Video games are stupid. That is the opinion of game designer Jonathan Blow which causes a lot of uproar from some people. Depending on who you talk to Blow is either a genius artist or a pretentious hack. 2008’s Braid was a critical hit, and it moved the bar for independent games in many ways. We have seen a fair amount of puzzle platformers over the past generation, but none of them are as smart as Braid. And I mean smart both in the way its designed and the narrative it tells. Braid was constantly introducing new mechanics to the player that all felt fully fleshed out and explored. I never used a guide when playing Braid because the game never felt cheap. You knew what the mechanics you had to play with were, you just had to figure out how to use them. The Witness is a very similar game to Braid. However, it is also much more expansive and ambitious. Blow’s long awaited follow up more than lives up to the expectations.
No game has ever respected my intelligence more than The Witness. Blow expects intelligence from his audience and offers an intelligently designed game in return. There are no heavy handed tutorials, no hints, no recommended paths. The Witness drops you in a world and lets you have your way with it. If you need to be told what to do, then The Witness is not the game for you. But The Witness is not cheap. The Witness is not trying to trick you or stump you. Instead, The Witness is trying to teach you. Think of a game designer as a teacher. Some puzzle games are designed by teachers who put trick questions on tests or bring up inane facts only to try to catch you and make you fail. Blow does not want you to fail. He is the teacher with a rigorous course that has the curriculum to match. You might struggle, but you have the ability to succeed if you try hard enough. Some people will fail the course, but it will be their fault and not the fault of the course or the teacher. I have never felt intellectually challenged the way I did with The Witness, but I also never felt compelled to consult a guide. I wanted to figure things out for myself, and I was always able to.
The most impressive thing about The Witness is how it builds your knowledge throughout the game. The game can be easily dismissed as a collection of line puzzles, but it shouldn’t be. The first area of the game has you solving simple mazes. These teach you where to start and finish each puzzle. They also show how puzzles can interact with each other and the world. You then follow the path out of the starting courtyard and come across a door. This door has two types of puzzles that you do not know how to solve. If you leave it and keep following the path, you will come across two sets of tutorials that teach you how to solve these puzzles. These tutorials are not told through menus. Instead, you solve an increasingly more difficult set of puzzles that introduce the concept to you. After this, you go back and open that door. Inside, there is a cryptic message that you write down on a notepad and put aside for later. By this point you are fifteen minutes into the game and you have only scratched the surface. By the time you reach the end you have ten pages of notes, paper tetris pieces cut out, and are trying to solve a puzzle that requires all of the knowledge you have acquired so far. There are eleven main areas in the game, and they all have their own gimmicks. The Witness is like learning a new language, and that language gets more complex the more you learn.
All of the puzzles in The Witness exist on an island. From the outside, the island might appear to be pointless. However, it actually serves the game in multiple ways and is a big part of what makes the game so great. First, the world is gorgeous, and I cannot stress this enough. The widely different environments transition into each other well, the art style is striking and varied, and I did not notice a single visual blemish during my time with the game. The island also allows you to wander. Sometimes I would get stuck in an area so I would either try to find another or just walk around for a bit. The openness that the connected world allows greatly benefits the player, and it makes the game seem like a cohesive product. There are other reasons for the island to exist that I do not want to get into because they are best discovered on their own. What I want to leave it at is that The Witness would not be nearly the same if it was just a collection of puzzles. The island is an essential part of the experience, and Blow and his team absolutely nail it.
The amount of content inside of The Witness is absurd. There are over 600 puzzles to solve as well as a number of other “plus” puzzles. I do not want to say what these plus puzzles are, and there are still many questions that I have about them. However, the first time I discovered one my jaw dropped and my mind started racing with possibilities. There are also a number of audio logs and other pieces of story that you can piece together. Again, a part of this story telling took me by surprise and left me with a bunch of questions. You only need to complete seven of the main areas in order to beat the game, but it does offer an extra challenge if you conquer all eleven of them. My biggest realization when writing this review is that I want to return to The Witness. I finished the game a week ago and felt satisfied with what was there. But after a much needed break, I am ready to dive back into that world and discover what other secrets its has for me. The Witness does a great job of offering a substantive experience up front and something deeper for those willing to dig.
The one area in which The Witness lets me down is the story. The Witness does not really have a story. Instead, it has a philosophy. Through audio logs and another thing that I don’t want to spoil, Jonathan Blow tries to present a philosophy to the player that his game tries to exemplify. I actually like this. Braid had some of this as well, and I enjoyed exploring it there. However, the way its presented lessens the impact. There is no specific order in which you will find these things and no guarantee that you will find all of them or that you will remember what you heard in the audio log you found six hours ago. Also, this is the only story element in The Witness. The game places you on this mysterious island, but then fails to capitalize on the setting from a narrative perspective. Braid had the story of Tim and the princess including the ending that blew my mind at the time. The Witness has none of that. All of the narrative in The Witness is the hidden, philosophical message. I would love to read an essay about The Witness in a year, but I would not lose anything by not finding that stuff in the game. I appreciate Blow’s commitment to these types of narratives, but I want them presented in a more digestible way.
This is also a game that should come with some warning labels on it. The first is that if you are deaf there are puzzles you will not be able to solve in this game, and if you are colorblind there are puzzles you might find very difficult. For colorblind people, I recommend listening to Jeff Gerstmann talk about it on the Giant Bombcast because he actually is colorblind and can give a more accurate account on that front. You do not have to solve every puzzle to beat the game, but it is still a shame that not everybody will be physically able to enjoy everything the game has to offer. I won’t place blame on Blow because I don’t believe he should hamper his creative vision to make accommodations, but I do think people should know this going in. Myself and a large portion of players also suffered from some motion sickness. This was not enough to get me to stop playing completely, but it did cause me to take some extended breaks from the game. These things are disappointing, and the motion sickness probably should have been fixed, but they do little to hamper the overall quality of the game.
The Witness is an early favorite for 2016’s Game of the Year and an instant classic. The game does everything it can to challenge the player without ever being unfair. It is the best puzzle game I have played since Braid, and I am glad to see Blow’s long awaited follow up deliver on all of its promises. The Witness is not a perfect game, but the way it presents information to the player and teaches them as they go is brilliant. I felt rewarded for my patience and my intelligence while playing The Witness. It is not a game for everybody, as it only gives back as much as you put in. But if you are the type of person who would be interested in The Witness, you should not hesitate to play this game.
Final Score: 5 Stars