“The unexamined life is not worth living.” If you’ve ever taken a passing interest in philosophy, you’ve likely come across this ubiquitous quote from Socrates. But how often do we apply such a standard to the games we play?
It seems many of them ask us to do the opposite: tutorials explain the rules and mechanics that will seldom change, invisible walls force us down a singular path, and a constant rush of action directs us ever forward – we’re asked never to stop and look too closely at our virtual environment, lest we spoil the illusion. And in return, we receive points, gear, exp., and of course, a spoon-fed story via cut-scenes.
The Witness is different. Inspired by adventure and puzzle classics like Myst, The Witness doesn’t just invite you to slow down and take a closer look – it demands it. Johnathan Blow, famed creator of indie-classic Braid, has designed a game where using your brain is the central mechanic, and you will constantly be required to change how you do so.
And your reward? Not a new tool, not a level-up, not even the next story beat – just the knowledge itself. A far better reward, patient players will eventually discover, than even the rarest loot can offer.
It all begins, ironically enough, in the most linear environment possible: a tunnel. There are no menus, no onscreen text telling you what to do… you simply begin. The first thing you’ll notice is the glowing puzzle panel on the wall.
You’ll spend most of your 40 hours (minimum – could be well over 80) in The Witness solving puzzles like this one. Some are scattered about, others are carefully grouped into the specific regions that make up The Witness’s open environment. This first puzzle, along with the next several you’ll encounter, is a simple, strikingly flat ‘trace a line to the exit’ maze. It’s also the first word you’ll learn in the language of The Witness.
It’s a language you’ll have to master to fully explore this remarkable world, and you’ll want to. Visually, The Witness is one of the most gorgeous games you’ll ever play. Colors pop with deep saturation, environments feel real and impossible all at once, and the world has an unmistakably alive quality to it – even as animals are scarcely found, and your fellow ‘humans’ appear frozen in time.
Sound plays a more pragmatic role; there’s very little in the way of music, and most environmental noises you hear serve to immerse you in the world and guide you on your journey. Like all the finer details of The Witness, the presentation serves a greater purpose. The colors, the lighting, even the precise layout of the geography all come to play critical roles in the puzzle solving.
Perhaps more importantly, the splendor of the world seems to make an implicit but powerful argument: explore me. That gentle call will hopefully be enough to keep players going when The Witness is at its most frustrating.
And make no mistake, you will be frustrated. Upon completing The Witness’s short introductory area, you’re free to go almost anywhere. Ideally, you’ll stumble upon an area whose puzzles gently escalate, teaching you a new part of the language you can save for later.
But you’ll almost certainly encounter puzzles whose languages you simply haven’t learned yet, and it will be hard to recognize when this has happened and you need to move on. And even when you do, there will be nothing to remind you of that puzzle’s existence when you’re finally ready to solve it. The only thing keeping track is your own brain. After decades of games automatically tracking this kind of data, it’s hard to get used to.
But when you’ve finally acquired the knowledge you need, the sense of reward is remarkable. And when you’re in an area you’re ready for, the game does a solid job of escalating the puzzles so that you learn the rules gradually. Within a given category, the solution of the first may lie along a single path, so you’re forced to observe the mechanics in action. Subsequent puzzles may introduce more possible paths and variables, increasing your fluency through necessity.
By the time you reach the most challenging puzzles of an area, the rules may be turned on their heads, often requiring you to work not just within the flat maze in front of you, but the three-dimensional environment you’re standing in as well. The whole world reveals itself to be part of the puzzle. Some solutions may even require you to go beyond your screen and use real-world tools for assistance.
Again, it’s thrilling and empowering… when it’s all working. But compared to the self-contained puzzle rooms of Portal, or even Blow’s own Braid, it can become tedious. One real-world tool you may begrudgingly find yourself using is the internet, as you search out clues, guidance, or outright solutions from other players. It doesn’t always feel good.
And while you’ll frequently be dazzled at the cleverness of a solution, other times you might find yourself thinking ‘I get it, but I’d prefer a shortcut right about now.’ The epiphanies are occasionally accompanied by too much toil.
But while that extra work feels unnecessary at first, it’s not without purpose. The Witness doesn’t want to help you; it wants you to help yourself. After all, this is not a thinking man’s game – it’s a game about thinking. Sometimes what you’ve learned will make things more clear; other times, your revelations will only confuse you further. Sometimes you need the assistance of another player’s knowledge; other times, you can fight through it on your own. Sometimes what you know is not enough; other times, you’ll blaze a trail with your knowledge like Einstein solving arithmetic.
And as you learn, you’ll see the world – and the possibilities within – change and grow before your very eyes. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, or rather, at the top of the mountain…
And that’s precisely what makes The Witness such a remarkable achievement, and ultimately, such a pleasurable playing experience. It treats players with a level of respect only a handful of games have demonstrated: it believes in your own potential as a thinker. You don’t know yet, but you will learn.
Acquiring that knowledge will surprise and delight you, but it will never fully satisfy you. There will always be more to learn – beyond this puzzle, beyond this region, beyond this very game. Look closely at The Witness, and at your own world: the answers are out there, and they’re worth seeking.
Freelance Review by Brennan Dyal
Brennan Dyal lives in Baltimore, and actually likes it. When he’s not playing games, he’s disappointing his teammates on the basketball court, or going to Popeye’s in disguise so they don’t ask “Weren’t you just here yesterday?”