The Witness is a game brimming with secrets: daunting and multilayered mysteries that sunk into my subconscious, tracing snaking paths across my brain until I was literally seeing mazes every time I closed my eyes. That’s the kind of power The Witness has. It hooked me in with its masterful puzzle design and gorgeous visuals, then compelled me forward as I began to carve out my own purpose on the island. It’s a freedom granted by a world as welcomingly open to exploration as it is enjoyably challenging to solve.What do all games have in common, other than the bare fact of their interactivity? There are many answers, but the one I’m most convinced by is that all games are teaching mechanisms. Whether it be slyly illustrating a language puzzle in Fez or telegraphing an attack window in Dark Souls, every game must instruct you about the tools at your disposal—and far from being a technicality, this creates a sense of intellectual intimacy with a creator that few artforms can profess. Talentless creators teach with HUD prompts or via cajoling NPCs, often wresting control away in exasperation when you fail. Skilled creators hint and tease, insensibly guiding you towards a solution. The clue could be something as innocuous as the movement of water, or how an object looks at a distance.Though not without its flaws, Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is one of the finest teachers I’ve studied under, and if you’re at all minded to play it you should stop reading now and do so. Yes, that’s a terrible reviewer’s cop-out, but the joy of The Witness is simply how you learn, and while I can dance around specifics, I’d hate to deny you a single particle of that satisfaction. Is the price tag a concern? Well, it took me 30 hours to polish off the main arc of the game and I managed to bypass large tracts of it, including several unlockable areas and scores of puzzles. So if the bang-for-buck ratio is of paramount importance, I’d say you’re covered.
The Witness is a series of maze puzzles (some 600-odd) set on a tropical island—a sumptuous, thickly hewn expanse of cliffs, meadows, orchards, swamps and sand, dotted with buildings such as a church, a logging depot and a windmill, many falling into disrepair. The place is a regular car-crash of eras and traditions, from the vaguely Japanese temple near the centre with its plush red shutters, to the rusting tanker shipwrecked on the northern coast. But there are shared themes, amongst them a motley and unnerving population of stone effigies—priests, kings, guitarists, photographers, rock-climbers and more, all frozen mid-gesture like trolls caught in the sun.Puzzles in The Witness are hard, but they’re always fair and solvable. In a manner more freeing than most puzzle adventures, you’re allowed and even encouraged to walk away from a problem you don’t feel equipped to solve. That’s a concept introduced in the opening minutes, when you encounter a locked door covered in symbols you’re unfamiliar with. The answers you need are further up the path, but you have to let yourself walk away first to know that. The Witness does more than equip you with the tools needed to find the right answers – it teaches you how to ask the right questions.The Witness has a power and pull that carried me throughout the more than 40 hours it took to complete it for the first time, and that, even now, beckons me back to confront the mysteries I left unsolved. Its graceful combination of tangible goals, obscurity, and freedom creates ample opportunity for small victories and grand revelations alike. For the most part, its themes weave themselves beautifully throughout the gorgeous world and wide variety of puzzles, but even when it breaks subtlety in favor of a more heavy-handed approach to exposition, it never detracts from the truly fulfilling moments The Witness offers in terms of solving its physical puzzles and unlocking its deepest mysteries.There are, alas, a handful of puzzles that aren’t so gratifying. The Witness falls slightly afoul of the classic endgame dilemma—there’s a point where you stop learning, stop working out how to employ the techniques you’ve picked up in different contexts, and the challenge becomes too much a question of overcoming artificial obstructions. As with the arrival of a bullet-sponge boss in an FPS, it’s all about having the patience to proceed rather than the ingenuity. This is balanced out by a couple of masterful (and insanely hard) specimens and by some opulently weird interiors, but it’s sad nonetheless that the closing sections aren’t quite the send-off the game deserves.There’s also the storyline—or rather, the mass of oblique audio recordings and suggestively positioned objects that could form a coherent storyline, assuming they aren’t the trappings of a non-narrative thought experiment. Even making allowances for not uncovering all the secrets, it’s difficult to draw conclusions because at the time of writing, key elements of the fiction aren’t in the game—though playable from start to finish, the review build lacks a number of more explicit audio files and has non-final endgame sequences (it’s also a bit buggy, with some mild glitches on things like reflections and at least one documented crashing problem). But I’d hedge that The Witness is, at least in part, an attempt to map and celebrate the sheer act of composition. It’s a journey to the heart of its creator’s artistic process: the business of getting from A to B positioned as a model for cognition itself.Many of the recordings are excerpts from canonical texts of science, philosophy and literature—you can look forward to Paul Cezanne’s meditations on the relationship of painting to nature, and B.F. Skinner’s remarks on who really wields the power in a game scenario—player or designer? It goes without saying that The Witness is highly aware of its own artifice, but this isn’t sprung on you, as in other games, in the form of a plot twist or “meta” in-joke. It’s tacitly advertised from the outset, freeing up the rest of the game to explore the implications.You’re left with a mirror-tunnel of allusions and surmises that is undeniably thought-provoking, but may daze and annoy as many players as it beguiles. Mind you, it’s perhaps to the purpose that you’re asked to make sense of it all. I introduced The Witness as a teaching machine, but I suspect Blow’s agenda is to collapse the master-student relationship, equipping you with the tools and insights you need to approach the game’s sources of inspiration on your own terms. The Witness might be constructed around mechanical challenges with unambiguous outcomes, but as the choice of title implies, what it ultimately seeks to offer is a vantage point, a perspective on life’s mysteries, rather than answers.