Up. Left. Up. Right. Right. Down. Shit.” Start again.
“Argh…why can’t I solve this puzzle the same way I did before? There are no obstacles I can see! Wait a second, why does that tree branch look like that?” At some point your mind is forcibly expanded. You start to see the environment around you as complicit in the puzzles. Everything is integrated so elegantly that revelations come in successive waves. One time, upon encountering a new type of puzzle, I traced a line and unexpectedly solved it. Sometimes guessing and getting it right is the worst possible outcome, because you have no idea what rules you followed that led to your success. Instead, I found that the best path seemed to be patience. Some critics have complained that the game is too hard, or its systems too opaque. To be sure, this type of spatial reasoning puzzle might not be for everyone. But the beauty of The Witness’ open world means that if you get stumped on a puzzle (which you inevitably will), you can always wander off to find a new one. Often, upon returning with a fresh set of eyes to a puzzle that previously stumped you, the solution presents itself more readily. The mind works in mysterious ways. Give me a problem, make me think about something else, and only then does the solution come.
The game so successfully gets the player to interrogate the nature of human learning, that she or he is not really aware that it is happening. But at the end of the game, when you think back on all that you’ve accomplished on the island, all of the challenges you’ve overcome, you’ll be amazed just how much you’ve been able to understand and intuit without any tutorial or explanation. It is one of the most epistemological experiences I’ve had playing games. In a documentary about the game produced by NoClip, lead designer Jonathan Blow mentioned how the decision to eschew language in the game was intentional–the goal was having people solve puzzles without actually being able to verbalize the rules they were following. I tried saying them aloud as I was playing, but visual demonstration was always easiest.
There are hints of a story scattered across the land like there is some big mystery to unravel. Weird gray statues of people frozen in various poses. Audio recordings hidden behind rocks and on ledges that you can trigger. But, at least in my experience of playing the game, these elements only added atmosphere. They gave insight into the ideas that Blow was trying to convey. They were impressionistic snapshots discussing different ways of thinking, not essential to the puzzle mechanisms of the game.
I’ll admit that I was so pleased with myself upon completing what I thought was the final puzzle, that I convinced my wife to start up a new game, overwriting all of the work I’d done. After all, it seemed like all of my work had been reset anyway when I saw the closing cinematic. The only element I hadn’t fully completed was the mysterious room full of hexagonal panels that showed random videos (James Burke, etc.). Since I’ve watched my fair share of Connections and old video ephemera, I wasn’t worried. I did wonder where the rest of the solution parchments were, however. In reading-up on the game in preparation for writing this review, I now have come to find that I missed a whole set of puzzles. Rather, I saw them, and even tried tracing lines on a few, but was never able to get them to illuminate. It reminds me of the special achievement stars in Blow’s previous game Braid. I seem to remember those being a commentary on the lengths we go to complete tasks–even to the point of diminishing returns. But these missing puzzles in The Witness do not feel like excess. In fact, they have me eager to start the game afresh and see what it’s like playing partially in-the-know.
When I made it outside the walls of the initial garden, the beautiful landscape and vibrant colors enhanced the sensation that I was having a fever dream. The Witness is a gorgeous, serene game, and worthy of your exploration. You don’t even have to be home sick to enjoy it.