One of video games’ biggest modern debacles is fighting for recognition as a proper form of art. At the forefront of this fight is Jonathon Blow, the programmer-designer who broke out with the critically-acclaimed indie puzzle game “Braid” in 2008. He frequently gives lectures on how to expand game design as a distinctive medium of art, and he’s been a prominent member of the Indie Fund, fighting to empower new game developers without the need for them to sign up with the bigger players in the industry. True to his artistic ideals, Blow used a majority of his earnings from “Braid” to hunker down and focus on his next title. Seven and a half years later, we have “The Witness,” and I’m happy to say that with this title, Blow yet again delivers an imaginative masterpiece.
You start “The Witness” in a dark hallway. All you can do is walk, run, look around and pull up a circle to interact with objects. You come to a door with a panel on it, and by activating the circle on it, you can draw a line. The line opens the door. You find a few more doors, draw a few more lines and you find yourself on an island. You can see mountains and canyons and forests, all of it beckoning to you. But what can you hear? Nothing but your footsteps and the rush of distant waters. You are completely alone in a world that is lively, yet lifeless. In these first few moments, with only your own interactions and perceptions, “The Witness” lets you know what kind of game it is. This is a puzzle game, and the game itself is probably the biggest puzzle of all. Armed with that knowledge, and with your curiosity sparked, you head out into the world wondering how to make sense of it all.
And what a gorgeous world it is! The art direction is just impeccable. In a world where a majority of games opt for darker, washed out colors in an attempt to look as realistic as possible, “The Witness” stands out like a defiant painting, radiating vibrant cel-shaded colors. The island has a wide variety of landmarks and landscapes: a castle in one corner, a desert temple ruin in another, a Buddhist-inspired monastery somewhere in the middle – and that’s only naming a few. From pink trees bursting with brightness, to the ocean reflecting the lush greens and solemn grays of a forest, there’s always something brilliant to look at. And added to that brilliance is an air of freedom throughout the island, as it’s entirely open to explore right from the get-go. There’s no set idea of mandated progression, so you can make your own journey. You can go anywhere you want, anytime you want, but wherever you go, it is bound to be beautiful.
But be warned, the actual gameplay of “The Witness” is a slow burn. All the puzzles in the game involve drawing lines on these panels, and at first it seems like a generic time waster from your mobile app store. However, the longer you play, the more intricate and interesting the puzzles become. You may start out with just drawing lines through mazes, but you move on to drawing lines to make various shapes, to positioning yourself to see solutions the forced perspective of a line through shadows made by trees, to at one point even listening to your footsteps in order to chart out a certain path to recreate on the panel.
These puzzles get absolutely mind boggling. There are never any tutorials or instructions – the closest thing being slightly easier puzzles to introduce you to various concepts, which the game then trusts you to learn by doing. So more often than not, you’ll find yourself staring at the screen for minutes on end, dumbfounded and frustrated at the seemingly impossible code to crack. You’ll probably have to take a picture of things to use as reference for later. You’ll probably have to whip out a pen and paper to take notes and draw more complex solutions out. You’ll probably give the puzzle up entirely and go explore a whole different region of the map before returning to an old nemesis. But then, when everything clicks and you have your breakthrough, you know it was all due to your own wit and intuition, and the kind of satisfaction that brings is monumental.
There were a few annoying things I encountered on my playthrough, though. Thanks to the game’s adamant insistence on never explaining anything, in my experience, a few of the more complex puzzle concepts could only be figured out by extensive trial and error – one in particular taking up so much of my time that I just broke down and Googled it. I also found it tiresome that some puzzles, for no apparent reason, would shut down the panel entirely if you failed it. I’d then have input the previous puzzle solution again to boot it back up – something that grew tedious when dealing with some of the tougher puzzles. And the price of the game bears mentioning as well. While I personally thought I got my money’s worth, $40 is twice what most people expect to pay for an indie game, and a bit more of a leap of faith for someone to take if they aren’t accustomed to this sort of game.
I also wondered if there could have been even more of a reward for solving all of these puzzles, specifically with that of a story. One of the reasons why I and so many others enjoyed the “Portal” games was that not only did it have a series of challenging and rewarding puzzles, but that in solving them, you were rewarded with learning more about the fascinating world around you. By contrast, in “The Witness,” for solving a series of puzzles you are always rewarded with… access to another series of puzzles. From start to finish, there is no storytelling to be found. Who your character is, why they’re on the island, what happened to the island, why are these puzzle panels everywhere – none of these questions are in any way directly addressed. It didn’t affect my puzzle solving in any way, but they were questions that nonetheless bothered me in my earlier hours.
However, my opinion on the lack of story changed once I found audio and video clips. If you look hard enough in hidden crannies, or you work your way through some of the more arduous yet optional puzzles, you’ll find tape recorders and codes for video clips at a viewing room. The audio and video clips I found all seemed to have messages of opening your mind to engage new things, to drop expectations and accept things for the way they are, which I’m pretty sure were deliberate attempts at being meta. Like the way “Braid” deconstructed various video game tropes, “The Witness” seems to deconstruct even bigger ideas of what games should be. Where most games are just made around a narrative, to me “The Witness” was saying that needn’t be the case, that this game instead was an exercise in learning more about your own thought processes. Whether or not that’s the actual message of these clips, I have to applaud the folks at Thekla, Inc. for making the game a more distinct experience. “The Witness” doesn’t just want you to absorb images and sounds, it wants to make you think on various levels. Use one portion of your brain to think about solving visual, spatial problems, and then use the other to think about solving problems of a personal and philosophical nature.
Plus, the more I played, the more I appreciated the ambiguity. It gives the game a sense of timelessness, as one could theoretically play the game over and over again, discovering new details, images or patterns than they had before, and thus take away something completely different each time. You walk around the forest and you’ll see a group of boulders that from a certain angle look like a turtle emerging from its shell, you’ll see statues of duelists and beggars and royalty in an aboned castle, you’ll look at the a range of hills and trees by the bay and with its reflection in the water you’ll see a woman in prayer – all of these images and more giving the world a sense of mystery and gravitas that give you a sense of wonder and spark your imagination. The more you play the game, the more you soak in the details, and the more those details inspire thought.
Ultimately, the way I’ve best come to describe how this game stands apart is this: where most games are to novels, “The Witness” is to a poem. While the former are longer, more straight-forward experiences that provide a variety of happenings and tell a clear story, the latter, with enough examination and a willingness to peel back layers, can be just as much of a rewarding and profound experience. It wouldn’t be wrong to write “The Witness” off as just a drawing a bunch of lines on an island for hours on end, but it would be in the same vein as dismissing Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as just a couple sentences about a man taking a hike. If you approach this game not as something that serves a story about other characters to you, but as one in which you can discover a story about yourself, you’ll find yourself enjoying “The Witness” a lot more.
“The Witness” isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t go out of its way to grab your attention with spectacle and excitement, nor does it care to overtly explain anything, and if those are the kinds of things you expect to have in your video game, there isn’t a lot for you here. Instead, this is a game in which what you take away from it is equal to what you put in. If you’re willing to explore, challenge your mind and ask questions, then you’ll be hard-pressed to find a game that engages you to the degree that “The Witness” does. Blow and his team have created yet another example of the depths that an interactive medium like video games can reach. In the great case for video games to be recognized as art, “The Witness” provides some testimony that can not be ignored.
Developer: Thekla, Inc.
Publisher: Thekla, Inc.
Format: PC, PS4 (Reviewed)
Released: January 26, 2016