The Witness is one of the most challenging games I've ever played. During my playthrough, I experienced confusion, uncertainty, and mental exhaustion as I tried to understand this game's intricacies. At times, I considered giving up. The Witness makes few attempts at handholding, opting instead to convey its mechanics in subtle, cryptic ways as you struggle to make sense of it all.
But when you do persist, frustration gives way to gratification. This is what makes The Witness special. Unlike many puzzle games, it doesn't just make you feel intelligent--it begins on the assumption that you are intelligent. It trusts that you are a perceptive human being, capable of patience and critical thinking, and it rewards you for using both.
The Witness unfolds on an unnamed island within a vast sea. The island comprises a patchwork pattern of Earth's biomes, from a snowcapped mountain, to an autumnal forest, to a barren desert. Scattered throughout these habitats are square panels, each covered in mazes of varying complexity. This is the foundation of The Witness' gameplay--you activate each panel, guide a glowing line through its maze, and continue. Most unlock subsequent puzzles, but some open doors, maneuver platforms, or activate power sources.
What's remarkable is how The Witness communicates its nuances. Early panels are easy, asking you to guide the line from point A to B on simple grids. After some time, though, new symbols and colors and shapes appear, each conveying their own rules. Some ask you to form silhouettes with your glowing path. Some make you change perspective. Some even require you to break previous rules altogether. And there are never overt instructions as to how these rules work. You learn them through your own intuition and logical reasoning.
It's also impressive how diverse the puzzles are, and how The Witness manages to keep mazes engaging over the course of 25 plus hours. It's more impressive when The Witness reveals that its world, and the puzzles therein, aren't separate; they bleed together. Certain panels seem impossible until environmental clues offer the telltale hint. Other panels contain no clues at all, but affect your character's surroundings in clever ways. The castle at the center of the island is a shining example--its puzzles spill into the ramparts around them, making you consider the structure in a new light.
What's more, the island is open from the start, leaving you free to wander between its puzzles and locales. This is a vital part of The Witness' structure: each area houses a different motif among its panels, based around a certain symbol or clue in its mazes. If the increasing difficulty of one area's puzzles becomes too high, you can put it down, cross the island, and learn a new rule.
In many cases, the knowledge you acquire elsewhere helps you better understand the puzzle you just put down. The Witness isn't open-world just for the sake of exploration; its structure encourages learning at your own pace. I'm reminded of how we, as humans, have great ideas in the shower, or driving down the highway at night. The same rings true when wandering the lush island--you reach revelations through less intensive thinking, when conundrums fade from the front of your mind.
To discuss any puzzle solutions would mean spoiling the revelations that await you. The Witness introduces new ideas with elegance, never stating the rules outright, never showing its full hand, but giving you just enough context, just enough of a push, to make the final leap yourself.
The open world isn't open just for the sake of exploration. It's an integral part of the Witness' structure.
After completing enough of the puzzles, bigger, overarching objectives emerge. The Witness communicates your goals with a whisper, offering nudges in one direction or another as you make meaningful connections between disparate parts of the island. Many of the best puzzles communicate ideas bigger than they initially seem.
Some of the puzzles, though, lack what makes the rest so good. Instead of leaning on forethought and careful observation, several panels exist to test your dexterity, whether by racing a countdown timer, or navigating a maze as it spins itself into a spiral blur. It's one thing when these examples rest in optional areas off the beaten path--it's all the more frustrating when one of them impedes you from reaching the end of the game.
On that note: "end" is an odd word when it comes to The Witness. There are about 650 total panels, and during my playthrough, I finished 430. While I completed the necessary amount to reach what I'd call the game's "soft ending," there are still hidden panels I haven't found, difficult ones I haven't solved, and some I've completed, but have no idea what they do.
Because of the solitude of the island, and the various ways its mysteries can unfold, there's not a linear series of events. But there is a story. Through audio logs, and other media I won't spoil, The Witness quotes the observations and experiences of real-life physicists, astronauts, psychologists, religious figures, and explorers. Many drone for too long, extending their sermons long after their points are made. But when The Witness errs on the side of subtlety, it excels. It tells a human story, with thinkers who share a common thread: they're all trying to make sense of the world around them.
The Witness tells a human story, about people trying to make sense of the world around them.
That's what The Witness is about--gaining knowledge to make sense of the island and its gorgeous but exotic environments. The Witness molds its world, puzzles, and themes into such a layered, cohesive whole that, if we look hard enough, we'll keep finding new ways to perceive it.
There are still things about The Witness I can't make sense of--some clues I might never notice, and some puzzles I might never solve. But the hints are there. It might not all be clear at first, but that's okay, because I'm always learning.