The Witness [Review]

Puzzling Nirvana

Developer/Publisher: Thekla, Inc.

Director/Producer: Jonathan Blow

Dates Played: January-April, 2018

Platform: Windows, MacOS, Android, PS4, Xbox, iOS

Duration: 18-25 hours, 40-50 hours for completionists

Price: $9.99 on iOS, $13.60 on Android, $39.99 on Steam

REA Reaction

The Witness asked me to observe and to think. It was puzzle bliss.

Designer Jonathan Blow took a simple puzzle concept and built upon it in brilliant and unexpected ways.

The resplendent environment and clever puzzles left me wanting more, even after 25 hours of play, most of it spent thinking.

In-game, and array of basic puzzles that build in complexity.
A series of starter puzzles.

Who is this for?

  • Patient puzzlers
  • Digital aesthetes
  • People with any level of video game experience

Why play?

  • Immersive world
  • Innovative puzzle design
  • Excellent difficulty curve
  • You will be smarter by the end

Story & setup

The Witness began with no backstory. I walked down a long, dark hallway and found a panel. On the panel was a line with one circular end. Touching the circle and dragging along the line opened a door to a gorgeous island. That first panel I had encountered was the simplest version of a seemingly endless series of line mazes found on puzzle panels everywhere.

It’s easiest to describe this game by what it wasn’t. It didn’t have any items, characters, music, dialogue, or written words. There was some light philosophy in the form of audio recorders I found lying around, but other than that, it was pure puzzle zen.

In-game: A lush forrest with a dirt path running through it.

As I wandered around, I was initially reminded of the island in Myst. The structural similarity was obvious, but graphically, it had come a long way since then. The colors in The Witness popped. There was an orchard of bright pink cherry trees and a desert temple that gleamed in the sun. Even the salt mine was beautiful in its own way. When an early boat ride around the island included a trip through a shipwreck, I started to realize how big this island was.

The exploration was rewarding. Even after investing my first ten hours into the game, I found a new area and wondered how I could have missed it. New perspectives on familiar areas also delighted my aesthetic side. Statues I found throughout the island weren’t puzzles at all but rather subtle nudges to look at everything from a different perspective.

Gameplay

Every puzzle panel in The Witness was an iteration on that original line maze I had encountered at the beginning. And there were a ton of panels – more than 500. Prior to jumping into The Witness, I wondered how it could sustain one concept through an entire game, but after just a few hours of play, I understood its genius.

In-game:
Something quite a bit more complicated.

The puzzles in each area of the island introduced me to a new variation. Sometimes I was required to use the environment to guide my solution: shadows or branches that had fallen upon the panel, for example. Other times I had to decipher the symbols on the puzzle (with a certain amount of trial and error) to learn the new rule required to solve it.

It created its own visual language as I built on my successes. I began to see line patterns both in the game world and in real life.

Analysis

+ This game was an epiphany generator and I quickly became addicted.

+ The Witness was an open-world game with essentially one type of puzzle. Despite this, I found myself engaged throughout. New concepts were introduced gradually. The puzzles didn’t overstay their welcome.

+ This game was a work of art. Certainly aesthetically, but also in its masterful creation of fun, fair, creative, and challenging puzzles. It taught concepts without coddling, trusting that I was smart, determined, and patient enough to see it through to the breakthrough moment.

– There was one sound in the game that I found grating. As I sat working with my trusty line (sometimes for hours at a stretch), there was always a low hum coming from the panel. The mute button became my sanity-saver.

-/+ The Witness always rewarded me for solving a puzzle with the same thing: more puzzles. As a lover of games, I’ve been conditioned to expect something to happen when I make progress: more XP, an improved weapon, a fun cutscene. I had to leave those expectations aside and accept that this game was a unique animal. My own intelligence was leveling up and that was better than any bit of digital swag I could have received.

+ Creator Jonathan Blow didn’t want you to feel smart playing The Witness. He wanted you to understand that you are smart.

+ When The Witness was released, Blow begged people not to watch walkthrough videos. After my first major puzzle roadblock and subsequent breakthrough, I understood why: I didn’t want to deny myself that rush as my brain grew a little larger.

+ After occasional periods of frustration, there were times when I thought I would never fire this game up again. Every time I did, however, I would get through my roadblock and wonder why I’d almost given up.

– There’s no hint system and no manual. When I did find an overly obtuse puzzle, I eventually had to give up on it. Thankfully, The Witness doesn’t require you to solve every panel to reach the end.

+ Beyond the beauty and craftsmanship of the island and its puzzles, the most significant strength was its balance. I rarely found the easy puzzles too tedious or the hard ones too taxing.

– When I completed a puzzle, there was barely any sound effect aside from the gentle clunk as power was supplied to the next series of puzzle panels. If you’re still addicted to Candy Crush, this absence of dopamine rewards will bother you.

+ The best teachers make you feel like a genius when you reach the lesson they’ve been gently guiding you toward all along. In its best moments, The Witness felt like a Buddhist monk showing me the way to enlightenment. The road was long, but it was incredibly satisfying.

Tips for Playing

  • Don’t watch walkthrough videos. You’ll miss out on the reason to play.
  • Perfect for a long flight. Los Angeles to Singapore will feel like nothing.
  • Spend some time away from the puzzle panels and just look at the world.

Purchase your copy of The Witness on Xbox One, PS4, iOS, Mac, or Steam.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

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