‘The Witness’ is gorgeous fun for puzzle lovers
Puzzle lovers rejoice! I’ve got your next obsession right here.
“The Witness” is a gorgeously designed 3D puzzle adventure for Windows and PlayStation 4 – and it’s currently taking the gaming word by storm. Developed over the course of seven years, the game is evidence that independent game design is alive and well in the era of big-budget franchise titles and turbo-charged console gaming.
The setup: Players find themselves alone on a mysterious island with odd ruins and a series of maze-like puzzles, which are displayed on visual monitors scattered around the environment. There’s no opening tutorial, no narrative prologue – in fact, there are no instructions at all. Players must intuit their way through the game’s obstacles by engaging with the puzzles and gradually learning the game’s visual language.
In other words, you’re not required to simply solve the puzzles, you have to figure out the rules of each puzzle, as well as the meta-game objective of island mystery itself. This might sound daunting, but designer Jonathan Blow has masterfully sequenced the game so that each series of mazes serves as an instructional guide for what you need to know next.
How it works
All of the puzzles follow a basic mechanical template. In 3D first-person view, you approach each eye-level display and enter puzzle mode. Then you must trace a path through each maze from starting point to goal point without crossing or retracing your path.
As the puzzles become more complex, new rules and goals are introduced. You might have to create a path that covers certain way station dots, or find a route that bisects the maze in a certain pattern. When you solve a particular maze, visual clues appear in the 3D environment that lead you to the next puzzle.
For instance, a power cord might light up that snakes over a crumbling wall toward your next destination. “The Witness” features 650 puzzles in total, with complex variations eventually emerging that incorporate the island’s architecture and landscape.
This landscape element is the other feature that makes “The Witness” so compelling. You’re given freedom to wander the island and tackle puzzle sequences in any order. To unlock new areas of the island, you need only complete a portion of the challenges in the section you’re in. This encourages exploration, and the designers provide visually stunning vistas of lakes, waterfalls, beaches, rocky cliffs and strange ruins.
‘An origami fever dream’
The experience unfolds like an origami fever dream: Who are you? Why are you here? What is the island? And why are you being asked to play this game? Put enough hours into “The Witness” and you’ll start pondering the existential absurdity of life itself.
Yeah, it’s that kind of game. Throughout the environment you’ll find various optical illusions, as well as abandoned stations with audio recordings from philosophers and scientists. “The Witness” is designed to draw you into a sideways state of mind through first-person perspective, immersive sound and visuals, and a series of maddening puzzles that you just cannot stop playing.
The vibe is similar to “Myst,” the granddaddy of indie puzzle adventures that baffled gamers in the early 1990s. It’s an artsy mashup of the puzzler genre with elements of adventure and open-world exploration. The game’s long development process has clearly paid off. The designers estimate that the typical player will need about 80 hours total to unravel the island’s ultimate mystery.
The game is already a huge success, despite the $40 price tag – relatively steep for an indie release. More than 100,000 units were sold across all platforms in the first week, relying heavily on good reviews and viral buzz. Word is that an iOS version is already in the works, with Android and Xbox One ports coming later this year.
“The Witness” is the kind of game you can dip into for an hour or two each evening, and it’s another argument for the merit of video games as an genuine artistic medium. It’s a nice option if you need a break from whatever you’re currently binge-watching.
“The Witness” [$39.99, rated E] is now available on Windows and PlayStation 4.