Bearing witness to an incredibly unique first-person puzzler unlike anything else you’ve ever played.
The Witness (Store Page) is the second game created by Jonathan Blow, who developed the wildly popular puzzle-platformer Braid in 2008. The Witness presents itself as a first-person puzzle game that has absolutely zero hand-holding for the player. Is such a thing possible?
Upon first loading up The Witness, you do not start at a menu screen, there is no “Press any key to continue.” Once the game finishes loading up you start in a tunnel with the only on-screen prompt telling you to use WASD to move. Two additional prompts instruct the player to use the mouse to look around and to use the mouse buttons to interact with computer screens that make up the main gameplay. Beyond these three instructions on simply how to control the game, you receive no further prompts or any other instructions handed to you by the game.
The computer screens that you interact with all require you to do one thing to solve the puzzle and progress: draw a line. Sounds simple enough, right? It gets complex fast. The screens you encounter in the first area simply require you to draw a line from point A to point B on grids of varying sizes, demonstrating that you can’t draw a line on broken sections of the grid or that a puzzle can have multiple ways of completing it. After that first area, you will pass by a door with a large puzzle on it with black and white dots in the grid and small gray specks in the lines of the grid and odds are good that you will have no idea how to open it, but this is not the only time you will feel this way.
As you explore this huge island, you will find rows of screens designed to “teach” you how to solve puzzles with different elements on them such as the large puzzle from before. Until you find these “tutorial boards” though, you will find puzzles that you simply cannot solve without knowing how. This encourages exploration to be able to know how to solve puzzles in various areas on the island. At times, there is a lot of expectations placed on the player’s ability to figure out some of the puzzles and this is where the lack of guidance can be frustrating.
One area has puzzles where the solution is scratched onto each puzzle screen, but can only be seen when you are looking at the screen and the sunlight casts a glare on the screen. Even though this is one of the earliest areas you can come across, it was one of the last areas I had completed simply because I thought I would find a way to solve the puzzles elsewhere on the island but did not and discovered the solution by accident upon returning to the area.
Even with that accidental discovery, almost every puzzle in the game is laid out to start you out simply and build up to more complex puzzles and new mechanics.
The Witness is gorgeous and, at times, makes you feel like you’re walking around a 3-dimensional painting. Objects in the game have a low polygon count and basic textures that rarely goes beyond a single color, but this works to the game’s advantage to prevent object pop-in and allows what you see to look the almost same no matter the distance you are from the object. Water reflects all objects perfectly and this becomes necessary for solving some of the puzzles in one area. The simplicity of the graphics allows the game to run even on CPU integrated graphics (if on PC) while still displaying a wide array of vibrant colors.
As far as music goes, there is none to speak of. What you only ever hear is ambient sound from the environment such as the wind in the trees, the crunch of gravel beneath your feet, water dripping in a cave, or the hum of the computer screen puzzles you interact with. This ambient noise is well-crafted to match the environment (echoes in caves, volume by distance, etc.) The puzzles in one area have their solution in the ambient noise of that area! It’s a great attention to detail and there are other surprising and unique ways to find the solutions to the puzzles on the island that I will not spoil here if you should want to play the game for yourself.
Much like the music in The Witness, there is no defined story. You wake up on an abandoned island and at no point receive any context to why it’s abandoned or why you are there. In the various environments on the island, there is a small town, a quarry, a lumber mill, and a castle to name a few. These areas have statues of people performing various actions. Were these people petrified all at once by some cataclysm? Did some lonely island-dweller craft these statues to not feel so alone? With no way to tell, it gets chalked up to another mystery of the island you are exploring.
The only goal you find you have is to activate large lasers that align themselves with an altar of sorts on the top of the mountain on the north (or what I assume is north) end of the island. You are not required to activate the lasers in any specific order allowing you to explore the island at your leisure or go to another area on the island if one has you stumped.
Should you play this game? It depends, honestly. If you do, be prepared to really flex your puzzle-solving muscles. While some of The Witness’ puzzles simply take advantage of the environment and can be solved merely through observation, other puzzles have strict requirements such as requiring the line you draw to have sections shaped like Tetris blocks or puzzles in which your solution literally shapes the path you have to walk on. If you feel a sense of great accomplishment from defeating a particularly difficult battle in a game, you may feel a similar sense of accomplishment from solving the puzzles in this game. The only difference being that you can look up the answers to the puzzles at any given time, do you have the willpower to resist such a temptation?