There’s a moment of revelation late on in The Witness that profoundly changes your relationship with the game, elevating it from something already very special to a work of astonishing ingenuity. But we’re willing to bet that most players won’t reach that point, 20 or so hours in, because Jonathan Blow’s latest game has a greater propensity to divide opinion than any other in recent memory.
And not least because of the remarkably steep challenge it presents. An open-world puzzle game, The Witness allows you to wander freely across an idyllic (if ecologically volatile) island as you tackle hundreds of electronic-maze-based conundrums. Blow’s gloves come off early and you’ll clatter into some real head-scratchers soon after leaving the cosseting fortress in which you begin. But these turn out to be nothing more than appetisers – before long you’ll be scrawling out possible solutions on the back of all that post you’ve neglected to open, taking reference photos to back up your theories about a hint that seems to relate to something elsewhere on the island, and chastising yourself for so quickly concluding that a puzzle was impossible when the solution – or at least the first trace of one – finally swims into view.
Each labyrinthian puzzle has one or more entrances, represented by an enlarged circular portion, and at least one exit in the form of a short line with a curved end. Tapping X at any time will reveal a cursor, locking you to the spot – another tap while hovering over the beginning of a puzzle will create a crackling white line, which you must navigate to the exit before hitting X one last time to submit your solution. If you’re standing close to a panel when you start, it will snap into fullscreen, but it’s possible to complete them from greater distances – something that you’ll need to bear in mind as the game’s staggering ambition gradually reveals itself.
The constituent parts of these posers might be simple, but their execution is far from it. Your first panel is an easily executed straight line, opening the door at the end of a white tunnel in which you begin. From there the game wordlessly teaches you its mechanics while adding ever more complexity. You might have to separate or pair up components, trace particular shapes en route to the exit, or ensure you hit specific points on the grid. And then the environment starts to come into play in ways that add further convolution and depth to an already nuanced system.
We’re being vague about the components and nature of the game’s puzzles for good reason. The Witness is unapologetically difficult, but the feeling of achievement you gain from making sense of each puzzle – as your number of completed panels ticks up into dozens and then hundreds – is unmatched. As such, it’s a game that’s particularly vulnerable to damage from guides and walkthroughs – if you give in to temporary frustration and start to look up answers you’ll miss much of what the game has to offer. Naysayers will protest that your only reward for completing panels is yet more panels, but this is a reductive viewpoint. The real reward is finding out what you’re capable of when you put your mind to it, and watching the game’s mysteries unfurl around you as you progress.
This continual flow of breakthroughs is delicately meted out by smart, unobtrusive gating. Each new concept is taught over a series of daisychained panels, with each solved puzzle switching on the following screen or piece of machinery in the sequence. Sometimes these screens are helpfully lined up in a row; other times you’ll need to trace the route of the lit-up power cable, which connects your panel to the next one. For the most part this setup functions well, introducing and reinforcing concepts as you work your way through them in preparation for tougher configurations of the same basic rules, while additional simple puzzles are also cleverly employed as switches for things like doors, extending bridges and lifts. Very occasionally, however, adjacent panels can feel like they’re missing an intermediate step, requiring a leap of faith rather than a logical solution. This can be especially problematic if, like us, you make the mistake of solving early panels and moving on without looking for other configurations: although it’s never underscored, many have multiple solutions, and only seeing one of them can lead you to a woolly understanding of what’s required of you later on.
When you do encounter these stumbling blocks, however, it’s rarely progress-halting. The island is divided into 11 distinct areas, each one home to a set of puzzles that adheres to a distinct ruleset. You can reach all of the main locations on the island early on, either on foot or by boat (an automated cruise you can programme to deliver you to various locations – some of them only accessible by sea), so when you hit what feels like a brick wall, there’s almost always something else to focus your attention on. There are plenty of isolated puzzles to find in addition to the main sequences, and observant players will notice that the island hides many secrets – a rabbit hole down which you can plunge much farther than you might expect. The result is a game that channels Lost as much as it does Myst, but adheres to a clearer ruleset than either.
Early panels in each area will react to your mistakes by showing the elements you’ve failed to account for flashing in red, while later puzzles will simply emit a disheartening honk and offer no clue as to where you went wrong. Some will even require that you go back to the previous panel and solve it again. Presumably intended as a way to stop players brute-forcing tough
The real reward is finding out what you’re capable of and watching the game’s mysteries unfurl around you
puzzles rather than thinking about them properly, it’s a punishment that also serves to discourage you from well-intentioned experimentation and feels overly punitive as a result. It’s one of the game’s few missteps.
But this is offset by the aspect of The Witness that makes it so challenging and so satisfying to best: an unwavering confidence in the player’s intelligence. Solutions are never wilfully obfuscated, but you’ll have to adjust your expectations when it comes to trusting in the puzzle and world design’s ability to accommodate your deductive instincts. This is no LA Noire or The
Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, where analysis is simply simulated. Here, the unchecked ideas you have for solving a problem are more often than not the correct way forward. Finding yourself smiling in admiration of the game’s construction becomes more frequent as you settle into the comforting realisation that nothing in this world has been left to chance.
Thekla, Inc continually toys with your expectations as it turns puzzle sequences into more than cold processions of logic problems, throwing in knowing winks and funny callbacks in creations that subtly build on, or subvert, previous solutions. For all the intellectual posturing, there’s warmth and personality folded through the unblinking shapes and lines.
But it’s the island itself that most clearly telegraphs the juxtaposition at the heart of this game. Flame-tipped autumnal woodland segues into bone-white chalk mines. The azure sea laps at pale golden sand on the coast. Crumbling architecture yields to blooming white and mint grasses, while biscuits of rust-coloured rock erupt from the ground around the base of a misty, snow-topped mountain. It’s an environment of such overwhelming beauty that, early on, you’ll spend as much time exploring and taking in the views as you do attempting panels.
Clever shortcuts and previously unnoticed pathways ease your journey around the space, calling to mind Hidetaka Miyazaki’s devious world building, as you move between strange scientific installations and even stranger ornamental follies. The Witness is particularly adept at hiding its secrets in plain sight, and return trips to previously explored areas almost always yield new discoveries. On occasion, slow-moving, puzzle-controlled impediments make returning to earlier puzzles to check your working more of a chore than it should be, but these instances are rare, and navigating the intricately constructed island is mostly a pleasure.
The Witness conjures magic from the simplest of components, rustling up a sensational array of experiences without ever deviating from its core conceit. Five years of development and iteration have resulted in a densely packed, hugely rewarding exemplar for open-world design that packs in more ideas and surprises than most environments ten times its size. But reaching that epiphany takes an investment of time and mental acrobatics to which many players won’t be prepared to commit, while still others will reach for a walkthrough and never experience the feeling of triumphant exaltation Blow so clearly intended. However, for those who find themselves aligned with its contemplative, singular ethos, even the inclusion of the game’s most teeth-grindingly difficult puzzles will make complete sense.
Many of the game’s puzzles will stick in the memory for their flair, but one of our favourite sequences takes place in a kaleidoscopic greenhouse that perches on a cliff. It also boasts some rather unapologetic lighting effects