The Witness: Mystified
I have been trying to write this post for a while, but The Witness is not an easy game to write about, I’m afraid. If you have any interest in the game, you probably already know that it reviewed incredibly well upon release in January. It’s been a difficult game to discuss, partly because I have trouble articulating some of the thoughts I have about the game, but also because it’s one of those games that really shouldn’t be spoiled for the uninitiated. The Witness is clearly inspired by the ‘90s hit CD-ROM game, Myst. It’s an open-ended puzzle adventure game set on a mysterious abandoned island. But it’s so much more than what Myst was, and it completely outclasses most other games of this type released in the past few years.
I would introduce the story of The Witness, but I’m afraid to say that there really isn’t much I can say about it. That’s not necessarily because I want to avoid spoilers, but because there is very little explicitly revealed about the player character or the situation they face. You are a character that is exploring an island filled with puzzles. Outside of that the player probably has to fill in the rest with your own intuition and imagination. The island certainly has a history, for lack of a better term, but, again, nothing is ever directly spelled out. There may be some secret high-level unlockable content that explains everything that is going on (and I know for a fact that there are a fair few secrets that I haven’t uncovered even after beating it, as I’ve seen them even if I haven’t figured them out), but after my playthrough, I’m afraid that I cannot say with any level of certainty what is actually going on in The Witness.
But does it matter that the story is only an apparition? Does that mean there is no discovery or compelling reason to explore the island? No, and in fact, The Witness is a game that is entirely about discovery. After all, it’s fun to unravel secrets in games, and The Witness is all about mysteries. Nothing is bluntly given to the player in this game, rather the means to succeed in the game are the result of careful exploration, experimentation, observation, and reasoning. Consequently, I found there was an immense amount of satisfaction with each bit of progress I achieved in the game.
The world of The Witness is littered with hundreds of maze puzzle panels, and these serve as the meat of the game. The maze panels are display screens that exist strewn about the environment, and they are almost the only thing on the island that the player can actually interact with. To progress in the game, the player walks up to one of these display screens and solves a maze puzzle by drawing a line to connect the start point of the maze to an end point. In the first introductory area of the game, the puzzles are more like a traditional maze, with only one possible way to connect the start and end points. After that, the puzzles get more elaborate, and there are multiple ways to connect the start and end, but of all the possible lines that can be drawn to do this, usually only one of them is “correct”. The solutions to the puzzles then arrived at in one of three ways:
- Symbols on the puzzle indicate the correct way to draw the line.
- Clues in the surrounding environment are needed to solve the puzzle.
- The line drawn on the puzzle affects the surrounding environment in some way. These tend to be the most unique parts of the game.
As discovery and finding your own way is a huge part of the magic of this game, I don’t want to elaborate too much more on how the puzzles work. But when the player solves a puzzle, often they’ll notice a wire leading away from the panel becomes lit, indicating that something on the other end of the wire has become activated. Usually what is activated is another puzzle panel, but sometimes a gateway or door will be unlocked, and occasionally there are other things that will happen.
Just as the story of The Witness is not explicit, nothing is ever really made explicit about these puzzles. Not once is the player directly told what specific symbols on the puzzles mean, or given hints as to what to look for in the environment. Instead, you learn to solve the puzzles purely through experimentation. When a new puzzle mechanic is introduced, the player is presented with a series of simple puzzles of this new type that are of increasing complexity. These sequences of puzzles are structured in a way that allows the player to experiment and on their own come to an understanding that will allow them to solve the much more elaborate puzzles that make use of each of these new mechanics. It felt like a very unique and natural way of challenging the player to master the world of The Witness.
The island is divided into 11 different sub-regions, and the player needs to complete at least 7 to unlock the final area. Each sub-region has its own distinct visual theme (for instance, there’s a swamp and a castle and a desert), but more importantly, each sub-region has a particular “twist” it puts on the puzzles. That is to say, each area has its own distinct mechanics it adds to the mazes. For those that have played the game, I think my favorite of these areas was the castle. In addition, I have to say, each subregion and the island as a whole are really stunning. No matter where I was in the game, I was always impressed by the visual splendor of the surroundings. The Witness seems like a game that was made for taking screenshots and showing them off.
At first blush, I found myself a bit disappointed with the size of the island. After leaving the tutorial area, the player is pretty much free to go almost anywhere they want, save for a few locked areas. What I personally found was that running from one end of the island to the other could be quite fast, which initially made me question how big the game actually was. But as I familiarized myself with the setting, I found that the island is actually a very dense place. There’s very little wasted space, and little details and pockets of puzzles and other curiosities are packed in pretty much everywhere. I was still discovering new points of interest on the island for several hours into the game, and I know for a fact that I haven’t seen everything there is to see.
It’s impressive the tricks the game pulls out of its sleeve for the final stretch.. The puzzles really explode in terms of their creativity and complexity. But while I was impressed by the final slew of challenges, I also found it to be a bit grueling. Most areas of the games require the player to solve the puzzles in a sequential order, but if you get stuck, you can always wander off to another area and work on the puzzles there. But for the final puzzles, they must be completed one right after the other to go forward. So if you get stuck, you’re just stuck. In these types of games, when I get stuck for too long on a puzzle that I blocks my progress, I usually just quit the game and wait to come back later with a fresh mind. What this meant is that it probably took me the same number of real world weeks to finish the final stretch of The Witness as it did to get to that endgame point.
As you can probably tell, The Witness really resonated with me. Unraveling the mysteries of the island really spoke to me as more than just a game, but also as a scientist. The need for experimentation, personal intuition, and analytic and holistic reasoning are what make this a very “scientific” experience in my mind. Many of you probably know that The Witness was spearheaded by the same designer behind Braid. I liked Braid well enough, but The Witness really felt like one of those games that is just operating on “the next level” beyond most everything else. It has both incredibly well-designed fundamentals and is a startlingly highly polished experience.