The Witness Review
Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is an interesting experience, eliciting emotions that push me away yet draw me in at the same time. The Witness exists as a fully 3D open-world, offering mystery and intrigue that is answered only by exploration and solving two-dimensional puzzles. It is both compelling, and incredibly frustrating at the same time.
The Witness invites you to discover at your own pace. From the moments you emerge out of a dark tunnel and step foot onto this colorful, lavish island, it’s entirely up to you what to do or where to go next. It’s a daunting task, admittedly, but it’s a journey you’ll be glad you embarked on. Ya know, when you’re not completely fuming over a puzzle you’ve been stuck on for hours.
As previously mentioned, The Witness exists as a fully explorable 3D world filled with hundreds of two-dimensional, line-based puzzles, a revelation I was taken aback with at first. Surely, this masterfully crafted island would serve up a more diverse set of puzzles than simply rows of panels with mazes, solved only by drawing a correct path from one end to another, I thought to myself. But alas, the root of The Witness is line puzzles. Very cleverly crafted line puzzles, I might add.
The way in which The Witness presents itself is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a game before. The freedom of discovery is one of its most appealing aspects, yet the openness of the island is also what makes it so overwhelming. Where do you go? What do you do? There’s no single right answer as you embark on this adventure. The Witness relies on your curiosity in both exploring the island and solving the puzzles. It doesn’t care to hold your hand, and it sure as hell doesn’t care if you fail.
As I said, the fundamentals of The Witness are line puzzles. Typically, when you discover a new area you are greeted with a series of panels, all but one of them without power. On this panel is a grid, often a square or rectangle, requiring you to navigate by drawing a line in a specific fashion to satisfy certain requirements and reach the end-point, all while adhering to the puzzle’s constraints of which are a complete mystery that you must discover. There are no clues, no hints, other than what you can deduce from the puzzle itself or possibly the nearby environmental elements.
The Witness is all about discovery -- from the island to its puzzles. It’s like learning a language, only instead of letters, you’re learning the rules of shapes and colors; and there’s also no teacher to help you along the way. It’s up to you -- through trial-and-error -- to discover the rules of each puzzle. Sometimes these rules are self-explanatory, sometimes it involves relying on your environment, and other times you’ll be completely baffled, trying anything you can think of before it finally clicks or you just have a lucky guess.
If it was one of the former sense of discoveries you’re fine. But if you solved one of the earlier panels through sheer guess or luck, well, you’re kind of screwed later on. As you progress, the series of puzzles become more complex, taking the already-established set of rules (which it assumes you know) and combines them in more intricately designed puzzles. The puzzles are already difficult even when you know the ruleset; they become damn near impossible if you don’t. And in some cases, knowing the particular methodology of solving a puzzle doesn’t always help either, as it still requires some additional thought and logic when solving the more difficult panels.
One of my favorite things about The Witness is how the various parts of the island -- all diverse and beautiful in their own unique way -- work in tandem with the puzzles presented. Not all of the puzzles depend upon their environment, mind you, but they do somehow relate to the surrounding area. Typically, if the answer isn’t in the puzzle itself, it can be hinted at nearby. In some instances, solving the puzzle does require you to step back and examine your surroundings, like examining the damn shadows.
Going back to this whole idea of exploration, the open-world nature of the island invites you to come and go freely. If you get stuck on a puzzle, there’s no harm in simply walking away and revisiting later on. It’s possible you might just discover a clue, or ruleset, to that puzzle at an entirely different area across the map. It's that constant state of unknowing, however, where frustration can set in. The questions "Am I at the right place?" and "Is this really the correct rule set for this particular symbole/color puzzle?" constantly linger in the back of your mind, sometimes causing incredible doubt. There were multiple instances where I found myself frustrated to the point where I just had to turn the game off. Returning a few hours later in a more calm and collected manner usually helped.
It’s easy to think how a series of two-dimensional line-puzzles could get repetitive or boring. But The Witness’ ability to cleverly combine ever-evolving rule sets with the astonishingly beautiful world around you makes for some truly unique experiences. I suspect there will be many who visit the internet for guides and walkthroughs for some of the more challenging puzzles. This is understandable; The Witness is downright frustrating at times. Do yourself a favor though, and don’t. Work through the puzzles because that “A-HA” moment you get when it finally clicks is the best type of feeling, and you’ll have plenty of feelings while playing, I assure you of that. That moment of epiphany when you discover the solution, will leave you scratching your head like, “how did I not think of that?”
The Witness is one of the most maddeningly addictive experiences I’ve had playing a game, but it’s a game I kept thinking about and going back to, and not just because I had to. I was genuinely drawn in by the mystery and intrigue, as were those around, who constantly dropped by to check back on my progress and help me solve the puzzles I got stuck on. It feels like a great group game, as everyone who watched wanted to chime in with their own take on a puzzle and be the one to finally solve it. I can’t even count how many times someone uttered the phrase, “Oh, I got it!” only to see them struggle with the same pitfalls I had been stuck on for hours. It brought a smile to my face.