Out of all the games I’ve played, The Witness qualifies as one of the most challenging. While playing the game, I felt uncertainty, confusion and mental fatigue trying to understand its intricacies. There were times I wanted to give up. The Witness isn’t a game that will hold your hand, instead choosing to communicate its inner workings in cryptic, subtle ways while you grapple with making sense of the whole thing.
But if you’re persistent, your frustration will be replaced with satisfaction. This is why the Witness is unique. In contrast to other puzzle games, it doesn’t just make you feel clever – it assumes you have intelligence from the beginning. It counts on the fact that you are an insightful human being, with both critical thinking skills and patience, and you are rewarded for making use of both.
What is The Witness about?
The game takes place on an unnamed island in the middle of an infinite sea. On the island are a variety of Earth’s different environments including a desolate desert, snow topped mountains, and an autumnal forest. Spread among these environments are square panels that each have mazes with varying levels of difficulty. This is the basis of gameplay in The Witness, you turn on each panel, direct a glowing line to the end of its mazes, and move on. Many of the mazes unlock successive puzzles, but others turn on power sources, move platforms, or open doors.
What’s extraordinary is how The Witness conveys its subtleties. The earliest panels are simple, using easy grids where you direct the line from one point to another. As time passes however, new colors and symbols emerge, each with different rules. While some may require that you create silhouettes with your line, some will alter your viewpoint, and some compel you to disregard prior rules completely. Direct instructions about how the rules work are never given. They are learned through your logical reasoning and intuition.
The variation among the puzzles is remarkable, as well as how The Witness is able to keep the mazes interesting with over 25 hours of gameplay. It’s even more remarkable when you discover that the puzzles and the world they reside within are connected. Some panels feel impossible to solve until clues from the environment provide a revealing hint. Other panels have no clues whatsoever, but change your character’s immediate environment in crafty ways. A prime example is the castle in the middle of the island – its puzzles overflow into the surrounding embankments, making you think about the building with a fresh perspective.
Also, the whole island is accessible from the beginning, which allows you to wander freely between its locales and puzzles. This is an important part of The Witness’ design: each region contains a different theme within its panels, centered around a particular clue or symbol within its mazes. If the level of difficulty in one region becomes too hard, just set it aside, go to the other side of the island, and try to understand a different rule.
Often, the information you gain elsewhere is helpful in understanding a puzzle you recently put down. The Witness doesn’t have open access for exploration’s sake alone, its design encourages you to learn at your own speed. It feels similar to when people have a good idea in the shower, or as they drive along the highway at night. This same concept applies when exploring the verdant island, revelations happen when you aren’t thinking about them rigorously, but rather when the problem isn’t your primary focus.
Discussing solutions to any of the puzzles would spoil the discoveries awaiting you. The Witness presents new concepts elegantly, never revealing the rules directly, never giving away its entire hand, but providing just enough perspective to give you the push you need to draw the final conclusions yourself.
Is there an ending?
Having said that, “end” is not the right word to use for The Witness. There are approximately 650 panels, and I completed 430 during my gameplay. I solved the required amount to reach what I’ll refer to as the “soft ending” of the game. However, there are hidden puzzles I have yet to find, complicated ones I haven’t figured out, and even some that I completed, but don’t have a clue what they do.
Due to the isolation of the island, as well as the variety of ways its secrets reveal themselves, there’s no linear sequence of events. But there is a story. Between audio accounts and various other forms of media I won’t ruin for you, The Witness quotes the experiences and observations of actual explorers, physicists, psychologists, astronauts, and religious figures. Some give long speeches, stretching out their lectures far after they’ve made their point. However, when The Witness chooses to be subtle, they shine. The game gives us a human story, using thinkers that share a similar thread: each one is trying to understand the world they live in.