The Witness - game review
Braid creator Jonathan Blow is back with a new title called The Witness - and this is a game that's totally chock full of puzzles
Let me tell you about the moment in The Witness when the game first lost me.
I was solving another series of line puzzles, connecting one point to another, based on a mechanic which I’d figured out after long moments of contemplation. The end of the five panel segment was coming to an end when I realised that one of my lines was becoming increasingly transparent.
On the last board it was completely invisible and unusable, as though all of the ink had run out. A few steps from completion, it became clear that not only did I have to solve these puzzles in a certain way, I had to do it in a limited number of moves to ensure enough ‘ink’ remained.
Your reaction to this scenario will tell you all you need to know about whether The Witness will be for you. It might make your brain zing with the possibilities of investing serious time into figuring out the most efficient route, progressing tirelessly from one panel to the next. Or it might make your brain cry as you slouch away. I sprinted to another part of the island.
The Witness is the latest game from Indie developer Jonathan Blow, following on from the rather successful Braid. That title released in 2008 and he’s spent the last eight years crafting his next potential masterpiece.
Mechanically it couldn’t be simpler. You walk around a gorgeously stylised island in the first person. The area is littered with panels some of which are dark and several lit up. Move up to an active panel, click on it and you’ll be tasked with solving a puzzle.
Every single puzzle in the game involves drawing a line from a circular starting point to an end point through a maze. It’s hard to believe but that is actually the entire gamplay, scribbling lines on mysterious tablets. If you’re correct, another panel will activate or a door might open and you can proceed.
The layout of the island is very open, which lets you easily move to another puzzle if your brain becomes too exhausted. The overall goal is to activate seven lasers which point to the centre of the island. They open up a final area and an ending of sorts. But there are many lasers and many puzzles, so you don’t have to solve them all. Which is just as well as Blow has confirmed over 600 are in the game, and it could take you 100 hours or more to conquer it completely.
It certainly is a beautiful game and everything about the interface is smooth and perfectly poised. There’s a welcome sprint button and a pared back presentation without music or anything else to distract you from the task at hand.
And there’s no story either, at least not in the conventional sense. You can find audio logs scattered around the otherwise deserted island but they’re not background or context, rather they come from real world texts and deal with big issues like the place of humanity in the universe. They’re very esoteric, I’d even go so far as to say they’re pretentious.
The environment based storytelling is better, especially in building an atmosphere. There are stone-like figures dotted around the island, many frozen as if they were alive just a moment before. Together with the near silence and the many mysterious locations, it adds a sense of what came before in a similar way to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, only less evocative.
For the rest of the time, it’s all about the puzzles. The sheer variety Blow has managed to introduce with such a limited mechanic is quite staggering, as is the way in which he moves the player from a simple introduction to more and more complicated applications through tens and dozens and hundreds of minor moments.
It’s a triumph of game design, especially when you consider that it also incorporates a tutorial which lasts for the entire playing time. You’re constantly learning, using previous rules and adapting to how they change and grow and interact with eachother. While there’s no running and gunning or platform jumping, there’s a pure sense of gameplay at work here – squaring up to challenges and using the tools at hand to overcome them.
And when that dialogue is a civil one, The Witness is capable of some wonderful moments – a sprawling, non-linear puzzle game on an epic scale. But when things go awry it can be a painful experience, full of frustration, self doubt and curse words.
That’s not to say that there isn’t joy in finally figuring out a solution but it is very fleeting, with the game doing little to reward you as you progress. Each puzzle is followed by another and another and the repeated interaction with spikes of incredible difficulty, eventually became wearying.
For some, The Witness will be a transcendent experience – especially those with a penchant for patient puzzles. For others it will be nigh on unplayable, the kind of thing they load up once, muddle around in for 20 minutes and never look at again. That’s a big risk for a developer's first game in eight years and it’s commendable for Blow to be catering to that audience but take a moment to consider where you lie before spending your hard earned cash.