The Witness

(1 customer review)


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Complete Review & Description

Positive reinforcement is a great thing – being told that you’re doing something right. Games are notorious for dripping out affirmation as we spend time on them, but quite often it feels like a way of deflecting the rather senseless idea of “guilty pleasures” that society foists upon them. Hey, this thing you’re spending time on is meaningful, because the numbers are going up! You unlocked a new weapon, gained a level, or got more gold! Even the more intangible elements aren’t free from this, with most games sporting percentage trackers for the amount of story content you’ve seen.
But being told that what you’re doing is meaningful, as the result of interlocking systems and algorithms, is hollow. You aren’t developing; you’re being told that you are.

That’s where The Witness comes in to the discussion. In production for about eight years, and developed by Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame), the game appears at first to be just another entry into the puzzle genre. But its design philosophies rub against traditional gaming values in such a way as to create one of the most powerful metaphors for a subject matter I’ve ever experienced: the learning processes we use to understand ourselves, and the world around us.
At its simplest, The Witness is about solving puzzles in an open world. You navigate tranquil, colourful zones that differ in form and aesthetic, from quaint hamlets to tropical jungles and decaying temples. Dotted throughout these zones are computer panels, each with a self-contained puzzle to complete.
The core of the puzzle-solving is rather intuitive – navigate a line through a maze-like structure, to its end-point, making sure not to box yourself in. As you progress through the world, new mechanics are embedded into the puzzles, essentially creating sub-objectives that need to be completed before you deliver the line to its terminus.
What makes them all so engaging is that they have their own internal logic. Sometimes that logic is fairly straightforward, and other times it’s a little more obfuscated, with things like the environment providing subtle clues. While I’m hesitant to tell you about the particular types of wrinkles that pop up (because finding that information is key to enjoying the game), the way that they’re meted out is worth talking about, simply because they reinforce the game’s metaphors so elegantly.

The majority of the puzzles all have a similar flow – you’ll start with a small version, introducing you to a concept, acting as a test-case. Subsequent puzzles then build on the mechanic, until you become comfortable with the underlying concepts. The difficulty will slowly ramp up, until one of two things happen: a new mechanic will be blended into a set of axioms you thought immutable, or the puzzle will just be insanely difficult, and test all of the knowledge you’ve acquired.
In the event of the former happening, you’ll need to set off to another part of the island where that mechanic is introduced. You’ll then repeat the same as above, acquire that knowledge, and put it to use somewhere else. The game is almost like a mental Metroidvania, where you’re recursively unlocking new parts of the island – not through items, but through ideas.
its design philosophies rub against traditional gaming values in such a way as to create one of the most powerful metaphors for a subject matter I’ve ever experienced
All of these systems – being stumped, acquiring knowledge, and challenging truths that you held to be one-dimensional – help build a powerful metaphor for the learning process, and our need to make sense of the world around us. You’ll struggle with puzzles, make no progress, and quit in a huff, only to have the solution fall out of thin air hours later. You’ll face problems that seem insurmountable, but as you slowly expand your knowledge, you’ll start making sense of a vernacular that previously seemed like gibberish.

It’s elegant, and the type of presentation that is only possible in the gaming medium. Some of the philosophical musings (in the form of audio log quotes from artists, and scientists) can be a little self-indulgent and meandering at times, especially compared to the tight mental and emotional arc conjured up through the core gameplay loop.
Learning about ourselves, and the world, is a slow and gruelling grind. The Witness captures this perfectly through the effect its gameplay has on you. You’ll get frustrated, I can guarantee it – but that’s the point. It doesn’t offer tutorials, because the game is confident in your ability to prevail. It’s a treatise on our ability to develop and grow, as we attempt to make sense of the unknown.


1 review for The Witness

  1. Mature MInded Gamers

    Amazing gameplay

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