No game has floored me quite like The Witness. My feelings when playing it are indescribable, unmatched by any other video game. It is the most impacting game I have ever played, completely immersive and other-worldly. Combining a beautiful imaginary world with smart puzzle mechanics, it is truly a rich and rewarding experience. I believe it will have great lasting value in video game history, but it also represents the current generation perfectly.
This generation is being defined more and more by its indie titles. We are in an age where small indie titles can compete head-to-head with large, high-budget games. Video game communities are becoming increasingly receptive to experimental ideas. Additionally, critical reception for indie titles and “non-traditional” games are fantastic. At times, they get as much press coverage as AAA titles and are just as eligible for “game of the year” and “most anticipated games” lists.
The Witness is one of my all-time favorite games. I spent 40 or 50 hours playing it the first week it was released. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it or watching a stream of it. I was intrigued by every aspect of it: the puzzles, the atmosphere, the visuals, the level design, the sounds, and the story behind it. Each element is perfectly crafted with such delicate care that the end product can only result in a beautifully composed masterpiece of a video game. Creator Jonathan Blow took all of his huge profits from Braid and spent 8 years developing The Witness and the final product is astounding.
The Witness is a very personal game. While Jonathan Blow surely wanted his creation to have critical and financial success, he was still largely making a game for himself. Of this, I am certain. I don’t see him sacrificing any artistic integrity in order to make more sales. With the dedication and game support that he has shown on Twitter, it is clear that he wants people to understand the game and put in a high level of dedication. The Witness is not a game to play casually or with a closed mind.
We are in an age of gaming where we value in-game rewards and good storytelling. Gaming experiences need to be meaningful. We want to be satisfied by item/weapon rewards or a pivotal progression in the story. The Witness does not feature any reward items, level ups or any clearly defined story, but the rewards are immense. It is the satisfaction of entering new areas, completing difficult puzzles and overcoming obstacles that once seemed impossible. These accomplishments are not met through grinding or precision platforming, but rather through learning and applying knowledge.
So why is that satisfying and what is the point of the game? There is a breathtaking sense of discovery in The Witness that is very difficult to describe in words. If it were devoid of any puzzles and were instead similar to an experience like Proteus, it would still be worth playing. The visuals are beautiful, full of bright colors, gorgeous landscapes and architecture. There is great detail in each environmental “zone” plus many different visual perspectives to see from. Not to mention that when you first enter the game, you are only seeing the surface layer of the world.\
This sense of discovery is felt in other Metroidvania type games (and yes, I do consider The Witness to be a Metroidvania game of sorts), but there is a critical difference here. Rather than unlocking specific weapons (like Metroid’s ice beam or super missile) to unlock a certain type of door, each door in The Witness is only locked by knowledge in your own head that you have yet to learn. There is nothing preventing progression except your own willpower and dedication. The answer lies somewhere on the island and you must seek out the knowledge and take the time to understand each puzzle. When you finally figure out the puzzle and unlock the door, the feeling of relief and accomplishment is unmatched. At its fundamental core, this is what video games are all about.
We all have fond memories of being stuck for days on seemingly impossible boss battles or platforming sequences. We all know the amazing feeling of finally beating the boss or level that seemed to halt our progress forever. Often times, this can be frustrating due to immense difficulty or “cheap” game mechanics. The Witness does not feature any sort of unfair mechanics. It teaches patience, commitment, and dedication, which all gamers should be familiar with. The most amazing aspect of the game is its ability to teach the player how to solve each puzzle with no dialogue or instruction. There are sequences of puzzle panels that gradually add more detail. In the end, you will completely understand every symbol and puzzle mechanic. This is perhaps the most incredible aspect of The Witness.
Completing each puzzle zone results in a laser beam being activated and pointing directly towards the peak of the mountain. Though its purpose is mysterious, there is a great satisfaction in activating the lasers. Jonathan Blow is able to convey a sense of importance and wonder in a silent, delicate way that no other game can. The sound and sight of the mechanism slowly aiming and activating had me holding my breath. While The Witness is certainly a very unique and artistic game, it is still very much a video game. Each puzzle zone can be compared to dungeons in The Legend of Zelda or bonfire sections in Dark Souls. In this sense, they reward the player with a great sense of completion and accomplishment.
This generation of video games reminds us that difficulty is rewarding and that creativity is extremely important. We are gifted with a diverse catalog of amazing games throughout the years. Indie games in particular have come so far and had such a profound influence on the video game industry that they have become one of the driving forces in this current generation. The Witness combines beautiful art with challenging puzzles and a great sense of discovery and accomplishment. It stands tall among visionary titles and the unique ideas present in many indie games. It reminds us that video games are about escaping from real life. It urges us to work towards a goal and call on others for help. The Witness succeeds in maintaining a video game mentality while pushing the boundaries of interactive experience.