(The poster is actually also a minor spoiler.)
After enough hours playing The Witness, it gets to you in funny ways. You start seeing its puzzles in everyday objects. Its aesthetic – circles and circuitous lines – pop out at you everywhere you look.
The Witness is putatively a puzzle game with a singular gaming mechanic – panels of mazes in which the player must draw an unbroken line through a maze from start to finish, obeying certain rules. There are hundreds of these puzzles scattered around the game environment, of varying levels of difficulty. Solving these puzzles will reveal new areas, unlock audio recordings, and inch the the player closer to the endgame.
But The Witness is more than just a series of maze puzzles. I think, at its core, The Witness is a game about exploration and discovery. The game environment is a large island with many different biomes for the player to discover and wander around in. The environment itself offers many secrets; hidden vistas, underground caves, secret scenic spots, where the player can take in the beauty and serenity of the island.
Few games I’ve played rival The Witness in terms of that unfettered sense of exploration. In open world games like The Witcher, there is always the tension between taking it all in and advancing the plot or leveling up your character. In The Witness, there is no such tension. The puzzle-solving is inherent in the act of exploration. And exploration is the only reward for puzzle solving, other than opening up more puzzles. But The Witness does not rush the player. The narrative, or what exists of it, is minimal and unobtrusive. The player is free to wander where they wish, indulging in the fantastically picturesque environments of the island: brilliant pink cherry blossom orchards, forests of bamboo trees, scorching deserts, woodlands, underground caves festooned with bioluminescent plants. There is also a kind of in-game reward for exploration – many environmental features on the island line up into maze-like pathways when viewed from the correct perspective, which the player can also trace to solve.
That exploration is the chief appeal of The Witness – that feeling of excitement when you visit an area for the first time and apprehend its puzzles. Different puzzle types are native to each area, too, ensuring that the act of exploring new territory also holds a sense of novelty.
This focus on puzzle-solving and exploration, without obvious gameplay or narrative rewards, makes the game rather more suited to certain types of players. The Witness is by no means a particularly accessible game. There are no instructions, no sense of guidance. The player is thrust into the world with no driving force to propel them on except their native desire to explore and to solve the puzzles around them. And the endgame itself is not particularly rewarding – solving the final puzzles pretty much just resets the game and earns you a Steam achievement.
The puzzles themselves are inventive and well designed for the most part, and most areas have some sort of sequential solving order that introduces players to the particular rules of the puzzle vocabulary of that area at a manageable learning gradient. Some puzzles are more inspired than other. Some puzzles rely on environmental cues, and these are often the most frustrating, because they involve some element of pixel hunting, rather than logic. And the endgame has some truly irritating puzzles that derive difficulty from things like obscuring the puzzle board with flashing lights. But The Witness is endlessly inventive in the variety of puzzles that it throws at you, and for the most part, they’re well thought-out.
Perhaps what is frustrating about The Witness is how inscrutable it feels on a teleological level. What is the island for? Why is it put there? Who built it? Why are there all these statues of humans scattered around the island? There are a variety of theories out there on the Internet, but my personal favorite is that The Witness is at some level a ludological representation of someone’s interior mental state – possibly that of Jonathan Blow. The island is a mind, with hubs to unlock to reach a greater state of self-understanding, with different approaches to puzzle-solving to make the player understand that there are many ways to view a certain thing. The act of puzzle solving is a way to simulate that journey to greater self-awareness – the kind of act of concentration and the flash of enlightenment that accompanies finally solving the puzzle after employing another lens by which to view it.
What I like most about this explanation is that it also suggests that the game is a kind of vehicle for the player to experience a kind of OCD – of that compulsive need to trace lines through paths, to see the symmetry in things, to follow certain arbitrary rules of logic when solving a puzzle, to avoid the lava, as it were, when crossing the carpet. There is a secret ending in the game that bears this theory out, but I’ll leave it to the prospective player to figure out what that is. Essentially, the game may be a very personal way for someone – perhaps one of the game’s designers – to allow players to feel what it must be like to have OCD.
There are also these audio logs and videos that the player can stumble upon and view scattered all through the island – audio logs that hold snippets of meaningful quotes by various scientists, philosophers and religious figures. They are beautifully narrated, providing a meditative soundtrack to accompany the player’s explorations or puzzle-solving attempts. My favored interpretation is that they are ideological fragments that have stuck in the mind of this person whose interiority we are experiencing.
Essentially, The Witness is appropriately named – the player is witnessing the interiority and hoariness of a mind through the act of simulated experience, complete with surreal images, extracts of articulated ideas, and abstract representations of people and places. It’s somewhat apropos that Blow, the game’s creator, has said in interviews that he “wanted to make a game for people who read Gravity’s Rainbow” – and here he has made a game with the same kinds of dreamlike logic that Pynchon readers will be accustomed to experiencing and navigating, in order to make us feel the humility of accepting that the world is beyond complete understanding: a kind of game where the experience, and not the end, is the whole point.
I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 shady trees