The gorgeous environment and serene island of The Witness is a mask for a complex and challenging labyrinth. This puzzle game plays with the player’s mind and perception of everything around them. In essence, The Witness is a game all about perspective and how you view the environment around you. It may be confusing and frustrating at times, but it is an essential experience, especially if you are a puzzle lover.
The majority of the puzzles in The Witness are these screen mazes. They start simple enough, the player navigates through labyrinths on these tablet-like screens. Quickly, new mechanics and rules are added to these mazes. Symbols represent different tasks and rules that must me adhered to, making it to the end is not enough to complete a puzzle. For example, separating different color blocks or having to collect little black dots along the way. Each area in the game seems to focus on a new mechanic and using it to its fullest potential. Many of these screen mazes will combine aspects and symbols from previous areas to add additional challenge. The complexity of these puzzles quickly ramps up and a simple 4×4 grid may take you 10 to 15 minutes to solve.
These mazes are the core of The Witness. The game boasts that there are over 500 of these puzzles scattered across the diverse island. You do not need to complete every one of these brain teasers to finish the game, I solved about 400 puzzles before I made it to the end. If you want more out of a game than small labyrinths, than you will probably not enjoy The Witness. There are more aspects than these puzzles, but progression is tied to the completion of these screens. This is not Portal or The Talos Principle, you rarely solve grandiose puzzles that make use of large spaces. To be fair, The Witness does make use of environmental aspects more than any games I have played. Shadows, light, sounds, perspective, and other exterior cues are key to solving many of the areas and mazes. The environment is also used in a mind-blowing manner, but I do not want to spoil this moment for future players, so I have discussed it below in a spoiler tag. View at your own discretion, because if you are planning to play The Witness, this is seriously one of the best aspects of the game that you should really experience yourself.
Highlight to see spoiler:
As you play more and more of The Witness, you may notice some strange aspects of the space around you. Hidden in the environment, there are shapes that mimic the mazes that the player has been solving on the screens. The “oh my god” moment comes when you realize that you can click on these hidden puzzles and solve them like all the mazes in the game. Immediately you begin to see shapes all around the island and try to click on everything to find these hidden shapes. Some you have to line up using different angles and perspective tricks. Others you need to figure out how to even get in a correct position. Ultimately, these are in no way tied to progression and serve no purpose within the game, but discovering this secret is one of the most important and memorable moments in the game. This is where you learn that the island has more to it than simple line puzzles, and that the game expects you to change your perspective on how you see the world around you. End of spoiler.
A component that needs to be mentioned is that The Witness undeniably respects the player’s intelligence. There are no tutorials, no guiding text, nothing that remotely resembles handholding. When you encounter a new symbol or type of puzzle, there are a few very easy puzzles that let the player deduce what the symbol means and how to deal with it. Furthermore, the island is an open world that lets you seemingly tackle any area in any order you want. The drawback of this is that many of these areas adopt symbols and rules from other zones. So, if you have not been to the required area, you get roadblocked. Sure, you can realize that you do not have the requisite knowledge to complete a puzzle, but I wish the game did a better job and placing areas in a more logical order. The most blatant example of this is that the town area takes concepts from every other area in the game, yet it is very likely to be one of the first areas you stumble upon to do its proximity to the starting location. This could easily lead to frustration as you try to figure out puzzles that you couldn’t possibly solve yet. This is not a case of me being flagrantly bad at the game, I finished it within a reasonable time (about 15 hours) and never really got roadblocked. All I’m saying is that it can be annoying when wandering around and you can’t seem to find a solvable puzzle.
The other major issue that I had with The Witness was that I could not help the feeling that the game was pretentious. Solving some secret puzzles unlocks real life speeches made by a variety of people in academia. These videos range from 5-60 minutes, and serve no purpose other than really wasting your time if you choose to view them. There are also audio logs of famous quotes scattered about the island to listen to, again I drew no meaning from these. Lastly, the ending sequence of the game seems like it was trying to portray some message, but the dialogue just seemed nonsensical. This was reminiscent of Jonathan Blow’s previous game, Braid. In both of these games the vague and pointless dialogue exudes a sense of pretentiousness. Like there is deeper meaning than what was actually conveyed, but in all actuality the story and meaning felt practically non-existent.
The island itself on first glance seems to contain some sort of mystery. Why am I here? What’s my goal? What are all these statues? What happened to all the people here? These questions are not really answered in any satisfying sort of way. There seems to be clues scattered about the island to make it seem like there was an overarching story, but just like the audio logs and videos there really was no satisfying conclusion. My final gripe is that everything in the game seems to move slower than it really should. The player, the doors, the platforms, they all take far longer to get to their destination than what is reasonable. When on transit in a boat I was able to get a glass of water and go to the bathroom, and when I came back I was only halfway through the ride. It feels like a joke that is meant to solely waste the player’s time.
For the most part, The Witness is all about its screen puzzles. Personally, I quite enjoyed all of the challenges, but I think a lot of people will be turned off by the lack of grandiose environmental puzzles. Like I mentioned previously, the environment is well integrated and a key component to these puzzles, but you rarely interact with your surroundings in a more meaningful way. The elegance of imbuing difficulty and challenge into what initially seems like a simple maze is what makes The Witness so gratifying. When you figure out a puzzle on the first try, you are emboldened and feel like a genius. When the pieces start to come together and you understand what was stumping you, a wave of satisfaction follows. It is for these reasons I give The Witness a 9/10. It’s a collection of fantastic puzzles, but it lacks of any other sort of substance.