The Witness – PlayStation 4
Platform: Sony PlayStation 4
Developer: Thekla, Inc.
Publisher: Thekla, Inc.
Release Date: January 26th, 2016
Nerd Rating: 9.5 out of 10
It has been over 7 years since the release of indie hit Braid, a puzzle–platformer that revolutionized the indie game scene when it hit the Xbox Live Arcade in the Summer of 2008. Jonathan Blow, the developer behind the game, has since given talks about game design, been featured in a documentary about indie games, and started his own company, becoming an indie game celebrity (though not as volatile as Fez creator Phil Fish), all while continuing to produce his newest project, The Witness. It hit the PlayStation Store and Steam simultaneously on January 26, 2016, and has since grossed more in the first week than Blow’s previous success Braid was able to make in its entire first year. I and many others have been waiting a long time for this game. It’s time to dive in and see if The Witness lives up to its hype.
The Witness is a puzzle–adventure game reminiscent of the Myst series. In The Witness, the player explores an abandoned island in first-person perspective, solving line and maze puzzles on panels located throughout. Through time, frustration, and innovative ways of teaching the player to think around corners, Jonathan Blow ultimately succeeds in creating a truly unique experience.
The Witness is, first and foremost, a puzzle game, and the puzzles are fantastic. Consisting mostly of puzzles that require the player to draw a line from one side to the other, the puzzles found throughout the island are designed to constantly challenge the player with increasingly complex content that builds on its own themes. These puzzle solving themes, each present throughout the entire game, work to slowly modify each other, forcing the player to think in new and creative ways at every turn. In a sense, the puzzles found throughout The Witness are in a sort of conversation with each other, strengthening and toying with concepts in an entirely non-linguistic manner. The Witness is largely able to accomplish this through the use of non-culturally-centric symbols, such as dots and Tetris-like shapes that teach the player how to play through imagery alone.
There are no heavy-handed prompts in The Witness that say “Do this to achieve that.” In fact, there is no written language at all, and the audio files that are available have no bearing on the gameplay. But how is this possible? Surely, players have to be told how to play a game, right? Well, that’s one of the interesting things about this game. Instead of telling players how to play his games, Jonathan Blow has perfected a way of showing them, instead. Through the liberal and masterful use of what are called “paragraphs,” Blow is able to seamlessly integrate his instructions into the existing structure of the game. Here’s an example:
This is a handful of panels found in the game. On the leftmost panel, a white dot and a black dot are next to each other. The panel is small, meaning that there are only two solutions: Move around the dots or move through them. Through no more than a couple of tries, the player discovers that they must move through the dots. The second panel appears, complicating things only slightly by moving the starting area from the midpoint to the bottom left corner.
From the third panel on, the puzzles become more complex, increasing the size of the panels and adding more dots. The difficulty of these puzzles, in turn, slowly escalates, only ever introducing one new concept at a time, allowing the player to develop an internal rule set for the symbols entirely on their own, deducing new rules and concepts based on the increasing complexity of the puzzles. Think of each individual puzzle as a sentence that gives the player new information. If put together in the right way, these sentences form a paragraph, spelling out a much longer and more intricate set of ideas. Every set of puzzles in The Witness is introduced this way, executed expertly time and again, allowing for complex puzzles by the end that seem to be communicating with the player in some strange language that only exists there on that abandoned island.
While puzzle–adventure games like Myst were difficult to complete due to their reliance on “video game logic,” where players were sometimes expected to solve situational puzzles in bizarre and counter-intuitive ways, the only form of interaction with the world of The Witness exists entirely through its core puzzle solving mechanics, leaving a lot of room for the pure gameplay elements to shine through.
Even though The Witness shies away from misleading ambiguity, it is entirely devoid of direct hints, preferring instead to let the player figure things out on their own. Even if it means they might get frustrated. Frustration and giving up are huge components of this game, and Jonathan Blow seems entirely comfortable with that. In an era where games are a little too quick to hold the player’s hand if they get stuck, The Witness offers a breath of fresh air, trusting the player’s intellect and perseverance. The difficulty scales up appropriately as the player delves deeper into the game, and several key areas are entirely optional, which helps tailor the game to the individual player’s preferred puzzle type.
