You’ve likely heard of The Witness by now, Jonathan Blow’s latest indie game, receiving an overwhelming amount of attention and earning a reputation for being one of the greatest games this year already. But you’ve heard its a puzzle game, and you may have seen snippets of gameplay here and there, and you must’ve thought to yourself at some point, ‘Just line drawing?’ You couldn’t have been more right, but at the same time, wrong.
Blow had worked on this game for the past several years, eventually having created a masterpiece comprising of about 700 puzzles and gorgeous aesthetics. The game released last month, with an asking price of about forty dollars, and many may debate whether the cost is really worth it, for an indie puzzle game. I’m here to tell you that I would’ve easily paid sixty, because boy oh boy, its been a long time since I’ve experienced insight while playing a video game, and felt extremely gratified doing so.
There’s no story to explain, no specific objective or mission guiding you from one end of the map to the other. Like a Souls’ game, you’re thrown into the mix, the controls displayed on-screen, and you’re left to explore and wander the wonderful virtual island on your own, uncovering mysteries as you go on, and answering your own questions. ‘How do I solve this puzzle? Do I come back to it later? What does the windmill do? What’s on top of that mountain? What’s over there?’ Your curiosity is your greatest weapon, and The Witness plays upon it marvelously. As you explore puzzle upon puzzle, they stop being as straightforward as simply drawing patterns to segregate black dots from white ones, or connecting dots in a grid. You’re introduced to different areas, a monastery, a castle, a forest - and each landmark introduces you to a new puzzle, and therefore, a new rule to seek out for yourself and understand on your own. The end result leaves you with an ‘Aha!’ moment, and the knowledge you gain is further polished as you tackle harder puzzles of a similar algorithm, further improved upon as they start incorporating two or three more rules into a harder difficulty of brain-teasers.
At a certain point in time, the puzzles you solve will cease to be simply two dimensional line drawing puzzles, and will require an extra bit of brainpower. This is where the puzzles start to get more fun, as you make use of your environment as clues. Take a simple early game puzzle for example:
Solve it yet?
Here’s another puzzle that makes excellent use of your surroundings:
When I first approached the puzzle above, I was confused. No obstruction, no coloured dots, no funny star shapes? Could I solve this puzzle as yet? Did I need an extra clue?
It was only when I approached the grid from a different angle did I realise, that The Witness not only plays on curiosity, but it plays on perspective. In fact, a good chunk of puzzles you’ll come across can only be solved by paying attention to your surroundings, and once you actually complete them, you’ll full well feel like the smartest player on this planet. Experiencing Eureka moments such as these are what The Witness awards you with, and frankly, that self accomplishment is well worth it.
However, this game is not for just anybody, and can be extremely discouraging to those lacking patience, an essential piece to your playthrough. In my case, very early on I came across two puzzles in the Bunker area that could’ve been easily solved had I spent a little more time tinkering around with perspective, or simply staring at the puzzle. My patience wore thin, and as I shamelessly searched online for the solution, a nagging feeling of guilt washed over me, and throughout the rest of the game, despite having solved the remaining 600+ puzzles and clearing out all remaining areas without the use of a walkthrough, I still felt pretty bummed that I resorted to Google Images to find the answer. Only later on, when I decided to commit full hours to difficult puzzles, would I experience that insight, and waited eagerly to embrace that feeling of accomplishment once more.
The Witness tests that tolerance and stretches it to its limit. Its almost as if the game is taunting you, because it doesn’t matter if I redeemed myself by solving the remaining game areas on my own, including The End puzzles hidden deep within the mountain. Yes, I didn’t cheat again, I really did go through every single puzzle by myself, because The Witness punished me for being soft, and while I would gladly accept somewhere around 608 puzzles I solved myself vs 2 puzzles I cheated on, the game still jeers at me, letting me know it beat me twice. My only consolation is the cheated puzzles were freaking easy, and solving the difficult ones granted me the ease of knowing that maybe I could’ve completed the entire game without the goddamn walkthrough. Curses.
My only advice at this point would be to persist, persevere, and constantly change perspective. Also know that you need only solve a certain number of areas’ puzzles to progress, so you don’t have to go through 600, but around 400. Do whatever it takes, draw notes (I have loads of pages of scribbled solutions), take pictures, go back to other puzzles, take one hour breaks, take one day breaks. Do NOT cheat, it’ll taint your experience.
Another thing this game’s got going for it is that its beautiful. I mean come on, this is ridiculous:
Sometimes, you can even play on the perspective in the environment. Check it out:
Another thing I’m not too sure about is the philosophical recordings scattered throughout the game. They may appeal to some, but I found them boring, and skipped most of them.
Now then, along with completing all the game’s areas and most of its puzzles, my sole highlight of the game has to be:
*Spoilers explaining what The Challenge is, but not how to solve it*
The Challenge is easily the hardest puzzle in the game, and I decided to tackle it at the ebb of me feeling like a self-centered genius. I’d solved the game’s most difficult puzzles, start to end, and decided to load a previous save and take on what only 4.9% of Ps4 players could (at the time). I read all sorts of discouraging comments: “It’s way too hard, It’s not for everyone! I couldn’t do it, I spent weeks trying, I give up.” A game designer Blow respected growing up took month(s), Stephen Totilo himself took a week, how would I do?
The Challenge is, putting it simply, fourteen puzzles in under seven minutes.
You start by playing the record player, and seconds later, two soundtracks are playing.
In the Hall of the Mountain King:
When both of these soundtracks finish, and you do not solve all the puzzles in time, you’re forced to start again.
You cannot cheat, because all the puzzles are randomly generated every time you reset. Therefore, you cannot look up the solution online.
You cannot pause, because when you do, the puzzles reset.
This puzzle basically takes everything you’ve learned in game and puts it into one big challenge. But what you had to solve in hours must be done in just under seven minutes.
To put it best, it tests how well you can cope under pressure, and when met by different configurations of puzzles. I felt now was the perfect time to begin, because A) I finished the entire game in a week, and I’d adapted to all sorts of situations and beat them. And B) My mind worked on a different level; I could explore lots of solutions quickly in my head, and find a solution after a little bit of processing time.
Needless to say, I failed the first night miserably. I could feel myself getting worked up, and excited at the same time. I was prepared for this, just not that day. The second day however...
I swear I shit you not. I was astonished myself. Two days? It took me exactly two days!? I screamed when the achievement came up, because I was pretty sure the song had finished and I missed my chance by half a second. But the vault door opened, and like I said, this game makes you feel like a goddamn genius.
I strongly encourage people who love playing puzzle games to give this one a go. If not now, then when there’s a sale or something. This isn’t your average puzzle. Its a clever manipulation of your surroundings, your curiosity, and your ability to tolerate puzzles you’re stumped on till the very end. The Witness is truly a masterpiece. Do give it a go!
You’re reading the barelyfanatical blog, dedicated to video games and movies. Hooray! Sorry this post took so long, I wanted to completely finish the game 100% before writing my thoughts on it. Enjoy!