“The Witness” is a game that I’ve been looking forward to for six years. Released for the PlayStation 4 and PC, the simplistic yet gorgeous graphical style portends to the true nature of its incalculably complex, puzzle-solving, open-world design.
As a fan of the highly inspirational indie video game “Braid,” which was developed initially for the Xbox 360 in 2008, I couldn’t ignore a certain sense of familiarity in the way that playing “The Witness” feels.
Jonathan Blow, developer of the aforementioned games, has a style that has translated seamlessly from the lush, hand-painted 2-D design of “Braid” into a stunning 3-D landscape of deceptively simple yet immensely dense discovery.
When playing a game designed by Blow, I get a feeling that is often attempted but rarely achieved in video games across genres: epiphany. It’s the epiphany that propelled me to push on, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and it’s the empowerment of meeting an impossible challenge that hooked me into “The Witness” time and time again.
The experience of playing for the first time is in itself an artistic expression. Void of pomp and circumstance, brand logos, legal disclaimers or health warnings. I found myself surrounded by darkness at the end of a long cylindrical tube with a small, starkly lit, door in the background.
It took me a moment to realize that the game had actually given me control. Once I got my bearings, I was introduced to a land that brimmed with mysteries and breakthroughs, obscurities and paradigm shifts, forcing me to look at the world in ways I never imagined and altering the approach with which I will compare all puzzle games going forward.
“The Witness” is notably void of direction or tutorial, at least in the classical sense. Instead, it “tells” you how to play through carefully considered world design and visual cues. The game has more than 650 puzzles to complete (though not all are necessary to see the ending). Beginning with simple puzzles, the difficulty quickly ramps up, and after a short time, I found myself completing problems that would have been impossible mere minutes before.
Solving puzzles is the primary way I interacted with this game, and though it may sound simple, I quickly found myself interacting with space, time and light, delving ever deeper into the mysteries of the island.
Discovery is integral to the experience. Inspired by games like “Myst” and “The Talos Principle,” “The Witness” brings its own take to the genre, setting a new standard in the process.
I can recall multiple examples of the game teaching me incredibly complex rule sets only to quickly subvert its own rules, pulling the rug from under my preconceived notions and taking my composed demeanor along with it.
The desire to play this game when I should be doing other things is a testament to its excellence. The times I stopped playing came not out of necessity but rather out of frustration. Some puzzles proved too difficult to handle, and I had to step away to collect my thoughts.
Though the learning curve may seem like a negative to some, I thought the challenge was balanced and served almost as a mental check to assure that I had all the knowledge I needed to progress into the depths of the island.
From the beginning, I was free to go almost anywhere my puzzle-solving abilities afforded me. I found that progress is coordinated much like in a Metroidvania game. However, instead of needing to find a weapon or piece of armor to open a door or reach a platform, “The Witness” gates player progress with knowledge.
In my attempts to forge on, I found myself sometimes applying rules to puzzles that didn’t actually exist, making the game harder for myself than it was in reality. It was frustrating but rewarding to discover in the process.
Between puzzles, I found myself wandering, stopping to take in the arresting visuals of the terrain. I walked through grassy fields, dark woods, cherry-blossom forests, rock quarries, seaside ruins, mountainous cliffs and more. The music and sound effects take a backseat to the puzzle design and graphical style, never distracting, instead appropriate to the setting and mood that has been carefully shaped over years of development.
It’s worth noting that Blow has taken much of the money he has earned over his career to fund the multimillion dollar budget of “The Witness,” making it one of the most expensive independently developed video games of all time. In an age of crowd-sourced funding, it’s refreshing to see a developer invest their own money into a game that they believe in.
That belief and confidence has paid off, as Blow has given the world the first great, must-play video game of 2016. “The Witness” is a masterpiece that will be referenced for years to come and is an incredibly early candidate for game of the year.
“The Witness” is available as a digital download on both PC and PlayStation 4 with an iOS version in the works. It costs $39.99, which may seem expensive for an indie game, but the time spent playing (approaching 40 hours for me) is well worth the asking price and comes with my high recommendation.