The Witness Review
The Witness Review
The most difficult part about The Witness is making it sound like fun. But the game is a lot of fun, and very addicting.
Posted: 03/15/16 | Category: Review | Developer: Jonathan Blow, Thekla Inc. | Publisher: Jonathan Blow, Thekla Inc. | Platform: Ios, Playstation 4, Windows

Genre: Puzzle, Exploration
Release date: January 26, 2016

Jonathan Blow grew up.

Back when Jonathan was 17 or so he loved playing computer games. He liked platformers and RPGs and really got into FPS games. Life was just a head shot. But then something happened.

One day the old action-oriented games just didn't seem to cut it any more. Oh, they were still fun, whatever that means, but they somehow left him flat. He wanted something more. Something deeper. Something that would make him think.

Jonathan looked around, but there really wasn't much available for the contemplative crowd. So he decided to write his own game – the game he wanted to play. And then Jonathan grew up again.

It soon became apparent that publishers were not interested in cutting-edge experimental games that made the players think. So Jonathan took the only course left open – he went independent. Now, this was at a time when independent developers were not known for making great hits. Not having a publisher was considered the kiss of death for a game. But Jonathan put his doubts behind him and after several years gave birth to Braid.

At first glance, Braid looks like a Super Mario Brothers rip off. It's a platformer where you jump on the bad guys to knock them off the screen and at the end of each level there's a dinosaur to tell you that the Princess is not at that castle. But it goes much deeper. Each level allows you to play with time in a different way. There are no instructions – you have to figure out what the trick is for that level and how to use it to your advantage. And the ending leaves you thinking about Mario in a whole new light.

Braid is a game that treats players as adults. It makes you think and leaves you thinking. How did it do? Braid became a bestseller on Playstation. Third-party estimates claimed that Jonathan made over five million dollars from it. Independent developers suddenly became legitimate. And Jonathan Blow became a name in the industry.

Jonathan was now in demand for interviews.  He always had well thought-out opinions and was not afraid to share them. (I loved it when he called out certain games as EVIL because of how they manipulated the players.) Jonathan also became seen as the mentor of the Indie movement. His conference appearances were always well attended. But there was one topic he would not talk about much – his next project.

Jonathan would say that his next project is called The Witness and that he couldn't say much about it because it's a game about discovery, and anything he tells us is something we can no longer discover for ourselves, which makes it doubly hard for me to write a review that will not ruin the game for the reader. Fortunately, this isn't my first time.Smile

What Jonathan did let us know is that we find ourselves on an abandoned island filled with ancient ruins, high tech and lots of puzzles. Sound familiar? The unspoken assumption on everyone's part was that Jonathan was doing to Myst what he had done to Super Mario Brothers.

It took seven years and The Witness is now out. And Jonathan fooled us again. The Witness is nothing like Myst. You might argue that it's more of a take off on Rhem, but in the final analysis The Witness is unique and stands on its own.

So, What is The Witness?
 

Well, it's not about the environment. The island is one huge three dimensional maze. You're free to wander anywhere, but you'll have to find the paths around the cliffs, buildings, forests and streams. The graphics are primitive by today's standards. They remind me of a model train layout where the maker only had four colors of clay to work with. But you'll have to pay close attention to the environment if you want to solve the puzzles.

It's not about the sound effects. There is no background music. There are no animals. There are no insects. You're all alone. But again, you will have to pay close attention.

It's not about the story. There is none. The island is loaded with buildings, ruins and artifacts, but they tell you nothing. There are anomalies everywhere which prevent you from making sense of the whole thing. You could even make a game out of counting how many laws of physics and biology are broken.

In a sense, it's not even about the puzzles. They are everywhere, but lead nowhere.

So, What is The Witness?
 

It's all about thinking.

The puzzles are all the same. There's a small grid with a start and an end and you must trace the path from one to the other. But there are rules.

The puzzles are grouped into areas and each group has its own rules. The clues might come from markings on the puzzles themselves or they may come from the environment. But it's up to you to figure out just what the rules are and how to use them to solve each puzzle. There's not a single word, spoken or written, in the entire game to help you. You are all alone. You must think.

This is not to say that there is just a huge homogeneous pile of puzzles to work through. Some puzzles will open doors. Some will activate machinery. And most are cleverly layered into large meta-puzzles. So it's always interesting.

The way to think of The Witness is not as an intriguing story leading to a great accomplishment – game over. It's a magical puzzle book. You don't get a crossword/puzzle book from the grocery store for the thrill of finishing it. You get it for the satisfaction of each accomplishment you make along the way. And the island is littered with other things that will make you think throughout the day, even when you aren't playing.

This is a game to play at the end of a hectic day at your meaningless job. There are no save points in the game so when you fire it up, you're right where you were when you quit out. And you just keep on going solving mini-mysteries. You may not have a string of letters after your name. Your boss might treat you like a mindless jerk. But you do have a brain and you can figure things out on your own. The satisfaction this brings is delicious.

This is a game you can play for a long time. It took me over forty hours to “win” the game. That is, I solved the major meta puzzles and enjoyed the ending video (all the while screaming, “NOOooo!”  You'll understand when you get there.) My score at that point was “425 solved + 12.” There are 669 puzzles in the game, so I still have over a third to find and solve. It may take me another forty hours to complete it. What will you do once you complete it? Play it again!  This time you may be able to play the whole game without resorting to that video play-through you used that last time you got stuck Smile.

The most difficult part about The Witness is making it sound like fun. It's like Mark Twain said, “Wagner's music is a lot better than it sounds.” But the game is a lot of fun and very addicting. I recommend getting The Witness and at least starting it. You may well find that it has more of a draw than yet another evening of adrenalin-filled head shots. You may find that you've grown up.

And how is The Witness doing for Jonathan? In the first week it outsold Braid in its first year.

Final score? The Witness accomplished everything Jonathan intended and leaves you wanting.

Grade: A
Contemplative game that makes you think
Gives you a lot to think about beyond the game
Fun and rewarding at every level.  No investment needed.
Highly addictive
80-100 hours of games play
Replayable
 
Difficult to make it sound like fun.  But it is.  Very.
Mediocre sound and graphics, but they work
Fails if you attempt to force it into an existing genre. Great when accepted for what it is
 Logo
 
 
Trailer:
 
 
 
System Requirements
 
MINIMUM PC:
OS: Windows 7
Processor: 1.8 GHz
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: Intel HD 4000 series
DirectX: Version 10
Storage: 5 GB available space
 
Specials from Digital Download
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