You are to witness. Is there a crime? An event? Or are you the witness? Not to see, but to give evidence and testify. The dynamic mysterious word feels fitting for creator Jonathan Blow’s critically acclaimed PC hit. Thekla Inc.’s game The Witness, debuted in 2016 to rave reviews. Not only rave reviews but pictures shared everywhere were colorful, elegant, simplistic, and inviting. Beckoning players to come and to witness.
Here I offer up my testimony of The Witness. Is it a crime to be avoided, or an event that must be experienced?
Standing in the darkness, you look out and see the light. You begin cautiously walking into the light, with past warnings assaulting your brain. Am I dead? The light begins to touch your surroundings and you see white sterile tunnel walls. The tunnel abruptly ends with a door. Take a deep breath, and you push it open.
Imagery that connects to internal and cultural narratives welcomes you to the game. As you exit the tunnel there are bright colored plants, a beautiful blue sky, and a castle wall for the backdrop. The area is locked, and innately I wanted out to see more. The question is how to progress. It was at this moment that I realized something amazing, there is no tutorial. There are no instructions. I have to figure it out the game mechanics. That is the first puzzle to solve.
The Witness is a game of few words. It prefers to allow you to explore, test, and discover. Testing begins by clicking buttons and finding out what they do. With a left click you enter a picture frame like screen that does not move. Is this point and click an adventure/puzzle game like Kings Quest or Myst? I tested by clicking everything and could not get anything to work. Then I found the TV screens with a design that resembled tic-tac-toe. Centering the picture frame on the newly discovered board, I was able to make something happen. Clicking the dot let me trace along the lines. When I got to the end of a rounded line then a click sound occurred. This is the foundation of all of the puzzles and essentially the game as a whole.
If I am honest the first thing to do when you escape the garden is just to run. Race across the land. Examine the landscape. Walk to the beach. Stroll through the town. Trot along the mountain creek. Trek through the bamboo forest. The sights are amazing and it is a great reward for solving your first set of puzzles.
As you explore the island you encounter puzzles that make no sense. There are symbols, double dots, triangles, tetris blocks, and many other confusing mechanisms added into the foundation of tracing a line. I tried to crack these puzzles but could not and became frustrated. I really wanted to solve the puzzles myself, but needed a place to begin to work and learn. I figured out a few on my own, such as the symmetry puzzles and the black dot puzzles. I ran up against a brick wall as I could not find a starter on any of the other puzzles. How was I possibly going to figure out what the Tetris blocks mean? This was the one point I broke down and searched the internet, not for solutions, but to just know where to go to begin with the different types of puzzles. If you get stuck, I recommend just finding out where the beginning puzzles are. These puzzles serve to teach you the rules for the various types. It was only later that I discovered that they are all a solid panel of puzzles. Once you can discover the basics then the rest can be slowly deciphered.
The game really centers on two main aspects, gameplay and art design. The gameplay is simplistic. The control scheme is beautifully simplistic as it utilizing just the move and click mechanisms that virtually all computer users are familiar and comfortable with. Doing so allows the game to immerse the player into the experience rather than inundating the player with long drawn out explanations. This was no doubt a risk in game design, but one that fits perfectly with the game. The developers believed in the player’s intelligence and ability to learn which pays off immensely.
The art design fits the game play perfectly. The visuals are absolutely stunning. The designers have avoided a photo realistic style for vibrant colorful simplistic style. I was constantly astounded by the way the environment would give me clues or guide me to the solution of a tricky puzzle. It felt as though each pixel was specifically placed to communicate not just beauty but guide me. It was as though the landscape was a language that the creators used to commune with the gamers. On a basic level, the colors and land marks were expertly designed to aid the player in remembering where to go. Hidden deeper within the island environments were secrets that blew my mind. I dare not spoil the joy of discovering them here.
Finally, we come to the story of the game. The language of the game is through the visual. It is as though The Witness is teaching you a new language like Sign Language. Throughout the landscape are statues of people, frozen in time. The statues communicate with their stance, positioning, and body. But what is the story? Some might be perturbed with the “lack” of story, but in my play through it felt like there was tons of story. If reminded me of Journey and how it communicated in a similar subtle non verbal manner. The story is not hidden, but to be interpreted by each player as they experience the island and its mysteries. It felt right to have a story be subtle, as is the art design and game play, instead of overbearing.
This game is a masterpiece. The art design and story decisions move the game from a period in gaming to a timeless realm that few creations can touch. This game is not for everyone, as you have to want to discover, be frustrated, and work for your progress. That said, if puzzle games are of any interest to you then I join the testimony of others in declaring: you need to experience The Witness.