One of the biggest voices in Indie gaming of the last few years has consistently been Jonathan Blow. It might surprise a few people then to realise that The Witness is in fact only his second game, following the release of 2008’s seminal indie platformer Braid.
Part of this is his intense devotion to perfectionism and detail, and whatever you might think of The Witness, you can’t deny that it’s a labour of love all the way through. Perhaps even, a little too much love.
The Witness takes place in a stunning open world with little else except you (a faceless avatar), the scenery, and the puzzles of the core gameplay. The island is so saturated and bright that the colours can often appear to be approaching cell-shading levels of garishness, but as you pass by areas and experience the water effects and dappled trees, it does certainly become easy enough to stay in this world for extended periods.
The core gameplay concerns the activation of various computer screens, where a white line must be guided along a maze to a set exit in a line without crossing itself. This starts off easy but becomes more and more difficult as time goes on. For instance, the first real challenge is that black and white blocks are placed in the middle of the maze, and the black must be separated from the white. Other puzzles have you operating two lines at once that mirror each other, but which must both be guided simultaneously.
The concept is simple but the execution becomes maddeningly complex at times. There’s a very nice progression from simple to hard, and the way the world is set up stops you feeling gated at every step. There are also a lot of puzzles, with claims being made that there are about 700 in total, with most of them being optional challenges.
One of the hardest selling points for this game is that with all this puzzling, the primary reward continually remains simply the joy at finishing the puzzle itself. There’s no central narrative or quest in a real sense, and for many players this will be off-putting. For the few that really enjoy the act of puzzle solving, this will tick all kinds of boxes for them, but for many, they will get to one really tough puzzle, wonder what the point is, and either look up the answer or stop playing.
The sound design adds another few levels of enjoyment, and every now and again there are cryptic references to famous philosophies and religious figures, and I can appreciate that kind of symbolism. It’s the kind of thing that generates talk amongst a small, loyal community for years to come, and it’s great that we can still have games that aim for that. However, for the rest, I think The Witness might just end up being a bit meandering, the kind of thing that works best on a phone in short bursts than on a console at home. Incidentally there is an iOS port, but I can’t comment on its quality.
The Witness is hitting a sweet-spot right now with being a PS4 console exclusive, as far as the console world is concerned, and its beauty and puzzle genre make it stand out. I like all that it tried to be, I just think a lot of people will get turned off from it quickly. However, at the end of the day, that may even have been what Blow would have wanted.