The Witness, for those of you that haven’t heard already, is a first person puzzle game set on a mysterious, vibrant and abandoned island with a whole bunch of panels gracing it’s surface. The idea is simple - draw a line from a circle to a nub through each one of them. The execution however is a whole other story - while the first panel you come across is simply a single line, these puzzles quickly grow into multi arcane-looking symbol monstrosities that at first glance seem impossible to comprehend, but, with time, will have you solving in seconds while feeling like the smartest mother fucker on the face of the earth.
The island is divided up into a number of different biomes - in one corner sits some ruins in the middle of the desert, while another houses a beautifully lush rainforest. Each area is built to teach you a different aspect of the puzzles that you come across - one section might help you make sense of the black dots for instance. The island holds no punches however. You’ll often be in the middle of weaving your way through a section before hitting a road block that stops you dead in your tracks. You can find yourself staring at a puzzle for literally hours and not come up with the solution, at which point (I found, at least) the best idea is to physically walk away and go do something else - be that in the game or outside of it. Going and working on another area can help you see things in a whole new light, while sleeping on a particular problem can cause you to wake up with an epiphany at 2AM in the morning.
One of the coolest aspects of this game is that there is no written text or spoken hints whatsoever through the entire game.
While there are some expositional quotes and other such things scattered around the island in the form of audio diaries, The Witness cleverly shows you the insane depth that these puzzles can go to without uttering a single word. Ultimately, the island has and teaches you an entire language using purely visual means.
I also want to take time out to say damn this game looks good. The use of colour in this game is phenomenal - both from a visual and a design perspective. The colours of the island integrate with the puzzles in interesting ways, opening up whole other avenues of gameplay. The real winner though is the amazingly intricate and vibrant design of every single one of the games assets - thanks to the fact that the game has no HUD to speak of, every screenshot you take is wallpaper worthy.
The Witness has had me deep diving into a game's meta in a way that I never have experienced before. Even with a game like Fez, one that I really enjoyed, I was left satisfied at the completion of the levels - while I appreciated the crazy layers that game had hidden beneath it’s surface, not once did have the desire to go down the rabbit hole. This game, however, drove me to want to discover everything this island construction had to offer. The island only requires you complete 7 of it's 11 areas before getting to the "end", but there is so much more here for those that dig just a little deeper.
Disclosure: the next 3 paragraphs are spoiler filled. As this game is all about discovery on your own, I strongly urge you to only read them if you have no intention ever of playing the game, or have already done so.
I had already completed 8 areas before I noticed a circular symbol hanging over the entrance to the monastery. My initial reaction: "Huh. That's cool. I wonder if..." That button press, motion, action and epiphany is already a standout moment for gaming this year. The game I had already sunk 30 something hours into had all of a sudden flipped on it's head, revealing itself to be a whole other thing than I had initially thought.
Even after discovering so much about the island - the environmental puzzles, the "hotel", the area beneath the mountain - nothing could have prepared me for the final challenge. I frequently flipped from "this is amazing!" to "fuck this game!" during my attempts to complete this last area, but the feeling of actually completing it was something else. I literally jumped up, yelled, and ran to hug my girlfriend who was at the other end of the house. Be damned if I ever want to do that again, but that was some brilliant design and truly worthy of the name "challenge".
There is no specific story to speak of, simply your own interpretation of it. I’d need 10 pages of writing to cover my interpretations of the audio diaries and visual logs (something I might yet do - that’s how into this game I’ve become) but suffice it to say that there is a lot to unpack here. Most players will play through the game as a clever puzzle game. Some will go deep into the puzzle aspect and discover all the cool things the island has to offer, such as the environmental puzzles. Then there’s a select few that will really read into the game, it’s world, it’s quotes and it’s secrets. I know I’m in the last camp here (I’m still on the fence about whether there is more to the game than what has already been discovered, but I’m willing to believe) but the thing is the game works so well on every level. You can come at it from every angle and still have a great time with it.
The Witness is a game filled with moments. You will spend anywhere from 12-100+ hours with The Witness - learning, uncovering, yelling (out of both frustration and joy) - but the standout aspect of this game is every single one of those small moments. Each discovery, that dawning epiphany, every "aha!” The funny thing is, these moments aren’t even in the actual game. It’s not marked by some arbitrary in game reward - it’s that reaction you have that is so memorable.
When it comes to The Witness, there isn't some arbitrary amount of coins/energy balls/whatever for you to collect. There are no power ups hidden behind boss fights, nor unlockable abilites. No, the true collectable in The Witness, the skill you acquire through play, is simply knowledge. And that is why The Witness is so fantastic.