Seven years after developer Jonathan Blow helped usher in the indie boom with the release of “Braid,” he has returned for another game-changing experience. “The Witness,” to be released on January 26 for the PS4 and PC, is an expansive puzzle game that challenges the player in every way imaginable. Welcome to an abandoned island populated by the unbridled creativity of Blow and his dedicated team at Thekla Inc.
The plot of “The Witness” is easily summed up because there’s not much to it and it’s best to enter the game unspoiled. You’re a mysterious entity who has happened upon an abandoned island. The protagonist doesn’t speak and controls are limited to running and a simple interface that lets players engage with puzzles or audio logs found throughout the island. You click one button to begin solving a puzzle or another button to exit. Acting as a sleuth and archaeologist, you piece together just what happened on this island.
"The Witness," despite its sparse population of actual residents, is beautiful to explore. Every area opens up a new set of challenges with scenic shifts that prevent the game from ever feeling stale. The inhabitants of the island were a few steps above “Gilligan’s Island” in terms of living conditions. These individuals were living a pretty nice island life with some cutting edge technology and a few resort-like luxuries. As for who these people were and why they came to the island, it’s likely the conclusions will vary by person.
There are complex technological landmarks while other sites have strewn about on the floor as though peaceful meditation was a daily occurrence. Then, you'll come across a stone statue of a person caught in mid-action. It's a scene out of the chapter of the history book where you learn about Pompeii. That's not to say a volcano leveled the island as there's no evidence of ash around these mysterious figures. At another point you come across a record player inside a stump in a lovely autumnal setting without much explanation.
Blow pushes an extremely simple premise to the furthest limit possible. “Myst” was a key influence mentioned prior to the release of “The Witness.” In the PC classic, many users were forced to just click desperately on anything in the hopes of advancing further in the game.. It wasn’t that too intuitive because any part of the environment could be a part puzzle. In “The Witness,” all puzzles are limited to one panel. There are no guideposts or scraps of paper that point players to where they should be going next. It's up to the individual to see how they conquer the island. The exploration is also helped or hindered by your progress with the numerous puzzles found in "The Witness."
Every puzzle appears easy at first, but soon evolve in exciting ways. Blow consistently provides new twists to a familiar pattern that will leave you stumped for hours. This roadblock will gnaw at you as you stare at the screen wondering what to do. You know how it could be solved, but not the solution itself. The "aha" moment where all the pieces fall into place is one of the best experiences of "The Witness" because it's based on your understanding of the game. Each puzzle is basically a relationship where you learn a lot about yourself and the other person.
You don't need fast reflexes or an understanding of the weaknesses and patterns of a boss with a massive life bar: just your brain. Different puzzle types will be more readily conquered than others; some will frustrate and others prove to be child's play. As such, progressing through one area could require minutes or hours depending on how far you stretch your brain.
Puzzles and landscape aside, Blow creates an immersive world using another minimalist trick. The sound design is kept to ambient noise throughout the island. You'll hear the slow splashes of waves of the incoming tide or the crunching of leaves underfoot. All of these small sound elements add up to an organic sense of the world around you. Imagine dissecting all the intricate layers of sound that accompany your daily life and that's something Blow achieves in "The Witness."
The lack of a backing musical soundtrack leads to a hypnotic experience when solving puzzles. Your physical space falls away with the only thing that matters is the puzzle on the screen. There are voice actors lending their talents to the game, but those voices only add more layers to the mystery that is "The Witness."
It's a huge mystery that won't be solved in one playthrough. There are over 600 puzzles and Blow estimates a player could spend at least 80 to 100 hours trying to solve every puzzle in "The Witness." Completing the game and seeing the ending could take 30 to 50 hours. That's a tremendous undertaking especially when you consider how challenging, yet rewarding, the puzzles can be for players. Blow has discussed some central themes that run throughout "The Witness," but much of the interpretation of the story is up to the player. Ideas about how we communicate, the concept of authority or accountability, creative or technological representations of the world are all thoughtful exercises found throughout the game.
"The Witness" is a rewarding experience for players that's a whirlwind of inspired thought by Blow and the Thekla Inc. team. The level of care and thoughtfulness that breathes life into the puzzles is something that's rare in games. "The Witness" is packed with so much intelligent discussion that helps justify the $40 for an "indie game." In an ideal world, this game could be a surprise hit much like "Myst" was when it was released, but it may be hard for gamers to accept the price and an experience that can be incredibly frustrating. There are accomplishments, but some gamers may become frustrated at yet another unsolvable obstacle. The dreaded sense of boredom is another concern for players. "The Witness" is a vibrant, challenging game that grabs your attention immediately. In a world of constant bombardment, that's a huge accomplishment.
"The Witness" was reviewed using a PS4 digital download provided by the developer.