Arts & CultureVideo Games

Review: ‘The Witness’ is beautifully simple, yet intoxicatingly complex.

Often when we think of a game as being “simple,” it comes off as a damnation through faint praise. We associate the notion of being uncomplicated with being undesirable, “casual.” Yet as we see in The Witness, the latest puzzle game from Braid designer Jonathan Blow, simple can be beautiful. It can be evolutionary. It can even be truly maddening.

The Witness begins with zero fanfare. You start in a long underground tunnel, a single tile impeding your progress. After clicking it, you’re tasked with dragging a line across the screen to open a door. That basic mechanic is taught wordlessly and forms the core of the experience.

The door opens, and you enter a gorgeous world of primary color and symbology. In essence, every puzzle thereafter is just a complication on that basic premise. As you progress, new rules and obstacles are added, requiring you to draw specific shapes against a grid to progress. Every solution feels satisfying; once you’ve cracked the underlying secret of a set of panels, it’s hard not to jump right into the next for another hit.

If I’m being obtuse about the specifics of The Witness, it’s only in service of honoring the experience. This is a game inherently about discovery and learning. You never have a puzzle explicitly explained to you, or the rules of a specific symbol laid out. Rather, you are taught by doing. This can result in hours of hair-pulling as you desperately stare at the screen to understand the assemblage of squares, lights, and stars before you. Fortunately, you’re rarely stuck in any one spot. The island is a massive open space, loaded with hundreds of puzzles connected by central concepts. If you’re stumped by a particular puzzle, you’re free to abandon it and come back later. You could even beat the game and leave behind most of the island’s wonderful secrets.

But you’ll be back, without a doubt. The world of The Witness is intoxicatingly vague, filled with seemingly meaningless statues, monuments, and recorded monologues.

Yet the deeper you get, the meaning connecting them becomes more tangible. Even if you fail to connect the dots, there’s enough meat to paint a fully realized world. The Witness is like wandering in a waking dream, alone yet surrounded by voices. Gaming enthusiasts might be able to place one of The Witness‘s central influences: Myst, another first-person adventure that had players exploring an island dense with puzzles and mystery. While it’d be easy to criticize Blow for simply riffing on the most popular PC game of the ’90s, The Witness evolves our notion of what puzzles in the first-person perspective can be. 

At $40, The Witness values itself as something far from the typical consumer’s notion of an ‘indie game’. It’s got all the gravitas of a major release, yet it doesn’t compromise its vision for sales. You can feel Blow slaving away at every moment of The Witness, crafting the experience of discovery from each angle. Nothing feels meaningless or phoned in. It’s an experience worth having at almost any price. 

The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation 4.

Follow Chris Berg on Twitter @ChrisBerg25

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Chris Berg

Chris Berg