Even if you consider yourself intelligent, you have likely been struck by the next-level intellect of some people in the world. There are famous examples - Einstein, Oppenheimer, Clarke - but looking around the tech and science industries, its hard not to feel that the world is full of intellectuals possessing mental faculties beyond our comprehension. Within the gaming industry, these kinds of thinkers include John Carmack, Mark Cerny – and within recent years, indie developer Jonathan Blow.
Blow’s latest title, The Witness, is clear evidence of his genius. Though at first sight the game may appear like an average puzzle game, the deeper you dive, the more it seems like a higher intelligence had a hand in its creation. However, the truly remarkable feat of The Witness isn’t in how smart it makes Blow look, but in how playing it brings you to understand this higher plane of thinking, and even to feel like you might have the capacity to think on a similar level.
The Witness is an exploration puzzle game set upon a mysterious island, which itself is not an original premise. Nor is the fact that completing puzzles unlocks aspects of the mystery. However, despite how cliched the overarching premise maybe, what is wholly original are the 600 or so puzzles, and the tone with which the mystery is delivered.
At its simplest, The Witness presents its puzzles as grids in which you must create a line from a start point to an end point along a predetermined path. It's not easy to communicate this idea through the written word, but it's very easy to understand in-game – at least initially. As you explore the island, the basic formula stays the same, with each puzzle presented through gridded screens. However, each area expands the puzzle system in different and mind-bending ways. For example, one early concept introduces black and white squares onto the grid, which you quickly understand must be separated by your line.
The introduction of each idea is communicated through a series of increasingly difficult, side by side terminals, which introduce a principle and escalate the complexity of its implementation until you are well-acquainted with its underlying rules and conventions. These tutorial terminals follow into an area in which the new element is explored in increasingly complex ways.
Be prepared to get frustrated, for the puzzles were designed by a savant, apparently designed specifically to push your mind to its limits and challenge it to think in new ways. As long as you understand the underlying principles, the solution is always just a matter of persistence and perspective. Given time and focus, you can almost feel your mind clicking into a higher gear and deducing new, sophisticated ways to look at these problems.
There are exceptions, however, as frustration occasionally arises from simply having missed a tutorial section. Almost the entire island is open for exploration from the outset, which means you can easily miss a tutorial and encounter puzzle mechanics completely foreign to you. Some areas lack tutorial areas entirely; the challenge is discovering what the concept is and what its rules are. These factors can make you second-guess why you’re having trouble solving a puzzle. Though the open world gives a sense of freedom, perhaps a more linear approach would remove some of this uncertainty. As is, you're often unsure if the challenge is intentional or due to missing information.
However, when you are in the zone and starting to click with a puzzle type, The Witness is an experience like no other puzzle game. It feels like you are being invited into a secret society for geniuses – and having solved such incredibly complicated puzzles, you feel like you’ve earned it.
The narrative adds to this sensation, with many allusions to and outright demonstrations of high-concept philosophy and psychology. Without spoiling anything, the game's narrative has an academic tone that challenges you to think about broader notions of humanity and science. The way these ideas combine with the puzzles is fascinating; listening to the various monologues, I felt like the puzzles had opened up my mind, allowing me to consider things in ways that I previously would not have.
On top of these narrative and gameplay successes sits the beautiful majesty of the island. The art style, environmental design, and architecture combine in some truly sublime ways – so much so that if you ignored the puzzles and simply explored the island, you would still be guaranteed a good time sightseeing. On top of the gorgeous views are the narrative touches built into the world, with many sights and sounds subtly or blatantly hinting at the island's history and secrets.
The Witness is not an easy game. In fact, it numbers among the more challenging games I’ve ever played. However, the flipside is that it's also among the more rewarding gaming experiences I have had. I truly believe that this game made me smarter. Whether that is a placebo effect or not is going to require some research, but regardless, the sensation itself is worth the effort.