The best quizzical island since Lost…
Jonathan Blow’s follow up to indie darling Braid finally hits, after almost 7 years in development. On the surface, a deceptively simple puzzle game, yet with more below the surface, is this Braid mk2, or an entirely different beast altogether?
Game: The Witness
Developer: Jonathan Blow
Publisher: Thekla, Inc
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review Copy Provided)
I’ll probably never finish The Witness. Hell, I’ll probably never even get through most of the main “areas” in The Witness, but that’s OK. Because The Witness is a fantastic video game that ultimately strips everything back to one simple mechanic, and leaves it down to you to figure out, and does it so well that it’s scary.
The first thing you see when you start The Witness is a long tunnel. Moving to the end of it, you encounter a strange panel. The game gives you a single hint, tells you which button to press, and then you’re on your own. For the next 30 hours or so, your mind will become engulfed with mazes, white lines and weird shapes, as you piece together the seemingly complex and varied, yet ultimately straightforward rules of this strange and beautiful island.
As mentioned above, The Witness essentially has one main mechanic. You move a white line around grids of varying sizes to create shapes. As you progress throughout the game, these grids get more and more complex, with varying shapes and colours put inside them to symbolise different rules that your white line needs to take around the grid. These range from single dots that appear along the outer edges, to starburst style shapes in the middle, to Tetris pieces that you essentially have to force into your path around the panel. It sounds somewhat confusing, but once it “clicks” with you what the shapes need to do, it’s like casting a new light on the world, as you go hunting for more panels to unlock with your new found knowledge.
And what a world it is. Jonathan Blow famously came out on stage at the PS4 reveal after the inFamous: Second Son segment, to show off the primary colour infused island that The Witness takes place on. Blow noted at the time that he didn’t know if he could compete with all of the explosions on show, but he really didn’t have anything to worry about. The Witness’ world is finely crafted to within an inch of its life. Every path, ledge and tree has a purpose, whether that’s to annoy, confuse, help or hinder as you rack your brain frantically to figure out the path your white line needs to take through the grid that you know will get you to the next area. Once you’re out of the tutorial section, you’re essentially free to wander round as much of the island as you can, without any core thread running through the game telling you where to go. In fact, I completed some sections that were deemed to be “later” sections before I’d done the one that most people do straight away (according to the trophy list). It’s an Open World in the truest sense, but one that’s not filled with pointless side quests.
Herein lies the difficult part about reviewing what is, essentially, a puzzle game of this nature. Literally everyone will take something different from it, and I may not get through as much of it as the next person. But the beautiful thing about The Witness is that for every single second you’re sat staring at a puzzle, there’s no trick. There’s no hidden “gotcha!” moment to solve the puzzles, it is literally sat in front of you the entire time. The fact that you can go from thinking “Man, I’m a dumbass” to “I am the smartest man who ever lived” and back again within the space of 30 seconds is testament to just how solid that base mechanic is, and how fundamental it is to making the entire experience fun.
Of course, just like Optimus Prime and his mates, there’s more than meets the eye. There always is. Just like Fez with its multitude of secrets, The Witness has an entire sleeve full of tricks and trinkets that it will use to entice you off the beaten path. Don’t expect every one of these hidden parts to be filled with joy, however, as some of the “optional” bits will leave you scratching your head as to their purpose… Until you do it again somewhere else. It’s that kind of game, where threads will be left dangling only to be wrapped up much later down the line. Whilst there is often a lack of immediacy to the “bigger picture” when solving puzzles, the payoff will be there in the end.
My major criticism of The Witness has to be on a technical level. It runs at a smooth frame rate and looks nothing short of striking at worst, but it gave me something I’ve not had since the days of the PS1 and PS2. Motion Sickness. A lot has been made of this, and there’s a really straightforward fix if you feel it (put a blob of blu-tak in the middle of your screen. Honestly, it helps), but the sense of nausea definitely crept over me a few times as I was making my way round the world. Whilst not everyone will experience this, I definitely had my issues with it.
The Witness, then, is an exploratory puzzle game with very limited mechanics and has the tendency to make you pull your hair out in frustration as you begin to reach the limits of your own comprehension. In spite of this, it is an excellently crafted world, with a huge amount of brain teasers to attempt. Some people may not like the lack of immediate feedback when making your way through some of the areas, but the varied nature in solving the puzzles that ultimately combine with each other in such a way make figuring out The Witness an experience without parallel.