The Witness is hard. It’s also intriguing, thought provoking, and intelligent. It’s beautiful; oft times exceptionally so. It’s relaxing, definitely something unique, quite often infuriating but paradoxically therapeutic at the same time.
It’s also abundantly clear that some very smart people (people who are much, much more intelligent than I could hope to be) made this game. Playing through The Witness made me feel dumb, and there were moments when I’m positive that, had it been able to, the game would have hit me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper for forgetting something it’d literally just taught me three puzzles ago. I’m ok with that, because as dumb as The Witness occasionally made me feel, it also made me feel like a damn genius; like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with a freshly formed epiphany of how to solve the puzzle in front of me; pieces slotting into place in my mind faster than I could move the on-screen cursor.
*Click*. Puzzle solved. On to the next one. And the next. And the next…
In The Witness you will solve puzzles; literally hundreds and hundreds of maze-type puzzles scattered across an island that’s divided into numerous biomes and structures that each house their own variation of the base puzzle. They’re all basically the same type of puzzles, but there are numerous modifying elements that appear throughout the puzzle-sets on the island. This does mean that you will likely come across areas on the island that you’re initially unable to tackle because you haven’t been taught how to solve that particular puzzle variant. Some further exploration always leads you to a string of puzzle panels that will teach you the puzzle logic for that particular location. The remarkable thing is that The Witness teaches you a bevy of increasingly complex puzzle requirements, and it does it all without a single on-screen word. There’s no explanatory voice-over, there’s no written tutorial: the game teaches you everything you need to know to progress, by getting you to play what you need to progress. It’s a pretty wild achievement.
That being said, you will undoubtedly come across a puzzle type that you do not click with. For me that was the puzzle type that has become known as the “Tetris” puzzle variant. I understood, more or less, the requirements for solving the Tetris puzzle types, but I just could not “click” with them. But for every one puzzle type that I didn’t enjoy, there were four or five others that I adored. I’ve found this to be the case with a number of other people I’ve chatted to about the game. The general consensus is that everyone has their Achilles’ heel puzzle type, but those puzzles aren’t enough to detract entirely from the overall experience. As frustrated as I got with some of the variants, I always found myself in a relaxed state as I explored the island while not solving puzzle. And that’s the one neat thing about The Witness’s design: if you get stuck on a particular puzzle set, you can (save for the Swamp location)
put that area on hold and find another batch of puzzles to solve. You are free to progress at your own pace and on your own terms, but if you hope to finish the game, you will need to complete each of the 10 locations that will open the final area.
Exploring the island of The Witness is a fantastic experience. There are a number of elements contributing to the overall feel of the island that seem to be specifically designed in order to maximise relaxation. It creates a startling contrast to some of the more taxing puzzles that really push your understanding of the game’s more meticulous rulesets. Colours, shapes, sound, and even the in-game architecture all seem geared towards giving your brain a bit of a reprieve. I loved exploring this game world and kept finding minute hidden details that made me wonder if the majority of players would even notice them. Subtle things like rock formations shaped like tortoises when viewed from very specific angles; or tree roots jutting out of a cliff-face that reflect as koi fish in the mirror-like waters beneath them. If you get high enough and look down into the clearer sections of the ocean, you can make out giant octopus patterns that have been carved into the sand below the water’s surface. Little artistic flourishes like these really made an island devoid of any other life forms feel, contradictorily, full of life. The game’s sound design, however, struck me the most. In fact, while I’ve been writing this review, I’ve meandered my Witness avatar down to one of the many beaches in the game just so the sound of the waves and the water can engulf my brain while I hammer away at the keyboard. Sound is important in The Witness; it provides much of the game’s atmosphere but also adds to that feeling of tranquillity as you traverse the island attempting to solve puzzles.
In all my years of playing video games, I haven’t experienced a title quite like this one. I frequently hit brick walls when it came to progressing in certain areas, but perseverance pays off in this game, and that constant feeling of triumph as you solve a particularly tricky puzzle is really only quelled by the almost immediate realisation that an even harder puzzle awaits around the corner.
My one major issue with The Witness is its final area and the avalanche of brutal-as-hell puzzles. Tough puzzles are what the game is about so throwing the meanest content at you towards the end is an obvious design choice. However, there are a handful of endgame puzzles that require you to be standing at an EXACT angle before you can complete the task. I had to resort to an online hint at this point (I did; so sue me), and even with the puzzle explained to me it still took me a good 25 minutes to complete the maze simply because the pixel-perfect position you need to be in is unrelentingly particular.
The game is difficult to unanimously recommend. If you’re a puzzle game junkie, then The Witness will be the equivalent of video game Nirvana. If the puzzle genre isn’t exactly a part of your comfort zone, then you will find yourself getting frequently frustrated. However, if methodical, calculated progressing through tricky content is something that you feel might be fun, then you can’t go wrong with The Witness. I am not massively into the puzzle game scene, but something about The Witness made it very difficult for me to think about anything else during the two weeks I spent with it. It got under my skin, and the game’s island became a holiday destination festooned with mysteries to solve, places to explore, and the occasional tantrum to throw.