Video Games Review: The Witness (PS4, 2016)

There is one very important question that you need to answer before you spend any time at all with Jonathan Blow’s newest and most ambitious game, one that will tell you right away whether you will enjoy the experience or detest it mightily: How much do you like puzzles?
The Witness is a puzzle and exploration game created by Jonathan Blow’s Thekla Inc and is his first new game since the release of his surprise hit platformer Braid in 2008. It hearkens back to the explore-em-up games of the late Nineties like Myst and Riven, dropping you into a beautiful but solitary world filled with puzzles to be solved, allowing you to slowly piece together a story that reached its end long before you arrived.

The game begins with you emerging from a dark tunnel onto an abandoned island full of artifacts from a civilisation long-since vanished. It seems to contain areas that reflect vastly different real world countries all packed into one very small space. Travelling through each area and solving the puzzles within will slowly unpack the story of the island, which I won’t spoil because doing so is your reward for getting through the game.

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The puzzles themselves are multitudinous and surprisingly varied but all follow a similar structure – guide a single, unbroken white line through a grid-like maze. Sometimes you will have to draw the line around particular shapes to isolate them, sometimes you’ll have to create shapes using the line. Some people are going to be very good at these puzzles and may only find themselves stuck once or twice. Other, less probing minds, may find themselves pulling their hair out very quickly. It will make you feel incredibly stupid when you can’t figure a particular puzzle out but, conversely, you will feel like the smartest person in the world when it finally clicks and complete it. I’m talking serious, fist-pumping levels of triumph. That’s how it gets you.

My software engineer house mate referred to The Witness as “a programmer’s game” and he isn’t wrong. It’s built for a mind like his, one that sees a problem and can’t rest until it is overcome, endlessly twiddling the dial and trying different combinations until the right one presents itself. If that doesn’t sound like you, The Witness will not be the game for you.

Another point that will likely be very divisive is the fact that The Witness is exceedingly low on feedback of any sort. Most gamers are used to a strict progression of cause-to-effect in games today. In The Witness, you may solve twenty puzzles in a row and nothing will happen. There will be no way to tell if you are progressing and what, if any, effect your actions are having. This drove me crazy initially. I did what you wanted! I solved the puzzle! Just tell me what to do next. Eventually I came to accept the game’s extended silence and got on with the job of solving puzzles, hoping it would reward me in the long run for putting things together on my own.

Maybe I’ve been driven mad from too many puzzles but it all started to feel very meta. I started to wonder if this was a rather savage indictment of video game culture as a whole. Is there a point to all this puzzle solving? What does solving all these puzzles get you besides the endorphin rush of getting them right? Are you just solving puzzles because they’re there? “Solve another puzzle,” says The Witness, “and maybe I’ll tell you.”

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Special praise must be given to The Witness’s visuals. It is seriously spectacular to look at, and on my PS4 it glided along at 60fps with only the very odd bit of screen tear. The way the island’s myriad environments flow seamlessly into each other is both beautiful and a bit unnerving. All of the game’s areas feel distinct but also quite natural, like they belong there, all bunched up together, when they clearly don’t.

Blow and his team have created something really amazing in The Witness. Like a lot of people, I take no pleasure in being told I am wrong over and over, thus the game has driven me from the living room in complete fury on multiple occasions. The thing is, I keep coming back. I go away for a while, I sleep on it, letting my subconscious work on the puzzle while I do other things. Then I come back and I try it again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The Witness is one of the first truly great games of 2016. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, and it will drive those that do play it mad. But we’ll keep playing anyway, slowly solving its mysteries and trying to grow back the hair it’s made us yank out.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Beautiful world; brain-melting puzzles
Lowlights: The opposite of fun for anyone who hates puzzles
Developer: Thekla Inc.
Publisher: Thekla Inc.
Released: January 26, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4, Windows PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.