Reviewing…The Witness

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How much innovation do you think could you get out of a simple idea? If you want to try, here it is: You draw a line within a fixed 2D frame, and that line cannot cross itself. You have to start a pre-set point, and end at a pre-set point. This is the puzzle-frame The Witness is based on. That’s it. As of writing this, I have played eleven hours of The Witness and that innovation has not stopped. No, more than that, the innovation hasn’t even slowed. I have, according to the game, solved 241 puzzles thus far. Oh, plus 27. Not 268. 241, PLUS 27. Very different. I don’t know what it means. Or at least, I don’t know what it means, means. All I know is I want to keep playing. Please, please let me keep playing.

To give you an idea of the sheer pull of this game; I stopped writing this review at least three times to go and try something in The Witness. Ideas for puzzles that were just fizzing in the back of my head. Twice I was wrong. The third time, I found an entire new type of puzzle that I hadn’t figured out before. This is why I now have ‘plus 27’. I have no idea what this puzzle does, or what it’s for. But hot damn to I feel like a cleverclogs for spotting it, and oh dear god yes I want to find out more.

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Look. Now look again.

Puzzles games quite often find that they piss people off, either for being ‘too hard’ or ‘too easy’. This is often the fault of the player – essentially getting up in arms because the game didn’t match their version of ‘easy’ or ‘hard’. Sometimes it’s the fault of the designer, for either making puzzles that are boring, or unreasonable. I find myself getting quite angry on quite a regular basis with games that don’t tutorialise properly. I don’t mean giving you text instructions or a tutorial-level or anything like that, I mean in the much more mundane – and frequent – introduction of something new. When a new thing is introduced – whatever it is – the player doesn’t know what it is. This is where games are ‘unreasonable’. You literally cannot reason it. The Witness understands exactly how to tutorialise. My god does it ever. Every new puzzle you come across will play with an idea. It will start simply, almost impossible to fail. Then it immediately moves, a little harder, sure, but you still get it. It develops. Then it develops again. Twenty puzzles later it is still developing, constant riffs and motifs that blend and twist your brain. And still, all hanging around that single idea that you started with. As soon as you have enough information to understand something, The Witness shifts the goalposts.

Thus far, I’ve been waxing operatic about these puzzles – which, for fairly obvious reasons, I can’t be very specific about. But if you’re not a puzzly kind of person, this might all sound a bit dry. You are wrong. Jonathon Blow (JoBlo for short) is the guy behind The Witness. He was also the man behind Braid, an fantastic little puzzle game from back in ’08. But, just like The Witness, Braid wasn’t good because just the puzzles were good. It was good because the entire game worked in concert, all wrapped around those puzzles like a delicious game-tortilla. Just so in The Witness. The game is beautiful. Stunningly, genuinely stop-and-stare beautiful. The game is not photorealistic, but wields it’s colour palette like a martial artist: every dab and touch of colour placed with expert precision. Each colour weighed and balanced against it’s neighbouring shades, which in turn are weighed against the larger whole. Like a microscope zooming out, you see how each microbe is part of a larger working whole.

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I spent 20 minutes looking at this tree.

This, this is why you need to play The Witness. That same, surgical care applied to every part of the game. From the first, most obvious puzzle to the most obscure. From the level design to the island design, from the colour palette to the mechanical boat. Nothing in this game is random, nothing. Anyone who has played the game knows just how true this is.

But the proof, as they say, is in the eating. Well placed rocks are one thing, sure, but how does it all come together? How does it feel? Well, for all that the game is full of stillness, there is something fundamentally fluid about The Witness. Your avatar might be slowly pacing around a static island, but your mind is never motionless. It is freewheeling through everything you see, collecting and collating. You know X, Y and Z, but not A, B or C – are those things even puzzles? Or are you reaching too far? Is this non-random pattern important? And if so, to what? Your mind is constantly spinning, a generator constantly sparking off lightning, and The Witness just keeps turning the handle.

The best metaphor I can come up with is, unfortunately, a very clumsy one; The Witness is a jigsaw. The most vibrant, encrypted jigsaw you’ve ever seen, in 3D. Each piece is a unique work of art, some simple, some complex; each one part of a larger whole. Some pieces will snap together for you in an instant, others will take hours of effort before you see the light. But, vitally, that light is always there. The Witness doesn’t hide information from you until the big reveal a la Midsommer Murders. The information is right there, on your screen and in your head, tickling you behind the eyeballs. Want an example? When writing this, I had to delete and replace one of the screenshots I’d taken – because I realised, after I’d put it in this review, that I was directly giving the solution to a puzzle. A puzzle I hadn’t solved yet, and that I hadn’t even seen. The solution was right there, perfectly captured…but I simply hadn’t noticed.

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I will say that there’s a part of The Witness I was unsure about when I first came across it. Scattered across the island are little recording devices. Each one, when found, reads a quote. Each quote is invariably high-concept, often speaking of the nature of god, or of physics, or personal responsibility. I was cautious of these because, well, I’ve come across so many of them before. It’s practically a trend at the moment to open your game with a pithy – often darkly ironic – quote of some kind. But these quotes, in most games, are just…there. They don’t really add anything, and most importantly they don’t tie into the game. They’re just there to be edgy, or to set up the scene. By contrast, in The Witness these quotes are often long, the recordings sometimes lasting for three or four minutes. But because of the kind of game this is – an extremely intelligent puzzle game – and because of the gameplay – often walking about, exploring the island and your perspective of it – you are absolutely in the right frame of mind for these recordings to settle in. They’re like tiny alka seltzers being dropped into your skull. Tiny fragments of truly interesting ideas, dropped into a mind that is, most likely, already bubbling over. No pithy irony to be found here, instead maybe you’ll get a contemplation on the subject of trying to define the divine. Maybe the words of an astronaut, considering how space travel changes your view of humanity. Things that, once they’re in your skull, will rattle and rumble around for days. I have no idea if these recordings feed into the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all contain skip codes or something. But I don’t know. And I also don’t care. If they turn out to have another meaning beyond the obvious, then I’ll undoubtedly be impressed. But I’m impressed already. These quotes are, and I cannot stress this enough, not just fluff. They are truly interesting words, from truly interesting people. And they fit into this game like an invisible key into your brain.

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You know what? Fuck this game. This game is so insufferably good that it makes me want to hate it a little. But I can’t, because it’s too good. All my impotent brainpower and frustration fizzle away under the deadly siren song of The Witness: You can do it. You can do it. Over here. Come on. Think. Solve it. Listen. Look. Think.

So to finish then, I’m just going to assume that you’re going to buy it – because you bloody well should – and so I have three pieces of serious, non-spoiler-related advice for playing The Witness:

One: Don’t Google the answers. If you can’t solve something, go to another area. This game is obnoxiously well designed. If you really can’t work a thing out yet, it’s probably because you don’t have all the information or you’re tired.

Two: Don’t Google the answers! Seriously! If you feel tempted to do so, then your brain is probably telling you to take a break. It’ll happen. It’s okay. Just have a breather.

Three: DON’T GOOGLE THE FUCKING ANSWERS! Don’t ask for clues. Don’t look up walkthroughs. For as long as you play this game, disconnect your computer from the bloody internet if you have to. JoBlo spent eight years making this game and it is a goddamn shining beacon of art, don’t go and ruin that effort for yourself, I am begging you.

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