Though it seems initially that there isn’t any actual objective to the game, other than randomly wandering around and solving puzzles, it does, in fact, all come together in the end. The island is split into loosely defined biomes – desert ruins, bamboo forest, tree houses, town, quarry, hedge maze, etc. – that bleed one into another as you travel between them. Each area has its own series of puzzles, connected by wires leading you from one mounted panel to the next; solve the first one to power up the second, then the third, and so on, culminating at a large yellow block that is the objective of that area. Powering up this last panel will cause a laser beam to be aimed toward the island’s mountain peak. Once enough lasers are activated – seven are needed, though there are a total of eleven – you can actually scale the mountain and enter it, where you’ll encounter the final puzzle area leading to the end.
Whereas the shortest path from beginning to end will probably take somewhere between 20 and 30 hours, there is a lot of incentive to keep playing. After activating the required seven lasers, I refused to proceed to the mountain for a long time yet. Instead, I wanted to fully explore – and solve – each of the other areas on the island. There are abundant bonuses to discover as well, many just for the fun of finding them. There are mysterious locked bunkers around the island containing clues that connect in a certain way. Puzzle mode can be activated at any time while traversing the island, and the environment itself hides countless puzzle opportunities related to black stone obelisks located in each island area. Audio logs can be found in cleverly tucked-away niches and crevices. Some Easter eggs are simply visual illusions that create a whole new image when lining up objects from different areas of the environment from a certain perspective.
If the puzzles offer the challenge and sense of accomplishment in The Witness, the visual presentation offers the sense of awe that makes up the second half of the equation. Full disclosure: my initial impressions upon emerging from the game’s opening tunnel into its first outdoor area were that it looked like it was built in Minecraft. This wasn’t due to the graphical fidelity, but more because the island really seems like a giant Lego experiment that was abandoned midway through: buildings stand dispersed without rhyme or reason amid trees, mountains, rivers, and deserts, all combining to form a microcosm of the island. But once past those early impressions, I found it impossible not to be totally enthralled as I travelled around; my imagination continuously came up with a million-and-a-half scenarios as to what might have happened here, and I was always thirsty to find more, see more. Here, a statue of a Siren carved into a needle of rock protruding from the ocean; there, a horticultural lab, still operational.
While not photorealistic, the colors are among the most lush and vibrant I’ve seen in a game in recent memory. Crystal blues of ocean water and deep sky, soft greens and reds in different shades of forests add to the sense of serenity while playing. The look represents an interesting mix between minimalist and lush, somehow designed for quiet zen yet richly satisfying.
With everything The Witness does well, it never really hit its stride when it comes to a satisfying narrative. There isn’t any conflict, no difficulties to overcome or overarching story to bring to a conclusion. In fact, the ending provided as much insight and closure as the beginning provided a set-up, which is to say none. The only real story was the one spurred in my imagination as I observed the various research stations and statues of people on the mountaintop, clearly engaged in some important event. But answers and closure remained elusive throughout.
For some, maybe the collectible audio logs, most of them narrated passages from works by the likes of Buhhda and Skinner, will provide some form of insight. I wanted to understand the developer’s purpose in including them, but in the end I must concede that I found these philosophical ramblings to be wholly inconclusive and even pretentious. I love a good story, and I am okay with being kept somewhat in the dark instead of spoon-fed every morsel of exposition, but The Witness is overly light on its narrative, perhaps trying too hard to seem nebulous and artistic. Thankfully, its spellbinding setting and gameplay kept me more than motivated to keep playing.
In the end, The Witness is a strange animal. What it does best it does extremely well – there is a lot to discover beyond what’s needed to proceed to the endgame, and completionists will have a field day searching every single nook and cranny for hidden puzzle paths. The challenge its line puzzles impose will be extreme for some, but through perseverance and thoroughness, every puzzle is solvable, and you don’t need to solve them all. But this game will not appeal to those who need clear motivation and a coherent story to follow. In fact, the game so steadfastly refuses to offer helpful instructions that it will likely discourage some players from finishing. I have to imagine this is exactly how Jonathan Blow intended the experience to be, and indeed there’s nothing else quite like it available. Players, however, should only consider heading into this beautiful but virtually narrative-free island puzzle world with eyes open wide, knowing exactly what to expect.