The Witness is inspiring, exciting, rewarding, breathtaking, and infectious. It’s also ruthless, cold, daunting, and isolating. Either of those lists of traits would make a great game. Both at once make a legend.
The Witness, Jonathan Blow’s follow up to Braid, has a deceptively simple premise: players traverse the unnamed island as an unnamed character, solving a puzzle to access the next puzzle. Before the game’s release, there were cries of, “It’s just Snake with better graphics!” They’re right, in the sense that “Ode to Joy” is just noise, rocket science is just math, or “The Great Gatsby” is just letters. It’s closer to a van Gogh-made Sudoku book: gorgeous, even if you don’t realize it yet.
IT’S JUST A PUZZLE
The simple premise compounds and stacks on itself immediately after the tutorial, with no words of wisdom. You’re taken from “get to the other end without overlapping your line” to “get to the other end without overlapping your line. Also, this segment is broken, you must create this specific shape, and segregate the colored spots, but that specific shape can be turned any way. Also, are you sure those spots are actually those color?” in a 15 minute span. Are you ready for the catch? You don’t know you have to do ANY of these things.
Learning how these puzzles work feels like speaking your first words without a parent to sound out “Mama” to you. There’s no tutorials written, spoken, or otherwise anywhere on the island. When you finally sound out the puzzle, there’s a feeling of immense pride that you didn’t get any help in doing it. The caveat is, there’s no one telling you if you did it correctly. You may have made an imaginary rule for yourself that worked the first three puzzles in a set of five, and now it’s impossible to move on with the criteria you set. It’s like moving as an adult, and being told your accent is wrong. You know you’re saying it right…but what if you’re not?
This causes a constant uneasiness and paranoia about your progress. What did you miss? Are you stuck here because this puzzle is hard, or because you’re wrong? What if there’s another addition to this puzzle? What if the environment is supposed to give a clue? Maybe you should re-do the whole section? Just go get a glass of water and come back with fresh eyes. I wonder what the internet has to sa-
There’s going to be a strong desire to use the world’s largest strategy guide. Fight that urge, otherwise you’re robbing yourself. Cheating on that fourth of five puzzles means you aren’t going to have the “Eureka!” moment Blow and Co. need you to have. It doesn’t just put you at a disadvantage for that fifth puzzle. No, each concept bleeds its way into other areas ensuring you fully grasp it. If you rely on spell check to correct your grammar, you’ll need it for every sentence.
The game itself won’t thank you for it. There is no fanfare, no confetti, nothing more in way of a congratulations than a groan of a rusted door opening you to the next puzzle. The Witness ignores your accomplishments, and you shouldn’t mind. You’re doing this for yourself, for the moment when you finish an area, and can throw your stenciled tracings and mock ups to the wind in victory. Leaving behind a conquered swamp or temple or jungle felt better than any endgame boss.
This excitement is infectious. Somebody walking by will take notice, think it seems simple enough, and then the hooks are in. When they inevitably ask for help, you’ll understand how well you know what you know. Can you walk them through it, or is it like skimming a few letters and piecing together a word, and you struggle before telling them, “You just know.”
ALONE IN THE LIGHT
Atmosphere is just as key as gameplay in The Witness, and it captures claustrophobia in wide open spaces to a tee. You are, in every sense of the word, alone. There’s no animals chirping, no NPCs chattering, no ambient music to fill the silence. The world opens up to you after opening the first gate, and the wealth of options with lack of direction paired with crippling absence made my chest tight with insecurity. You truly are all there is on this island, and once you accept that, you can start to appreciate it.
The game’s design team put the seven development years to good use and created an ironclad argument that video games are art. Speaking beyond the immediately noticeable gorgeous art style, Blow and Co. put a level of detail into this game unmatched. That piece of cloth hanging from a tree? Its shadow may create a kneeling person. When you’re traveling in the boat and look across the rock formation just right, the reflection may create a woman’s curves.When you stand atop the highest room in the tallest tower, look around: Does the environment turn into a puzzle itself? Are these statues of people from different eras really statues, or are they Pompeii-esque tombstones?
When you have no one to talk to, the world becomes your greatest ally. There may be a puzzle that looks physically impossible, and, depending on where you’re standing, you may be right. You’re taught early on there’s more to this game than just the puzzles. Nothing around you is placed without the utmost care, so you have to take a step back and see how your surroundings influence the puzzle. If that sounds vague, it’s meant to: just like the puzzles, you’re left to interpret generalities and make of it what you can.
The Verdict: 10 out of 10
When reviewing a game, I start every game with a 10, and dock the score as issues arise. Looking down the notes, I have no “Yeah, buts.” The puzzles are difficult, but I was never made to feel dumb, just missing something. Despite it “just” being a bunch of puzzles, it’s no more repetitive than Dark Souls is “just” a bunch of fights. The setting was so inspiring I rarely used the sprint button. I felt emotional highs and lows without attachment to a single character that wasn’t myself as Christian Glass, the man fighting to learn this new language. I’ve easily played 30 hours, with many more on the horizon. The lack of a score is perfect for the tone of the game. It’s a milestone for games being mentioned in the same breath as literature or cinema as art. Ever silent, The Witness has a strong voice, one that echoes throughout its island and into your headphones. You may not understand it at first, but stay with it. Understand its language to understand its beauty.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.