“The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day”
– Albert Einstein
Quoting the words of this great theorist presents an insight into the mantra of The Witness, a puzzle game that is not only outstandingly difficult, but one that adheres to the physiological makeup, and the propensity for discovery, of its players. It is a game that encourages exploration, careful thought processes and an adherence to the metaphysical above all else; not just as elements of play, but as central tenets to its very core. While I feel that most, including myself, will be somewhat disenchanted by its unending streak of laborious and frustrating designs, a means to success, and therefore satisfaction, can almost always be found amongst the trees, rocks and water features of this soft island paradise. Unfortunately, the warmth and plushness of its visuals have been unable to staunch an abject hollowness within my person, as the game’s philosophical narrative never strays far from the pretentious.
The puzzles of the Witness take on two varieties, “straight-forward” logic and environmental problem solving. The former takes place on a series of 2D panels in which a line must be drawn from goal to finish using a specific set of rules or symbols. The latter utilises similar panels, but instead of being self-contained, must be completed using the island’s geographical features. A specific example can be found in a woodland area, in which the shadows of branches must be avoided using the snake-like line in order to complete the conundrum. Hundreds of these puzzles are available, warranting the $40 price-point, however the game’s extreme level of difficulty may lengthen the game even further.
Despite a grouping of tutorial-esque panels existing in every area for each logic set, the complication ramps up with startling pace. I would spend a few seconds discerning the results of some, while others a few steps later were taking up to half an hour to solve. The difficulty itself is not necessarily an issue but the level of obscure confinement on each panel truly is. Those that include “Tetris” symbols, where a line must be made into either a T, Z, L or square shape before finishing are particularly unfair, as only one solution is accepted as correct. In some cases, I was forced to look up a guide in order to progress, only to find a solution that was entirely oblique compared to my more valid deductions. Events like this occur to time immemorial in The Witness, creating a torrent of infuriating blockages that had me squeezing my controller to near-breaking point.
It isn’t all frustration and shattered DualShocks, however, as a Dark Souls-like level of satisfaction comes frequently amongst the toil. Most puzzles within The Witness can be solved through observing your immediate environment, and while hours of looking may be required to find a clue, the joys of learning a particular worldly structure and then applying it to a burdensome puzzle are deeply fulfilling. I couldn’t help but feel this when I managed to draw, on a panel, the outline of some far-off trees after discovering this technique from a rock formation enigma a few hours earlier.
The encouragement of exploration and examination bolsters the player’s sensory involvement in The Witness, which is also heightened through a number of physical and physiological methods in solving its many puzzles. Photographing certain panels with my iPhone for further perusal, or for later use if necessary, as well as taking breaks away from the frustration, worked marvellously to aid in progression. The former technique provided me with an energised demeanour, and whether or not this was an acute placebo implanted by the development team is of course up for debate, but it worked regardless. It pushed me countless times towards success, and increased my interaction with the game to both a profound and interestingly unique way.
The world in which this profundity takes place is outstandingly gorgeous, with everything in sight having a tote of soft brightness. The sand on beaches and desert areas rivals Journey and Uncharted 3 in its silken shine, white blocks and rock formations appear biteable like chocolate, and the reflections in still pools and ponds have a have an incredible one-to-one sheen with the world above them. Sound effects couple with the visuals, creating an island that not only exudes beauty from colour and depth, but through the tinkling of waterfalls, light breezes and oceanic spray. The aforementioned exploration therefore leads you on an adventure from sea to castle to treetop village, providing a variety of locations to investigate.
Secrets and strange objects litter the land, as hidden rooms and large-scale puzzles mesh to build an over-arching mystery atop the game’s high mountain. This enigmatic style of play compels you towards more discovery but, unfortunately, very few concrete answers are to be found amongst The Witness’ questions. This will no doubt disappoint and irritate the pragmatic, and while the game’s moments of quiet trekking are somewhat sublime, having to backtrack between puzzles quickly becomes a chore. Invisible walls stall each venture, as you are unable to drop down from staircases or other low structures to speed up the proceedings. As well as this, certain puzzles, if failed, require the repeated completion of the previous puzzle. This is obviously a time-consuming and perplexing inclusion, considering the expected failure of some of the game’s most difficult panels.
The riddling nature of this environment continues throughout The Witness’ ‘narrative’. I use that word instead of ‘story’ because no plot is to be found here, only a series of tape recorders that spout philosophical, scientific and religious quotes from famous thinkers when played. These muse on abstract theories regarding awareness, universal space and spiritual displacement. And while I am fully appreciative of philosophy and its merits, I feel that a structured tale with characters, motivation and emotion would have been far more enjoyable and compelling. The island is full of human statues – who are they, and why are they made of stone? There are abandoned homes, and a strange mixture of space-age technology and archaic structures. Why is this so? This questioning may be the desired effect of The Witness, but having stepped away from its paradisical world, I have been left hollow from its lack of more transparent, resonant storytelling.
The Witness is a startling mystery in and of itself. Its puzzles and questions are stark, vast and ever-perplexing. My time with it has been full of frustration, anguish and extreme beauty. Nothing is clear, even at its closing, and although the game seems to thrive on a sense of emptiness, I find myself looking back in odd wonderment at a vision of both splendour and portentous nattering.
I am aware of nothing else like this, and frankly, neither are you.
An experience worth having despite the frustration
The Witness provides a game that is difficult, frustrating, beautiful, questioning and pretentious all in one.