Following on from the massive success of Braid, The Witness is an engrossing and hugely satisfying experience that should solidify Jonathan Blow as one of the very best active game designers.
After some eight years in development, and the enormous success of its precursor Braid, there has been plenty of anticipation for Jonathan Blow’s long-awaited The Witness. Thankfully, the finished product is just as arresting and enthralling as anyone could have expected.
The game’s opening places the player on an unnamed island, with little idea of where they are or why they’ve been put there. This premise — like several elements of the game — owes a debt to the seminal Myst, but The Witness does far more than retread ground covered twenty years ago.
The bulk of gameplay revolves around grid-based puzzles where the player has to draw a line from a designated entrance to a designated exit. If that sounds simple, it’s because it is; the brilliance of The Witness is in the ways that the game elaborates upon that central conceit, not to mention the way it takes the player on that journey.
For instance, one twist on the format sees two entrances and two exits on a grid. You can choose either entrance to make your start, but your movements will be automatically mirrored by the option you didn’t pick, and those two lines can’t cross.
This would be an interesting mechanic in its own right, but the strength of The Witness is the way these ideas are explored. A couple of puzzles serve to explain what’s going on to the player, before more complex tests elaborate upon the concept and add new wrinkles.
However, it’s not fair to say that the game is simply a sequence of puzzles placed in an island environment for the sake of it. The grid-bearing screens might be your primary method of interacting with the game world, but your surroundings are frequently a vital component of their solution.
A puzzle-adventure like this might seem likely to cause frustration, but the open-world format of The Witness does plenty to alleviate that problem. The player is free to flit from one region of the island to another — often a clever strategy, as a different type of puzzle might prompt revelations about a prior sticking point.
There are other benefits to thoroughly exploring the island, too. The mix of natural geography and architecture tells its own story, but there are nuggets of information tucked away in the landscape that add further levels of intrigue to a narrative that will likely be pored over for years to come.
To be clear, this isn’t a story that plays out via cut-scenes or lengthy exchanges of dialog. As in Braid before it, the plot is hinted at and alluded to throughout, rather than explicitly stated. This will no doubt turn off some players, but others will find it a refreshing alternative to the bulk of video game storytelling.
The Witness is sedate, but incredibly satisfying. While we’ve already seen that it’s possible to speed-run the game, players will get most from the experience by taking their time. That’s not to say that there’s a lack of content, as the hundreds of puzzles contained will take tens of hours to complete in full.
Much like Braid, The Witness is a game design triumph. It takes great ideas and runs with them, all the while delivering visuals and themes that are just as strong as the gameplay at its core. Many titles released this year will be hyped as ‘must-play’ experiences — but few will have the longevity that this game will surely enjoy.
The Witness is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC. This review is based on the PC version of the game.