2016 has been rad so far, right? With Pony Island, Oxenfree, and now, serious Wow This Is Already Game of the Year Material, The Witness, we’ve been doing pretty well for ourselves.
I’ve had the game for less than a week, but I’m pretty comfortable in calling The Witness a puzzle classic along the lines of Braid, Fez, Antichamber, and Portal. It’s really that great, and I’ve barely seen a quarter of it. Though it feels similar to those games, The Witness never seems like it’s aping any one of them, and surprisingly feels like the Brand New Thing I always hoped it could be. The puzzles expand in ways that are at once brilliant and natural, and I kind of wish I was just playing more of it right now to see what they could possibly surprise me with next.
The game consists of you walking around a beautiful island and finding puzzles that unlock new areas of said beautiful island. Look at this art style, man.
You traipse around until you find a puzzle grid, solve the maze, and keep walking. Your reward? More puzzles to solve and more of this world to see. That’s pretty much all you do. And it’s fantastic.
Without ruining too much, while 99% of your interaction with the world is through puzzle grids, the ways you solve them are extremely varied. Take an early example: There’s a maze that resembles a tree, with only one of the maze exits correctly solving the puzzle. Look at the tree next to the puzzle, and there’s actually a tree right there giving you the answer. (Look below and see if you can solve it. Spoiler: It’s the apple!) That’s how some of the best puzzles in the game work, and how the game leads into its most shocking, world-changing moments. The answers don’t always lie on a screen in front of you.
Just the basic puzzles, though, are still fun to beat your head against. Tutorials wordlessly explain the rules, and new rules are added as you progress into new areas. The game rolls out new information at a steady pace as to not make things overwhelming, but to always keep the play fresh. As you walk into a new forest or a desert or a sunken ship, a new system of puzzles will present itself. If it seems too hard or you’re not feeling what they’re asking you to do, just walk away. The world is so big you have a million options at any given time, so you’re never stuck in a rut failing to get from 3-1 to 3-2.
A comparison I can’t shake is how much the game feels like the best parts of modern Bethesda Fallout. You’re dropped into a vast world with no direction, and the game rewards you regardless of where you end up. Sure, it may have some ideas in mind for where it wants you to go, but no two people will be funneled through an identical journey. About a half-dozen hours in I’m still stumbling into new spokes directly branching from the starting areas. Whether it’s a deliberately hidden path or just a puzzle grid I somehow waltzed past, I’m constantly impressed at how organically the world is opening up to me.
I’m less than ten hours into the game, and I can already give The Witness an unequivocal recommendation. Unless the next few hours get suuuuper awful somehow, I don’t see myself telling any puzzle fan to shy away. Yeah, this still radiates Jonathan Blow’s signature touch of pretension in its narrative, but the world and puzzles are so outstanding that I don’t mind giving those optional beats a pass. The “ah-ha!” moments far outweigh any groans I may have during the philosophical waxing.
If you want to feel like a puzzle-solving genius, check out The Witness here. Also, if you still haven’t played Antichamber, you really, really should. It’s a similarly amazing puzzle thing with a cool art style and brain-melting puzzles. Good luck!