The Witness

The Witness (2016) is a game made by Jonathan Blow.

I hesitated when I wrote that first sentence, because I have a feeling that calling The Witness a “game” is not doing it justice. However, I don’t think we have a better name for what it is, so let’s call it a “game” from now on, realizing that the term “game” is expansive and that The Witness is located somewhere at the boundaries of that expanse.

On the surface, The Witness is a collection of line puzzles sprinkled over a nice-looking 3D environment, namely an island with several different biomes, such as a mountain, a desert, an orchard, a jungle, and a village. Some of the puzzles are placed in obvious series. By solving seven of these series of puzzles, you open up a final area where some difficult puzzles are found, which you solve to end the game.

Some people stated that without the 3D environment, The Witness could be a smartphone game, and they are right, up to a point. You can play The Witness as a collection of puzzles, and when you are done with those, finish the game. If that is what you are looking for, and you are not enticed to look beyond those line puzzles, then the game has little more to offer you than the average smartphone puzzle game.

Most of the puzzles are actually obnoxiously simple, and you solve them in mere seconds time. The ones that have you stuck for a while longer are almost always those that unexpectedly introduce a new element, or puzzles that are placed in the world by themselves, or puzzles in the island’s village. The puzzles that introduce a new element are rather clever in the sense that when you see a new element, you are probably not going to solve the puzzle at all, as you have no idea what the new element means. However, you also quickly realize that somewhere on the island there is a series of puzzles that explain this new element. And the wonderful thing about these “explanation puzzles” is that they do the explanation purely intuitively. There are no help texts in this game. The puzzles have been carefully constructed in such a way that almost everybody will intuitively grasp what they have to do to solve them, and thus add to their knowledge of the game.

For the few puzzles that provide a tough challenge: you actually do not have to solve any of them to be able to finish the game. If you say: “screw these difficult puzzles, I just want to see the ending” and you rush through the puzzles that are easy enough, you will get access to the final series of puzzles (you only need to solve about 50% of the puzzles to get there). Those final puzzles can get pretty difficult, but you can find solutions online, so you enter those solutions and then experience the final ending — which will be a huge disappointment. The ending just makes the camera traverse the island, out of your control, after which you get dumped at the start of the game, with all the puzzles reset. That’s it. That’s why you went through all that trouble. I can imagine someone writing a review that states “Some of the puzzles were fun, but they got quite tedious after a while. The puzzles near the end were more interesting and challenging, but probably too hard for the average player. The ending is stupid, and a slap in the face of all who went through the trouble of solving all these puzzles. 2 stars out of 5.” (I have seen reviews like this.)

But here is the thing: The Witness is not about the puzzles. The puzzles are just a mechanism. They provide something for you to do to get a sense of progression. But they are not the core of the game. There is so much more to experience in the world. There are so many ideas placed in this game, most of them “hidden in plain sight.” You may miss these ideas, but once you catch some of them, you start seeing more. Fortunately, the game has ways built in to intuitively point out the most obvious of these ideas to you. But they are just the start.

I can’t say more about this, as you have to experience these elements of The Witness for yourself. The whole point of the game is to allow you to discover them. The Witness is one of the few games of which I say: “Make sure that you do not read anything about it before you play it, this game is best played without foreknowledge, and should only be discussed with others after you finished it.”

Let me just say that the game contains a lot of clever tricks. Many of these appear to be no more than just “clever,” and I expect that some of them indeed are nothing more. But others have layers of depth to them. They raise questions, which the game sometimes — but not often — provides an answer for. To give you an idea, without spoiling anything, here are some of the questions that you may ask:

  • Why does the sun not move?
  • Why is there a single rain cloud in the sky?
  • Why does the player have a shadow but no hands?
  • What happened to the occupants of the village?
  • Why is the game called “The Witness”?

These questions are all directly related to what you see in the game. But they lead to deeper, philosophical questions, which the game shares viewpoints (not answers) on if you are willing to look for them. However, besides these deeper layers, there are also game elements that are just there to screw with the player. In some cases I got the feeling that Jonathan Blow included specific features just to raise a middle finger to a particular kind of game player. In this sense, The Witness not only contains a game, but also a meta-game, a meta-meta-game, and probably even a meta-meta-meta-game.

I realized that the experience that The Witness provided me with, in many ways resembled my first reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This book is quite good at making you understand intuitively the complex ideas that it discusses before bringing up the actual ideas themselves. It also has so many layers of depth, that when you are sensitive to these things, you make new discoveries every few pages, sometimes thinking “that’s clever,” other times thinking “that’s deep,” and yet other times thinking “what am I supposed to think about that?” The point is that you feel that Hofstadter placed each and every word in that book deliberately, and that you are always missing elements just because you glanced over them — even though you get the overall intentions of the book.

The difference between The Witness and Gödel, Escher, Bach is that Hofstadter makes the overall purpose of the book explicit in the final chapters, while Jonathan Blow never states in clear terms what he means with the game. In that sense, Gödel, Escher, Bach is a scientific work, while The Witness is more a spiritual work — even though it radiates the feeling that Jonathan Blow heavily prefers science to spirituality.

I can’t say more about The Witness without running the risk of spoiling anything. Let me just say that I think it is a game that should be played by everybody — even though not everybody will get out of it what I got out of it, it manages to use the medium “game” as a way to let the player discover new ideas, which is a rare thing indeed. Moreover, it has a highly accessible interface, so that young and old can play it, even if you have very little previous experience with games.

I stated before that games can be an art form, though they seldom rise to the level that you expect of high art. The Witness, however, does.

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ADDITIONAL (January 1, 2017): I got into a brief discussion on The Witness on VideoGameGeek. I gave a fairly lengthy interpretation of the game, including my personal answers to the questions stated above. In it, I refer to the excellent video made on the game by Joseph Anderson. For those who are interested in my comments, you can find them here. Note that my comments and the video mentioned both contain very heavy spoilers, and I urge you not to consult them unless you have already finished the game. I know this warning is given by many for almost any review/discussion, but it is really serious this time, as what the game offers you is the discovery of perspectives, and you cannot experience that discovery if you just listen to or read about someone else’s discoveries.

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