“Just Keep Swimming”
Developer: Thekla Inc.
Publisher: Thekla Inc.
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: January 26, 2016
I made it less than ten minutes in before The Witness stumped me. This was the first of a herculean amount of roadblocks that stood in my way of seeing an end to Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to the innovative Braid, which put him on the map back in 2008. In the same vain as Braid, The Witness presents itself in an intellectually stimulating fashion, subverting expectations around every bend. As a result, The Witness is an absolutely exhausting, unyielding, yet ultimately rewarding experience. It’s rooted deeply in mystery and a steep intellectual criteria that somehow works, feeding into an evocatively invigorating and encouraging tone that kept me company throughout the entire duration of my time on the abandon island. Rendered defeated in the face of numerous puzzles, The Witness pushed me to keep trying, tinkering with different puzzles, to then return to old ones with a new perspective. This freeing, yet extraordinarily challenging gameplay loop, alongside with the intense trust that’s placed in the player, elevate The Witness to a prestigious plane of mental growth and demands, few other puzzle games are able occupy. You begin the complex endeavor with a straightforward puzzle in the form a simple line that needs to be traced from left to right in order to progress. The set of puzzles which lie beyond the first, quickly manifest into something far more challenging and demanding of acute focus. Ramping up in difficulty, The Witness lets go of simplicity all together, once having acquainted the player with the world and the fundamental rules which keep everything spinning. Foregoing such common practices of game design–such as preachy tutorials and various tips–meant my playthrough was ripe with bewildering confusion, fiery frustration, and utter exhaustion. I found myself beaten down on numerous occasions, tempted to reach for a guide or quit altogether, but I’m sure glad I didn’t. Some puzzle’s sheer complex nature set me down the path of cutting corners, looking towards the internet for resources to assist me in speeding up the process of completion, however, in doing so I felt the game mocking me.
The Witness is built on the conclusion that you’re an intelligent person, making little to no attempt at holding your hand. It’s a tough love situation which allows for some of the most triumphant, as well as challenging moments I’ve experienced in a game. Puzzles can be completed as long as you’re willing to put on a critical thinking cap, exercising a great deal of patience and persistence. It takes a lot to understand the inner workings of a single puzzle’s rule set, especially when considering the constantly shifting nature of their hurdles. Very few puzzles ended exactly the way I predicted, prior to diving into them, creating for an engulfing harvest of player confidence that makes sure you remain humbled in the face of complications. That said, the game itself demonstrates a large amount of confidence, holding strong to its intentions. Kindred to a great teacher or role model, The Witness leads by subtle example, placing an enormous amount of trust and respect in its player. Having such faith placed in my intellect caused me to persevere more than I thought possible of myself. Springboarding off that, The Witness instilled in me a set of valuable lessons and allowed for me to make mistakes, with the intent that I would have something substantive to walk away with. Above all else, The Witness revels in the act of learning. Much like attempting to understand a language that doesn’t come natural to you, The Witness’ puzzles initially seem obtuse, tricky, and completely foreign. Failure plays an integral part in coming closer to understanding the idiosyncrasies behind the reasoning of The Witness’ puzzles, and there’s plenty of room for it. Persistence, of course, is the key to unlocking gratification, and it can take a lot to get there. Things get tedious, especially when moving into the late game, as brutal puzzles stood tall over me, laughing at my incompetence to solve them. I won’t lie, I inevitably arose victorious over the problems by way of cheating, for I thought at that moment in time it was the most logical step in maintaining my sanity. Excuses, excuses, I know. What caused me to reflect on my choices in a questionable light, was the fact The Witness didn’t care in the least that I’d gotten stuck in the first place. All of the necessary teachings to get me through a puzzle were there, I just hadn’t looked hard enough. This revelation led to a sense of guilt that grew with every puzzle I solved, disingenuously. In turn, the inner conundrum I was facing led me to assess my own justification on the matter, revealing cracks in the intellectual trust I’d placed on myself to prevail.
Simultaneously, The Witness manages to be one of the most aesthetically pleasant and inviting games I’ve played, while encapsulating some of the most daunting and strenuous puzzles I’ve ever been tasked with. This juxtaposition between relaxation and arrant frustration is one with deep seeded purpose, which becomes increasingly clear as you trek about the island in search of answers. Those looking for concrete explanations to the island and its past, may find themselves disappointed. You can stumble across audio entries hidden throughout the world which add some context to the philosophical motives of The Witness, but it’s all rather nontraditional. Having sunk many, many hours into cracking the code of the island, I still can’t tell you exactly what the game is actually about. Aside from the hundreds of puzzles driving the title, The Witness is very much about the individual emotions of the player, themselves. Lofty topics such as religion, discovery, and scientific reasoning, are explored by way of these in-depth logs, adding something tangible to the over arcing narrative. Quotes from actual psychologists, societal figures, and more, are the most memorable of these snippets, focusing on the reflection of oneself, as well as the world around them, closely mirroring the inner dialogue of the player.Conclusion: The Witness is a fantastic device to leave players alone with their own thoughts. So very rarely has a game sunk so deep into my subconscious, so much so I can’t stop seeing puzzles. The Witness drove part of me mad, and while I’m still processing the subdued complexion of its messages, it’s clear that it wants to challenge players, both literally and figuratively. Personally, The Witness encouraged me to take a dive into the minutia of my anxiety, addressing its triggers, intensifiers, and ultimately solutions. The Witness is indeed a game about solving puzzles, nonetheless, I didn’t expect it to help me bridge valuable resolutions of my own.
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