Game Review – The Witness

Scott McMullon
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While the game initially garnered a lot of attention for its ‘steep’ purchase price, The Witness has proven itself to be a rare piece of artwork in an industry obsessed with mass appeal and entertainment. This digital-only release proves the power of simplicity and beauty over heavy action, as Jonathan Blow’s passion project delivers on its promise to provide hours of entertainment to players.

The premise of The Witness is so light that it is practically non-existent. The player is dropped into an island alone with no idea of where they are and directed to activate unique maze puzzles. The player then moves out more into the world and forced to solve increasingly difficult puzzles to try and move towards the games conclusion.

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The gameplay in The Witness is something of an oxymoron by being both distinctly simple and yet also deeply complex. On the face of it every maze follows the same premise: the player needs to draw a line from a starting point to an end point.

However, the game has something of a steep difficulty curve as the game introduces new concepts and rules that change the way you play each maze. The additions are often big head-scratchers and it can push you to your breaking point, which forces the player to break away and do something else. Thankfully, The Witness encourages that with its beautiful, expansive open world and gorgeous, stylised design.

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The beauty and design of the game world is something that really helps with immersion. In an environment that is very light on narrative it is the attention to detail which really helps to tell a story. Beyond the puzzles themselves these details provide clues of the world around you at their most intricate, and also provide instances where they help provide solutions to the mazes.

It helps take away the traditional view of puzzle games as top-down, requiring a lot of focus. It actually rewards the player for taking time out to go away and think about things to help them figure out the best way to progress. This combines well with the lack of musical score to create a sense of isolation and being dropped into a world that doesn’t immediately make sense.

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If there is one critique that I have, it’s the steep difficulty curve. It isn’t that it’s so hard that people will walk away from their controllers (quite the opposite). My worry is that people will want to play and will immediately jump to online guides to get their solutions.

One of the major themes at work here is the thrill of discovery and the rush of finally figuring out a difficult maze by learning how to play it. As such, the drive to go online for hints can mean that players rob themselves of that thrill unless they are possessed of a unique sense of self-control not every gamer may have. But that’s a problem with potential players, and not the game itself.

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One area where this game succeeds is in its sense of scale. This feels like a world you can get lost in if you don’t know where you’re going. Then, as you become more proficient, it feels familiar and easy. It is this overall feeling of overcoming adversity which becomes a main focus for the whole of The Witness, as the player solves more and more puzzles and explores more of the mysterious island.

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The Witness is not like most games you see on the market. It is light on narrative and action, and yet still feels like a complete game because of its gameplay, difficulty curve and drop dead gorgeous world. It is a rare example of a title moving away from traditional entertainment to become almost a piece of art. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is definitely a game that will push people to their limits and reward them with continued perseverance.

The Witness is out now!

About Scott McMullon

Lover of literature, film and music living in Essex (no jokes please!). 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars' - Oscar Wilde