Clever & Crafty
Written by Joshua David Anderson
Creating a video game can take a long time. Some games are released too early and could use more time in development. Other games have famously long schedules and a protracted development doesn’t always mean the game will be any good. So of course it was with some skepticism that after nearly seven years since it was announced by Braid creator Jonathan Blow, The Witness finally came out for people to play. After that long of a delay, what form would the game take? Could it be any good? What kind of game is The Witness anyways?
When you first start the game, The Witness feels very bare bones. There is no opening text crawl, no initial cut-scene to let you know what is going on. You simply start in a dark tunnel and have to solve your first puzzle to get out. It’s a simple black line with a circle on one end and a nub on the other. Simply drag the analog stick from one end to the other to earn your freedom. After that, you are let loose on a mysterious island. The game wastes no time in setting you up, and does not burden you with complicated mechanics or control schemes. You can walk or run around the island and pull up a little dot for solving puzzles.
And that is all you need, because The Witness is simply a game where you solve puzzles on an island. There are a lot of puzzles, but there are no other characters or NPCs around, and you do not fight or level up. Even more, there is really only one type of puzzle in the game, that maze-like line puzzle that requires you to get one end of a snake-like line to a designated spot on the other side of the maze. Other than that, you are free to wander around the island and look at anything you want, and go anywhere that you can find access to, which is usually gated by more line puzzles. So can a game with such a limited scope be interesting or fun?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Although the overall form of the puzzles is the same, the real genius lies in how many variations and how many different rules can be applied to what seems to be a simple puzzle type. The Witness will stretch the absolute bounds of what can be done with only a line and a grid. The secret beauty of this setup is that you become incredibly familiar with the puzzles and the visual language that the game presents over its many hours of playtime. This helps you solve the puzzles, but it also gives a deep feeling of satisfaction when you discover the solution. You aren’t just using logic and memory, you are starting to interpret the island to help you progress through it.
Visually, The Witness looks stunning. It has a stylized design that makes it seem like there isn’t as much detail in the world until you look closer. The island is also incorporated into the puzzles in The Witness and without revealing any spoilers, sometimes the answer to a puzzle is found in the environment, and sometimes the answer to an obstacle on the island is found in a simple line puzzle. It all works together in a seamless fashion to promote a single goal: to get you to look at the world around you for answers.
As far as a story or traditional ending, there are bits and pieces of that peppered throughout the game, but it is more minimal than other games. There is a narrative of sorts, but it is only told in audio logs, and even then it is pretty muted. There is an ending that you can get to after completing some puzzles, but you do not have to complete all the puzzles on the island to do so. In fact, there are many puzzles on the island that do nothing other than let you solve them. The Witness lets you discover for the joy of discovery, explore for the sake of exploring, and solve puzzles for the intention of solving them.
Overall, The Witness is hard to describe. It is a game about puzzles, but the puzzles are so much more than what they seem. It has an island, but the island is more important than just the place you walk around. It has more hours in it than you would initially think, and it has secrets that people continue to find. If you like puzzle games, you may very well like The Witness. And if you like the idea of a game being a puzzle in and of itself, than The Witness is very much for you.
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