Having prized the doors back open for indie games as commercial success stories with 2008’s Braid, developer Jonathan Blow finally returns with The Witness.
If Braid was the sparky debut album that defined a genre then The Witness is the long-gestating, precocious follow-up that will inevitably divide the opinion of his followers.
Detractors will likely find the lack of narrative a put-off from the start, while the steep learning curve and complete absence of hand-holding are likely to find plenty of copies gathering digital dust on hard drives everywhere. Those who do venture further risk frustration at the game's one-trick game mechanic and its potential to get stuck in a seemingly endless maze of puzzles.
All of which may sound like we’re suffering from Second Coming syndrome, and initially that fear did creep into Ther Skinny's mind. Yet The Witness has potential to steadily and stealthily ebb into your psyche, keeping you thinking about it long after you’ve turned off the power switch, continually pulling you back to its bucolic charms.
This addiction is due in no small part to the world that developers Thekla have created, concieved by Blow himself. Set on a moderate-sized island, the steeper price of the game (weighing in at approximately three times the cost of Braid) is easily justified as you walk about its beautifully desolate locations. Sand temples bleed into stone quarries that seamlessly blend into ramparts and orchards, setting up the different zones without ever feeling partitioned into standard gaming territories.
Each area is home to a specific set of puzzles, played out on incongruous display units that jut out of the various locations. Based on the sort of simple maze puzzles you might find on the tray paper in a fast food restaurant, each completed VDU activates another in the vicinity, the puzzles themselves ranging from something a four-year-old could figure out to a quandary that'll positively bend your brain.
Without giving anything away, you’ll come to use your environment, the light, the shade, some abstract thinking and general inward screaming until you solve your way through each section. The revelatory answers that specific regions employ and the subsequent fine-tuning of that process for individual puzzles provide The Witness with what can only be described as a succession of eureka moments.
Jonathan Blow has urged players not to use online guides, as solving these conundrums is basically what The Witness is all about. Imagine Portal spliced with The Talos Principle set inside a reboot of The Crystal Maze. It’s a game of puzzles within puzzles, the pure joy coming from that moment when the most seemingly obtuse, abstract jumble of lines and shapes transforms into a forehead-slapping answer that lifts you to the next level.
The Witness pulls off this feat again and again, the mental dexterity it demands is rewarded when you activate the laser turret that punctuates each section. It’s a simple reward, shorn of meaning until the end and only a small part of the overall answer, but it feels so richly deserved that not only did The Skinny punch the air with each activation but with one particularly devious set, we let out an involuntary, piercing yelp at an ungodly hour.
This is perhaps the pure gaming joy of The Witness. We could certainly make a case for it being an example of ‘game as art’ – whatever that means – and there’s probably some mileage in pronouncing this as a stellar example of where a traditional game meets a highly-contested ‘notgame’. Yet that all seems futile in describing the complex nature and simple execution we have here.
The Witness is at once beautiful, intricate and alluring whilst being obtuse, unsympathetic and draining. It’s not for everyone and few will see all it has to offer. It can punish as much as it rewards. Yet there is little else like it in the field of games, or indeed anywhere else, and whilst these small blemishes may prevent The Witness from being an outright classic, it remains a peerless example of videogame form.