The Witness is a smart, beautiful first-person exploration game that’s tied together by a seemingly endless string of maze-like puzzles. Over 600 of them. When have you ever seen that many mazes in one place? Never, that’s when. If you think that’s a mark of success, then you’ll love this game.
It may sound like the video-game equivalent of those 99p books of sudoku you find in service stations, but worry not: they’re presented on luminous screens that are strewn around a beautiful but mysterious island. You work through them to the soothing ambient sounds of birds chirping, trees swaying in what could be construed as an inspiring manner and the comforting ripple of water. It’s serene, which is lucky as the puzzle difficulty increases exponentially and there are times when those sounds may stop you from stomping your computer into tiny splinters of glass and silicon.
The Witness plays with your expectations of how a game should advance in ways that are equal parts refreshing and frustrating. It’s not simply a case of early puzzles being easy and later puzzles hard (though there is some element of that), instead it’s about learning systems and preempting the myriad ways developer Jonathan Blow might devise to torture your mind. Remember that weird rock you saw by the stream earlier? That could turn out to the be the key to solving your next puzzle. Or maybe it was just a rock. That’s the beauty of the whole thing.
The Witness is a game that demands patience. Blow, the man behind indie darling and equally puzzling game Braid, has said the best way to deal with the difficulty spikes is to leave your computer, “take a walk” or “watch a good movie” and then come back later. Or you can do your meandering in the game, surrounded by lakes and trees and the semblance of fresh air. There is, however, the nagging sensation that there’s something’s missing from this world: there’s no music track, and the environment can feel sparse while you ramble from puzzle to puzzle, although the audio logs littered about the place do add to the atmosphere.
To dismiss The Witness as just a series of excellent puzzles wouldn’t quite be doing it justice, even though on a strictly objective level, they constitute the vast majority of the game. But the question of how the island came to be is the most bewildering conundrum of all, and one that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the game.