Games excite because they elicit creativity within limitations. Nobody is impressed if you put a ball through a hoop. But when you put a ball through a hoop that’s 10 feet high, while overcoming the restrictions of a court, a ticking clock, an opposing team, and your exhausted muscles? Now your ball-hooping efforts are worthy of notice—you might even surprise yourself. The limits of the rules make ordinary feats extraordinary. That is the magic of games.
Your first task in The Witness is to draw a line. Drawing a line is also your final task, and everything in between. It’s the only way to accomplish anything. You typically draw these lines on puzzle grids, weaving your way from a designated start point to the exit. More often than not, when you finish with one grid, another one lights up. (Occasionally, a more fantastic revelation ensues.) Yes, you also roam a picturesque island, one filled with delightful secrets and traces of a mysterious past, like a stone scientist who was apparently petrified in the midst of a eureka moment. But drawing lines is what makes it all go, and that may sound like a dull way to spend your time. It’s actually glorious, because designer Jonathan Blow and his team place so many thought-provoking limitations on you.
Blow is the creator of the time-warping 2008 game Braid, a work whose design was so meticulous and clever that it helped propel a then-nascent independent games movement into cultural relevancy. Yet on its face, time travel is a fertile premise, while line puzzles don’t quite ignite the imagination the same way. So how is it that The Witness presents a richer, even more engrossing challenge than its predecessor?
The reason is that The Witness is really two games, the first of which already concluded before you begin. It’s a game that Blow played on his own, in which the designer challenged himself to explore every permutation of his simple line-drawing conceit. During a development process that spanned years, Blow responded to his self-imposed test with determined grace. The result is the second game, the one you play, which invites you to explore an astonishing diversity of ideas.
The Witness owes a debt to Myst, Rand and Robyn Miller’s 1993 point-and-click CD-ROM game, which integrated spatial logic puzzles into a sumptuous, intricate 3D realm. Blow does not shy away from the comparison. Like Myst, The Witness takes place on an abandoned island. This world is gorgeous, too, albeit with a brighter color palette and a more austere sense of texture than the Millers’ Pacific Northwest vibe. The key difference between the games, though, is that Myst invites players to focus on the form of its puzzles—to divine meaning from the particular look and configuration of its buttons or levers or vaguely steampunk gadgetry.
Yet in The Witness, the specifics of the puzzles’ form largely cease to matter, in part because the form doesn’t vary—it’s all line-drawing puzzles—but more significantly because Blow coaxes such variety from those lines. His designs are so ingenious that after a while, it becomes clear that the grids are just the means to explore different realms of thought. Logic. Aesthetics. Optics. Symbology. Sometimes you have to interpret new symbols that appear on the board, like confounding little stars that thwart the obvious solution you might like to draw. At other moments, heightened awareness of your surroundings is the key. In every case, the superficial geometry of the playfield before you is just a gateway to grander notions.
You have to figure out a lot for yourself, but Blow isn’t heartless. He warms you up for the heavier mental calisthenics. The island includes a number of straightforward grids that are intended to show you, for instance, what to do when there’s a little “T” shape on the board. And while these are enjoyable in themselves—The Witness doesn’t sully itself with tutorials—this game is about how you deal with the hard stuff. The puzzles that require you to leap. Still, when you get frustrated, there’s always somewhere else to go and another thread of reasoning to pursue.
The defining experience of The Witness happens when you overcome a seemingly intractable roadblock with a thunderbolt of insight. Blow’s imagination is impressive, but more awesome is the imagination his little world brings out in the player. Play with patience and avoid outside help, and you are liable to be astonished by the flexibility of your own mind. That’s why I don’t reveal too much detail in this review. To discover the island is to discover pieces of yourself.
Peppered throughout the world are tiny recordings to play back. These are not, as you might initially suspect, audio logs from the civilization that once occupied the island. That isn’t The Witness’ style, which is another quality that sets it apart from Myst. Although Myst is fairly characterized as a lonesome game, it does ground its emptiness with glimpses of other characters and copious journals that are left behind. The Witness comes closer to leaving you alone, and the most memorable audio snippets have little to do with the game’s ethereal backstory.
Rather, they are recitations of speeches and writings from a panoply of real world thinkers, from Augustine Of Hippo to astronaut Rusty Schweickart. A uniting theme of the recordings is epiphany—a moment when your consciousness expands to accommodate some new, essential truth. These aural tone-setters are an elegant accent to the game, which is an epiphanic symphony of its own, producing a crescendo of little miracles in your brain if you let it.
The title has a poignant connotation: You are the sole witness to your flashes of new understanding, and only you perceive the particular alchemy of hard work and happenstance that produced them. There’s a beauty in the loneliness there, which The Witness accentuates with its more literal solitude. In the audio bits, though, Blow also plants the notion that epiphany is an essential human experience, binding and driving us. When you are struck by an elegant solution in the game, you not only get the thrill of your achievement, but you can also sense a faint echo of the larger epiphanies that have driven humanity forward. The Witness draws a line from your singular consciousness to a collective spirit—in a limited fashion, of course. For a game, the limits make all the difference.