Most descriptions of The Witness are reductive, but then, perhaps that’s appropriate for a game that is literally nothing but drawing lines to solve puzzles.
As my colleague Justin McElroy put it in his review, saying that The Witness is just maze puzzles is “like saying that a book is ‘just words.’” It’s true that the hundreds of puzzles littered throughout the alluring and confounding island on which The Witness takes place are all solved essentially the same way. It’s also true that figuring out the solutions to those puzzles was one of the most challenging and enjoyable things I did in a video game this year.
Yes, there is a semblance of a story in The Witness, even though the game is free of text, and you can scour the internet for theories on what it all means — the pretentious audio logs, the shadow-casting statues, the underground theater and everything else.
I mean, you could do that, but I would recommend against it. Because I care more about character than plot in a TV show, and I didn’t give a damn about why the island in The Witness exists or what devious puzzle lord — Puzzlord? — came up with its head-scratchers. For me, the puzzles were the carrot and the stick, and no game in 2016 wormed its way into my brain like The Witness.
In many games in this genre, the puzzles are a means to an end: You’re trying to get somewhere, like out of a prison cell, or do something, like rescue a kidnapped friend. The Witness is best played from the perspective that the puzzles are the point, rather than just a way to unlock the next door or answer a mystifying question. Once you come around to that, it frees your mind to focus all its attention on each individual puzzle — nothing more, nothing less.
That’s almost as difficult as figuring out the puzzles themselves, since it quickly becomes obvious that they’re interrelated. And not just in the sense of “I need to solve this group of puzzles to move forward,” but in the sense that The Witness is one giant, wonderful demonstration of the educational process.
Everything in the game builds on prior knowledge, so you’re always learning. Each puzzle that you complete teaches you something new about the symbology of The Witness, slowly expanding your puzzle vocabulary. By the end of the first set of screens in the Marsh, you understand the basic principles behind the game’s block-based puzzles. But just when you feel like you have a handle on things, Jonathan Blow throws a wrench into the proceedings: diagonally drawn blocks, and later, tetrominoes that can rotate.
Each new wrinkle redefines what a particular puzzle type can be and how much of a challenge it can present, especially when, say, multiple kinds of blocks — and their accompanying rules — exist in one puzzle. Then, once you make your way out of a region of the island that sticks to one type of puzzle, you’ll need to retain that knowledge for the sections with puzzles that feature multiple symbols. In this manner, you gradually come to understand the multifaceted language of this island — an astonishing achievement, considering that it talks to you without a single line of text or spoken dialogue (apart from the aforementioned audio logs, which have nothing to do with solving puzzles).
I came to regard The Witness as similar to the study of mathematics.
Wait, where are you going? Come back! Hear me out.
Math class is all about crawling before you can walk, walking before you can run. Once you learn addition, you can understand multiplication as adding a number to itself a bunch of times. And in order to understand the order of operations, you have to know what each of the operations in “PEMDAS” are. You might learn all of that in grade school; six years later, you could be taking a precalculus course, learning about logarithms of products and quotients. And just like in math, cheating by looking up the answers to The Witness’ puzzles won’t help you, because you won’t learn how anything actually works.
That’s not to say I didn’t give in and use a guide for some of the puzzles in The Witness. But there is a logic to all of them that — if you look (or listen) hard enough, and think hard enough — will eventually become apparent. When that moment hits you, and you understand the rule set behind a particular puzzles, it feels like you’re Neo in the damn Matrix — like you’re one with the island and its secrets.
Then you can put that comprehension to use in solving a few puzzles, and move on to the next batch to repeat the process. That’s enough gratification for me.