As my life hurtles unswervingly towards the clutches of death, I have spent no less than one hour of my precious existence staring at a simple line puzzle, only to resign myself to move on and try again tomorrow. What better way to spend my time! Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid—a mind-bending puzzler disguised as a platformer—has spent eight years and millions of his own dollars building his next creation: The Witness. Inspired by Myst, The Witness is a first-person puzzle game set on a deserted island filled with linked computer terminals, each with unique line-based puzzles that require solving in order to open a door, activate a machine, or simply unlock the next terminal in the chain. The open world is made up of various biomes, with each area introducing new rules to the puzzles. While the player has access to the majority of the island early in the game, the knowledge required to complete many of the puzzles may not yet have been revealed.
The puzzles themselves are deceptively simple. At their most basic level, they are quite literally line mazes—with a twist. As you progress, you will encounter puzzles with various coloured symbols placed throughout the maze. With each new symbol, you are required to apply new rules that dictate how and where to draw your line from the starting point to the exit. The rules that apply to each symbol are not explicitly explained—often, a careful analysis of the surrounding environment is required to guide you to the solution. Sometimes, trial-and-error will get a result, but without a clear understanding of a new rule, you will find yourself even more confused as you progress through the chain of terminals.
The brilliance in the puzzle design is the fact that every puzzle is fair, provided that you have learnt and applied the correct rules for any given puzzle. The rules are not complex to the point of obscurity. I can happily spend hours on a single puzzle—safe in the knowledge that I can solve it, provided that the electrons orbiting my tiny brain are aligned. And boy, is that satisfying!
Visually, the world of The Witness is stunning. Blow and his small team at Thekla have created an impressive game engine from the ground-up, resulting in a detailed environment filled with vibrant colours, memorable landmarks, and hidden surprises. I was pleased to find it running at a solid 60 frames per second on PS4, which seems like an impressive feat given the amount of detail on the screen at any given time.
Gamepad controls are satisfactory, using dual analog sticks for movement, “X” to activate the cursor, “O” to cancel and “L2” to run. I am confused as to why the left analog stick does not allow precise control of movement speed—something that frustrates me to no end in many platforming games. It’s a tactile issue that doesn’t affect gameplay, but sometimes I just want to crawl around an object while hunting for clues!
Voice recorders hidden across the island contain quotes from various historical intellectuals, and, perhaps, provide some insight into the religious and philosophical beliefs of the game’s creator. After finding maybe a dozen of these, it’s unclear if these recordings will help reveal the mysteries of the island. It seems more likely that I’m expected to be swayed by Blow’s personal beliefs. Either way, they don’t distract from my enjoyment of the game.
At roughly the halfway mark, my time in The Witness has been spent tearing my hair out one minute, and experiencing euphoria the next (give or take a few hours). I will be returning to the island the next chance I get, and I recommend you do the same!