2016 is being an unbelievably good year for videogames. We’ve had the pleasure to enjoy amazing experiences, from Uncharted 4 to Firewatch, from Inside to Civilization VI. All of them are especial in some way, even if they are very different from one another. One game, however, has stood above every other, in my opinion. One has stuck with me for quite a long time, one has got me obsessed for days unlike any other game has achieved this year.
The Witness is Jonathan Blow’s latest indie game, which after the very successful “Braid” aims to be a perfect puzzle experience. And maybe “perfect” is the best word to describe what Blow’s new title feels like, as the extreme care for details results in a seamless world, full of cleverly designed puzzles that revolve around a surprisingly simple concept but get more and more complex as new rules are thrown into them. Everything that we are presented has had all its details carefully considered, every element is absolutely essential as it is part of a larger unit.
Everything is placed on a meticulously created island, an open environment that has different zones to be unlocked through progression. More interestingly, though, those new locations can’t be opened with a tool, a weapon, or a key found elsewhere in the game. Instead, our knowledge will enable us to progress to new zones, which have always been available, even if we didn’t know how to get inside until understanding some mechanics found in earlier puzzles. Knowledge is the only key in The Witness, a key that the players themselves must forge by slowly learning how the panels in the island work. Solving puzzles is not as important as understanding them.
And that moment in which we understand a new rule by solving a puzzle, the eureka moment, is one of the most empowering and rewarding feelings any videogame has ever given. Being aware of more advanced mechanics makes the player feel wiser and wiser, from the very first puzzles to the very last. Blow doesn’t need a progression menu to let us know what we have achieved, it’s all in our heads. We are forced to know what we can and can’t solve at any given time in order to find out what maze we should try to solve next, which, in most cases, requires every bit of the knowledge obtained until that point in time.
The Witness is a constant learning curve. Unlike most games, it doesn’t have a tutorial in the beginning that gives you all the information you need to finish it. In fact, it has no tutorials at all. Game mechanics, the rules in the mazes, aren’t explained at all. Instead, each rule has a set of easy puzzles that can be found somewhere in the island, in which we can deduct what each symbol means by trial and error. Once enough insight is obtained, the challenges get increasingly difficult. Trial and error won’t help and luck doesn’t exist in Blow’s world. Serendipity won’t happen. Knowledge is the only way of moving forward, and knowledge is not easy to obtain. They call it “the Dark Souls of puzzle games” for a reason.
While most of the time is spent looking at the hundreds of panels with a maze each, the environments that surround them are nothing short of gorgeous. The artistic design is brilliantly colourful, elegant and warm. It is a joy to go from zone to zone visiting forests, castles and ruins of small villages on the way. Those environments are more than a wrapping for the puzzles, however, since they are carefully crafted to be a part of the game as important as the core mechanic itself. Sometimes they are necessary to solve the mazes, sometimes they contain their own enigmas, they are full of secrets… It’s hard to describe the expertise it took to come up with them without entering spoiler territory.
Jonathan Blow focuses on what’s important. Forgets about inventories, progression menus and explanations. He takes an idea, the maze idea, and creates a game so pure revolving around it, it’s almost overwhelming. He escapes conventional design to focus on a seamless experience for the players. An experience in which there are no tutorials or HUDs, nothing that distracts from the immersive world that surrounds the brilliantly crafted mazes.
An immersive world in which we seek truth, meaning. A world that helps us on our journey. But also a world that lets us know truth isn’t just a puzzle to be solved. A world that makes us understand truth cannot be reached. A world in which truth is ephemeral and, just like in our own world, only exists if someone is there to witness it. 10/10