The Witness (2017)

The Witness (2016), created by Jonathan Blow, developed and published by Thekla, Inc

The Witness is a game, that offers you a wide array of sensations: confusion, frustration, the joy of exploring, sense of freedom and exhilaration of solving. It's a game, that doesn't hold your hand, in fact, it doesn't really tell you anything at all. It's a puzzle game, that throws you to a stepping distance of a deep end and doesn't warn you when the bottom vanishes under your feet. That's how it feels like in any case.

There's a line between game holding your hand at every point and game nudging you to do something without strictly telling you what you're supposed to do. You pass the line and the game becomes too easy, you stay on the other side of the line, the game becomes an enjoyable experience. And then there are games like the Witness, that tell you jack shit. It is a kind of a game that doesn't hold your hand nor does it even gently nudge you to go somewhere. It plain throws you in and expects you to figure things out yourself.  At times that can be refreshing, but it can be frustrating as well. To play the Witness through fully depends on how high tolerance you have and how good you are at solving puzzles.

I mean let me get this out of the way: The Witness is not a walking simulator where you walk and watch a narrative to evolve. It's not a point 'n' click adventure game where you go places, talk to people, find clues and watch the story progress by solving (hopefully) plot related puzzles. Simply put, the Witness a puzzle game through and through. It's an open world game, but it still is a puzzle game, where you do nothing else but solve puzzles with varying level of difficulty. As far I can tell, as I've not played it through yet, there's no real plot. You walk around the island and solve puzzles. You get stuck, you go somewhere else and solve some other puzzles. You do this as long as it takes for you light up several lasers beams to a device located on a mountaintop. And after that's done, I guess it's either the final puzzle or just the end.

For an example, in this puzzle, you have to draw two shapes, but the blue squares will allow you to drop squares out from a shape. So the T shape can turn into I shape. And you also need to cross all the black dots with the line.

The Witness takes place on an island. Gorgeous island with different kinds of locations, ranging from a small desert to a swamp. There is a wrecked ship, a castle, a garden, a treehouse complex and a village. All kinds of locations filled with puzzles. Then there are some collectables, like voice recorders, which contain monologues of philosophical musings. And that's that. That's the Witness in a nutshell. An island filled with puzzles, with very little plot or story.

There are indicators of a story of sorts here and there, as the island has obviously been inhabited. While a lot of the places are in ruins, there are signs of recent presence here and there: there are sofas and lounge areas placed on picturesque locations, a place of a picnic, those voice recorders. And then there are those human statues all over, frozen in time in the middle of an action. But that's all just something that is creating a mood, not really telling a story. There's an obvious mystery there, but no real narrative to tie it together. Who knows, maybe there's some sort of revelation at the end, but after firing up 4 of those laser beams I've not yet stumbled upon a story.

So the real salt of the game are the puzzles and the location. As I stated, this isn't a game that holds your hand. It expects you to spot things yourself. It expects you to figure out how the puzzles work and where the hints are if there's any.

The puzzles themselves are logic puzzles. Most commonly you have a grid on which you need to draw a line between the start and the end point, but to make it more difficult, there are several tricks in them, like a need to draw Tetris-style shapes or grouping symbols into groups. Then there are puzzles with environment based hints, like a nearby tree with branches broken off. All this adds up to a series of challenges, of which some are a breeze to solve through, some a bit harder and some even feel a bit unfair, leading you to look up a solution from the net.

The scenery is lush and vivid.
That's the thing with the Witness, a flaw in its design really, as it doesn't give you any hints at all and the puzzles are not in a running order from easiest to hardest. Most of the time you stumble upon a puzzle, which requires you to solve puzzles somewhere else first in order to fully grasp what's needed of you. And that would be fine, if not of the open-world nature of the game and the fact, that there's no speed travel via a map. You need to walk everywhere or use a boat. You'll walk around a lot. Jump from puzzle to puzzle, And if you get frustrated, the temptation to look a solution from the net is just too high.

Travelling is the biggest stumbling block of the design of the Witness. The only time you see an area map is when you travel by a boat from one harbour to an another. If you walk between places, you need to rely on your own instincts. After a while, the places do start to become more familiar, but there's also no automatic means of keeping track of what puzzles you've solved. So if you take a longer pause between the play sessions, it might take a moment before things get back you.

And that's the Witness for you. To like you do need to have an appreciation for games that don't tell you anything. Also, it's not always utterly fair on how it handles its own logic. Most of the time you can trust it to be fair, but at times it just throws the difficulty curve so high, that it just makes you want to rip your hair out. You also need to like puzzles. But if you're looking for a story-driven experience, then turn away and don't look back. You've been warned.

The Witness is available on GOG and Steam. You can also get it on consoles.

The only time you see a map of the island is on a boat you can use to travel between certain locations.