It's a good thing I really like notebooks. Specifically graph paper. For around 25 hours now, I've been playing The Witness in front of a desk, simultaneously holding a pen and a DualShock 4 controller. It must look like I'm some kind of detective, hot on the trail of a fugitive. But I'm not. Instead, I'm wandering around a peculiar island that is completely uninhabited, save for an endless number of maze puzzle.
That's the best way I can describe The Witness, a new first-person exploration game from creator Jonathan Blow. He's the one behind 2008's Braid, a time-manipulation 2D platformer that essentially gets credit for kicking off the age of independent video games.
Aesthetically speaking, The Witness is completely different than Braid in nearly every way imaginable, but it still forces the player to think their way forward, rather than blast or shoot their way through.
The game starts without any sort of standard tutorial or hand-holding. You're presented a door that opens up to an island. Your next move and where you go from there is up to you. The environment creeps towards constructing a story and the maze puzzles you encounter act as a silent teacher, helping your gradual ascension to the next level of puzzle-solving.
Slowly but surely, your confidence grows. You can reach that place you never thought you'd ever be able to go. But you shouldn't get too ahead of yourself. There are puzzles within this game that will drive you crazy. You will see them in your sleep. Fortunately, there are no rules in The Witness. If something isn't clicking, or if you just aren't feeling right about what you're currently doing, you can just walk away. Everything you need to finish this game is right there in front of you. Whether or not you see it is another story.
Sure, the puzzles are difficult, but it's the island itself that's the most mysterious character of all. It's all very eerie and off-putting. How did all this stuff get here? What happened to the people? Is everyone dead? These dreadful curiosities are only juxtaposed by the cheerfulness of the island itself, with its beautiful shorelines, multicolored foliage and natural rock formations.
What The Witness does is quite amazing. It takes a simple mechanic -- the maze puzzle -- and lets it grow and evolve across hundreds of different applications throughout the game. More often than not I found the theme of a set of puzzles to be as clever as the solution itself. The second you're able to let go of the preconceived notions you have about playing video games is when it all becomes clear. You just have to let it all happen.
That might sound like an intimidating hurdle to clear. There's an uneasy sense of isolation in this game. You don't always know if you completed something. There's not a tangible sense of progression that most games reveal. It can lead to some frustrating moments of not knowing where to go or spells where you'll just wander for what feels like forever until you discover the next area to solve.
It's all worth it though. The sense of reward here is immense. It's why I averaged about three hours of play time per session, as opposed to my usual 60 minutes or less.
The Witness is the kind of title I'd want to show a friend who doesn't normally play games because it's nothing like anything they would ever suspect. Anyone can pick this up and get lost in The Witness' unspoken language. It's something that transcends convention and can make anyone a believer. For the student studying how games are breaking away from their stigmatic shackles, The Witness is required playing.
For more on The Witness, please check out an interview/discussion with the game's creator, Jonathan Blow, that myself and Austin Walker of Giant Bomb conducted at a small event in New York City back in October of 2015.