You begin the game at the end of a long hallway. Slowly you approach a light at the end of the tunnel (yes, you actually want to head towards it this time), and The Witness introduces you to its world with a simple puzzle. It’s not even a puzzle really, it just wants you to draw a straight line. Moving on, in an amazing use of conveyance, The Witness begins introducing you to its world of puzzles, one piece at a time. What starts out as simple mazes slowly evolve into more complex puzzles that involve controlling multiple lines, establishing dividing “walls” between different colored boxes, moving your line through specific hexagram-shaped guideposts en route to the goal, and much, much more. There are no written words in The Witness. No tutorials that painstakingly detail how to do the different puzzles. It throws you in, albeit not in the deep end, and watches you learn how to navigate its waters naturally.
This feature alone earned all kinds of brownie points from me. As others have pointed out, modern gaming does a lot more telling than showing. A prominent method of “teaching” players is a heavy-handed tutorial stage that walks you through every angle of the game at the very beginning, or a standard button-map buried in the “pause” menu. The Witness returns to a methodology that engages and challenges players to try and imagine the bigger picture, utilizing patterns and previous experience to slowly add layer upon layer of complexity, easing them into more challenging puzzles, one element at a time.
Let me give you an example. Warning: Puzzle Spoiler ahead. Within the first few puzzles in the game, you realize that completing one puzzle activates the next puzzle in the chain. There’s a power-cable of sorts that lights up and leads you to the next challenge, until the door you are hoping to open or the area you wish to access becomes available to you. About 45 minutes to an hour into the game, my wife and I (she was playing, I was “helping”) came across a set of puzzles that featured two, different colored lines that needed to pass through its corresponding color hexagrams on the way to the end of the puzzle, like this:
Now, before we got to this particular puzzle, we had noticed that the yellow line was growing steadily weaker – that is, the color was fading as we moved from one puzzle to the next. When we got to the puzzle in question, there was no yellow line at all, but there were still yellow hexagrams that we needed to pick up. After an hour of playing this game, our minds went wild with possibilities – There must be another power source to the puzzle! We need to find out where else its connected so we can solve that puzzle and power our poor yellow line that’s obviously run out of juice! For a solid 10 minutes we travel up and down the area looking for the solution. Thoroughly puzzled, we come back to the culprit and activate the puzzle. Still no yellow line. As a test, my wife moves it around and then notices the lines stop in the middle, as though hitting an obstacle.
The yellow line was invisible.
We lost our damn minds. It was too much. Not only were we expected to meet the intellectual demands of this puzzle, we were supposed to do it with a mental hand effectively tied behind our back? We groaned in agony and torment….and then we tackled the puzzle. We weren’t going to let the game get the better of us, at least not yet.
This rollercoaster of challenge, discovery, torment and joy lies at the center of what makes The Witness so unique. Creator Jonathan Blow, who created a name for himself with the smash indie hit Braid in 2008, has spent the last 7 years bringing the world of The Witness to life, and the result is a staggering challenge that is currently infuriating and captivating gamers across the country and around the world.
If the captivating gameplay wasn’t enough to hook you, the lush world of The Witness will certainly finish the job. Brilliant colors and a unique aesthetic create a gorgeous world that complements the numerous intellectual challenges that await you. I found myself on a few occasions, when overcome by a particular puzzle, simply disengaging and going for a walk around the island. It’s a design done with great intention, as Blow seems to care very much not just about rushing through the game as quickly as possible, but enjoying the journey the game offers. As such, he wants to make sure the environment is calming and conducive to exploration and discovery, and most of all – learning.
Blow has mentioned on numerous occasions that The Witness is bigger than just him. Though he conceptualized the game, he hasn’t been quiet about the exhaustive efforts that the team put into bringing the game to life. Still, if Braid brought Blow to the attention of the rest of the gaming world, The Witness is sure to make him a titan of independent game developers; emphasis on independent. Speaking with The Guardian just earlier this week, Blow revealed how early conversations with big-name publishers made him even more committed to taking on this herculean task on his own:
“It became very clear to me that I just wasn’t going to be able to make what I wanted if I took anyone’s money at all…Even just the structure of the deals offered – under what terms I would be getting money and what kind of control I’d have – it became clear: they did not understand the concept of a reality in which a developer would come to them who wasn’t desperate for their money….I would have to pay for it myself in order to do what I’m doing.” (The Guardian)
I, for one, am certainly glad that he did. Without a doubt, The Witness is a gaming experience that you’re unlikely to forget, if you can get into it. Its major opportunity is accessibility: to say that the game is for everyone would be a lie. Without a doubt, its intellectual challenge can be extremely rewarding, but it can also be frustrating to the point of abandonment. For those who hang on: I have no doubt that you’ll emerge on the other side of this game mentally exhausted, and thoroughly proud. Enjoy the journey.