The Witness is the brainchild of designer Jonathan Blow, who’s previous 2008 game ‘Braid’ is frequently touted as one of the greatest indie titles of all time.
As the game starts, the player is placed without any clear instructions on an island, devoid of life and filled with mysterious buildings and objects, set beside natural beauty. In the distance looms a small mountain, shaped like an almost perfect cone. Sound familiar? To anyone who has played Myst, the godfather of the genre, it should come as no surprise that this was a heavy influence on the game.
My journey begins with a slow and thorough exploration of the island, taking in the atmosphere and taking note of potential puzzle elements and clues. The scenery itself eschews complex graphical textures, instead painting a picture of bright colour and geometry. Much like Myst, there is a pleasantly lonely atmosphere to the place. The soundscape mixes nature with your own footsteps, punctuated by a distant waterfall.
It is not long before I am forced to open a door by way of a simple maze puzzle involving drawing lines. Following this, I face the same puzzle several times over, each time with slightly increasing difficulty. There is a theme growing here. Before I can grow too comfortable, I eventually stumble into a new area where the solution changes to referencing an environmental clue – I must trace the correct branch of a tree leading to an apple.
Up to this point I have remained patient. An hour into the game, I would have expected the puzzles to change style by this point. But I am prepared to give the game the benefit of the doubt, as I am sure it will vary things up soon. It is not much longer before I discover my first real clue to the story – a sound recording hidden beside the shore. At least, I assumed it to be part of the story before I later realized that all such audio messages are merely philosophical quotes taken from the real world with no clear context.
Another hour passes and I find myself still solving the same puzzles as I work my way through the large island. There are more than twelve areas, each with its own unique theme and visuals. The ‘maze’ style changes slightly in each area, for example involving symmetry, isolating certain dots, or taking a route that passes through certain items, but essentially it is all the same.
Herein lies the game’s greatest flaw. When I picked up the title, I was very excited, having read 9 and 10-star reviews citing it as a masterpiece. As a huge fan of Myst, the supposed similarities piqued my interest even further. The Witness may be inspired by Myst, however it is not comparable is my opinion. Myst took place on an island considerably smaller than the one in The Witness, and yet still managed to contain a complex array of puzzles, story elements and mechanics, all packed within its softly lapping shores.
Despite the initial promise, The Witness sadly never moves into second gear beyond its repetitive puzzles and complete lack of story throughout. For me, this breaks the cardinal rule of these types of puzzle games. The puzzles themselves must offer a reward, in the form of progressing the story. Otherwise, you are essentially playing Tetris on an island.
I would praise The Witness on its visuals, design, and sound. Ultimately, however, the high reviews from other sources leave me wondering if I have played the same game. If you have a particular interest in solving ‘maze’ style puzzles, then this is the one for you. However, if you are looking for a rich storyline and puzzles that link smoothly into the environment, far more intriguing worlds await…