That said, there are a couple of moments where the difficulty breaks down or seems unnecessary, such as ridiculously hard or esoteric puzzles in otherwise completable sections, or puzzles that insist on snapping the player closer to them, despite being designed to rely on the player completing them from different perspectives. This has only occurred to me 2 or 3 times during my entire time playing, so these negative experiences are in no way representative of the game overall. All in all, the puzzles feel strong and fleshed out, offering hours of good gameplay and many “Aha!” moments that make new players feel good about themselves for being so smart. This leads to a greater sense of self-efficacy, increasing the player’s willingness to explore and take chances in this engaging world.
The art direction complements The Witness excellently. The visual graphics are cel shaded, a relatively recent trend in video game art styles that lends its games more artistic approaches and good lasting power. Objects up close are appropriately fleshed out and detailed, while objects at far distances blend together, like an impressionist painting. The colors are vibrant and beautiful, helping to make the island fun to explore, even without solving the puzzles. These colors come into play with the level design, as well, helping distinguish one area from another in order to give players a better sense of where they are in relation to other areas.
Some of the puzzles even rely on color, and being able to distinguish between different colors can be an essential component to solving them. These puzzles add a lot to the experience, combining elements from multiple different puzzle types at the same time. However, there are no colorblind defaults or options, meaning colorblind players will find these sections almost impossible (though optional). This seems to me like a bit of an oversight that shouldn’t even be there. As much attention to detail that was put into this game, I am legitimately surprised that the development team didn’t come up with an alternate way to view these puzzles.
The sound direction is extremely minimalistic. There is no music, only ambient noise from the surrounding ocean and environments. Throughout the game, the player is accompanied only by the sound of their own footsteps, which change in sound and pitch over the different surfaces found on the island. When solving puzzles, the panels will make little noises. The sound they make when you complete them is very rewarding in a Pavlov-esque fashion, and the sound they make when you fail is somehow extremely disappointing and punishing. All in all, the sounds found in The Witness are recorded and mixed well, and go a long way toward immersing the player in its world.
As any good adventure game should, The Witness has its fair share of secrets and easter eggs. These secrets come in the form of optional puzzles, entirely new areas, audio clips, and video clips found in tucked away corners of the island. These challenges offer a good spike in the game’s difficulty for those players who want to challenge themselves even further, and the bonus content is at least interesting. I would guess that for each secret in The Witness, at least half of all players will never see them, which makes finding them feel that much more special. And they’re so numerous! The sheer amount of extra content packed into this game could very well fill a game on its own, and I’m really glad the team at Thekla put so much work into these aspects of the game. I would love to give examples of some of these secrets, but to do so would give away a little too much, I think.
All of these elements combine together to create a very timeless and memorable atmosphere. The sound design is as appropriate and pragmatic as the art direction, making the island feel very real and very mysterious, enticing the player to keep playing out of a pure desire to see what else the game has to offer, such as the hidden secret content or more puzzles and areas. This sense of wonder and discovery is rare in video games, and is facilitated in no small part by Blow’s decision to let the player roam where ever they like, overtly telling them nothing. Because of this, everyone’s experience with The Witness will be somewhat different and unique, increasing the sense of adventure while opening the game up to repeat playthroughs. The puzzles are excellently designed, integrating with the surrounding environments in amazing and unanticipated ways, relying on the player’s intuition, observation, and perseverance in equal parts. Hints are not told to the player, but found in the world around them, if only the player is able to pick up the skills needed to look for them. This fits the world of The Witness, which may make it one of the most honest puzzle games to date.
In the end, The Witness succeeds as a spiritual successor to its sister, Braid. Both games rely on experimentation and non-linguistic puzzle solving, all the while avoiding esoteric “video game logic” through the sheer focus on their central game mechanics. However, The Witness takes these concepts to new heights that tower far above the accomplishments of Blow’s 2008 hit. While a few puzzles in The Witness remain questionable, they pale in comparison to the volume of over 600 excellently-designed puzzles that place trust in the player in ways no other games are doing. Even though colorblind players may find parts of this game difficult (an oversight that could be fixed with a patch), the colors are vibrant and beautiful, combining with the sound direction to achieve a unique atmosphere that keeps the player immersed. All in all, The Witness is a masterful game that achieves something greater than the sum of its parts, offering a truly magical experience that can’t be completely described by mere words.
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