The Witness Review: Language And Labyrinth

Jonathan Blow’s latest game asks players to slow down and think…and think…and think.

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Anyone who has waited for The Witness from its initial announcement six years ago must possess patience in spades. Developed by Braid creator Jonathan Blow and his development team Thekla, the indie puzzler has seen several changes in direction and platform, along with a well-documented two-year delay. Now that the game’s circuitous route to completion is complete, many are hoping it can live up to the towering expectations that have built up with every delay and extension.

Set on a colorful and mysterious island packed with puzzles, the game asks players to guide snaking lines through panel mazes in order to access new areas with more puzzles. The island contains several hundred of these, which begin simply enough by requiring that a path be found from one point to another. It doesn’t take long for things to get more complex, however, as the game soon adds in complicating factors like colored squares, special shapes, and environmental cues.

These variations sometimes stand alone, but are often mixed together, especially in the more difficult areas. Different types of puzzles have different rules, and figuring out each set of rules is half the battle. The more I played, the more it became evident that these rules form the island’s geometric language. Each panel speaks a certain dialect of that language, and the farther I progressed, the more I saw these dialects mixing together and modifying each other. There were many times when I found it necessary to get out a pencil and paper to sketch out possible solutions.

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The unnamed island is separated into several different areas, and can be traversed at the player’s whim. Some memorable locales include a stone keep full of hedge mazes, a connected collection of forest tree houses, and a colorful swamp. Once I finished the tutorial area, I was free to wander about and explore as I pleased, which had both positive and negative results. Because of this open-world design, I frequently ran into puzzle types I hadn’t yet learned the rules to, so I bounced from locale to locale until I found a manageable area.

The game’s primary goal is to reach and activate six laser beams, all of which point to a single location at the top of a mountain. The Witness doesn’t care too much about helping you achieve this goal, however, which is part of its charm. The game is more concerned with creating a pleasurable space to think, experiment, and observe. The island’s puzzles require patience and thought not because they want to be difficult, but because they’re wrapped up in ideas about communication, language, and perspective.

The Witness is a game obsessed with these themes, and its quiet enthusiasm is infectious. I thought about these concepts more and more with each puzzle I solved. One of the game’s greatest achievements is its ability to create complex threads of thought in the player’s mind with only lines, squares, and colors. There is a vague story waiting to be discovered, but how much of it you experience depends on how much you seek it out. You’ll likely find some of the audio logs hidden around the island that play quotes from various scientists and religious figures from throughout history. Each discusses concepts similar to what the game asks players to ponder through its puzzles.

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The most difficult part of the game isn’t the puzzles themselves, but rather the rules which dictate how to solve them. This language of sorts is the source of both the game’s greatest achievement and greatest failure. At its best, The Witness prodded me to ponder its biggest ideas while sprinkling in moments of great satisfaction. Sometimes the game communicated so well that once I figured out a rule set, I felt like I could conquer the world. These moments, and the puzzles that produce them, are enjoyable and rewarding.

There are also instances of frustration and anger waiting on this island. The game doesn’t always communicate its rules and requirements clearly. There were puzzles I attempted for hours before I realized that I’d misinterpreted a rule taught by an earlier panel. In certain areas, the game mixes in rule modifications and nullifications too quickly, so that I was trying to juggle three rules without entirely understanding one or more of them.

These long stretches of boiling frustration weren’t erased once I figured out an answer. While I felt triumph after solving most of the 250 or so panels I completed during my 30 hours with the game, I felt a stinging relief after a good portion of them. In a game where the only reward after every puzzle is another puzzle, relief only serves to discourage the player from continuing. While I played without the help of a guide, I can’t entirely blame players who will look up hints or solutions after hours of futilely sketching grids and shapes.

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While these instances of miscommunication didn’t constitute a majority of my time spent with the game, there were still too many of them. This is a shame, because the game earnestly wants the player to consider its ideas on language, perspective, science, and spirituality. When The Witness can give the player just enough of a push, it communicates these ideas in beautiful ways. When it leaves the player to their own devices, or throws too many rules into a single area or panel, then its philosophies and ideas wind up lost in translation.

Final Verdict

6/10

The Witness was developed and published by Thekla. It was released on January 26, 2016 at the MSRP of $39.99. A PlayStation 4 copy was provided by the developer for the purposes of this review.