cat witness.thoughts

The Witness is probably as close to the original Myst as any game has ever been, including the later Myst games.

By now, you know the premise- you’re dropped alone on an island for no apparent reason and given a huge selection of puzzles to solve. Some are easy, some are hard, but all are from the mind of Braid designer Jonathan Blow. From there you wander a beautifully rendered island and engage in all the favourite Myst-style pastimes like investigating and repairing bizarre machinery, gawping at beautifully designed architecture, and cursing at your own inability to progress.

The last one is important, because where The Witness differs from Myst most prominently is that the puzzles are incredibly simple. The game presents you with a very straightforward premise, and it does it with the flourish of a friend giving you a riddle they know you won’t get.

“Every puzzle,” The Witness says, “is a grid. All you have to do is trace a line from one edge to the other.”

“Like a maze?” you say, eyebrow cocked like a loaded gun.

“Yup,” The Witness replies.

“That’s it?” you wonder.

“That’s it,” The Witness says, grinning.

“That’s not so bad,” you mutter, wondering what the big deal about this game is.

And then The Witness will proceed to make you feel like the stupidest creature alive.

From the get-go, The Witness will throw little restrictions at you that dictate how you have to draw your paths through each maze. Partiton these boxes like so. Enclose this many boxes here. Bisect these boxes. In isolation, none of these are that hard, but eventually the game will ask you to do them together, and you will crush yourself under the weight of your own ignorance as you struggle to apply what you know to the problems in front of you. And all the while, The Witness sits, grinning its shit-eating Cheshire Cat grin, watching as your brain slowly turns itself into mush.

See, the only thing standing between you and total dominion of the island before you is your ability to grasp the rules of the world as presented to you. You will never finish a problem in The Witness and shout “Aw, c’mon, how was I supposed to get that?!” because the very act of solving it means you understand it. The problems cannot be brute-forced, only solved through thoughtful application of the game’s simple rule- draw a line from here to here and don’t double back on yourself. It would be fair to say The Witness does away with conventional adventure game staples like inventory puzzles, but in a way, it doesn’t. The entire game is one big inventory puzzle and the inventory is your brain. There’s nothing The Witness doesn’t tell you, doesn’t teach you, somewhere on its island. If you can’t solve a puzzle, it’s because you either don’t know the rules- which are explained somewhere- or you’re not applying the rules you know correctly.

There’s been some back-and-forth about the game’s story and how obtuse it is, but that’s secondary. Let’s be realistic, nobody is here for the story. If you bought The Witness for the story, you bought it for the wrong reason. The mystery the game is interested in is not why you’re here, what the island is, how it was made and what it’s for. The only mystery the game cares about is you. The game is an elaborate puzzle box, and all it cares about is whether or not you’re clever enough to put its pieces together and solve it. The striking environments, beautiful colour palette, varied environments, occasional FMVs- these are all secondary. Window dressing. Appetizers. The meat of this game’s story is your journey. Your ability to put the pieces together. The Witness gives you a simple conundrum, and dares you to be smarter.

I can confidently say that anyone can solve The Witness. Its premise is simple and easily grasped. Its puzzles require thoughtfulness, cleverness, a good dose of nonlinear thinking and patience. But they are all solvable provided you can wrap your head around the rules. The game doesn’t require any Sierra-style leaps of cartoon logic, only your ability to stop, look, listen, and think.

And I can also confidently say that The Witness is worth buying for nothing other than the feeling you have when you finally see one of those markers that signal you’ve finished one of the game’s puzzle groups. You will feel like an idiot right up until the moment you put it all together, at which point you will feel like you just pulled the graveyard shift at the genius factory. And because the game tells you everything, somewhere, solving those puzzles comes from within, and it’s the single most satisfying feeling a game has made me feel in ages.

The Witness is by far and away worth a buy. You can take it at whatever pace you please; it lends itself equally well to episodic play as it does to extended stints. The game invites you to take it at the speed your understanding will permit; it locks you into nothing, forces nothing on you. And it is as intoxicating and enthralling as it is inviting and accessible. This is one island that’s for sure worth a visit. Go for it.

Cheers,
Bruce