The Wit­ness


EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Thekla, Inc For­mat PC, PS4 (tested) Re­lease Out now

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

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