Life has often been compared to solving a maze. We carry on, living our lives, doing things, and when we hit a wall, we change course and try another avenue, hoping this new path leads us to our goals, whatever they may be. Mazes are the perfect allegory for existence, and for this reason, Jonathan Blow’s (Braid) The Witness serves as a solid example of life viewed from a different perspective, all the while giving you a fun gaming experience. Pretty heady stuff for an Indie game that’s been on the PS4 since January and has just come to the Xbox One.
The Witness is less a game and more of an experience. The player takes control of a nameless protagonist who finds themselves on an island. There is no story, no reasoning, and no defined goals. Players just awaken and go. Scattered across the island are puzzle screens, mostly made up of mazes that need to be solved. Doing so powers additional puzzle screens, or unlocks doors, or brings machinery to life, each pushing the player forward to a central goal to get to a mountain at the center of the island.
The Witness is open world, in as much as most of the game’s 11 unique regions (desert, forest, beach, plains, etc.) can be accessed at will, but the level of the 650 different maze puzzles may prevent the player from solving them out of order. Knowledge is achieved by playing, and while on the surface, this seems like a simple “solve this, go here” type of game, the beauty of The Witness starts to shine through very early. Players have to start paying attention to the environment around them for clues on how to solve the mazes. Mazes are even hidden in the world itself, using the sun in some pretty unique ways. In fact, here’s a tip: if you see a perfect circle anywhere on the island, it’s probably a puzzle to be solved. And if the circle isn’t perfect, change your perspective until it is — and then solve it.
Each island region in The Witness has a yellow crate that is tied to a series of puzzles. Complete the series and the crate opens and a laser turret fires a beam on light at the mountain at the center of the island. Once enough of the beams have been turned on, the player can then make it to the mountain and solve the final puzzles — and the game.
The island itself is just absolutely gorgeous, and the colors pop off the screen in 1080p. The different zones represent different climates and terrain, and the segue to those different regions is very natural. Green, leafy trees give way to rocky cliffs overlooking a vast blue ocean, which leads to an arid desert where the sun seems to burn brighter, only for that to lead into a grotto of fall-like trees, with orange leaves that sway in the breeze, and bare limbs that cast erratic shadows on the ground below.
The Witness adds life-like stone statues of humans, doing random things throughout the island. There are fighters, and thinkers, and even a guitar player, all edified in stone, as if Vesuvius erupted, marking their final positions in life. These statues are a little creepy when first encountered, and the how and why of their inclusion is all part of the greater mystery. There are man-made structures all over the island, each with its own set of puzzles to solve, and the mazes take on a new meaning when solving one way turns on machinery, opening up new paths, but solving it the other way may have different consequences, so even how and in what order mazes are solved become, themselves, a puzzle. Mind, blown.
The sound effects and very limited music (there are also audio recordings to be found scattered throughout the island) help make The Witness a solitary, quiet experience. The only real sounds are that of nature, and your footfalls. It’s the perfect respite from a crazy, intense online shooter like Destiny or Call of Duty. In fact, I’ve taken to playing The Witness an hour or so before I go to bed each night to help me wind down. I’ve never slept better.
The Witness is a unique gaming experience that challenges and rewards players, and inherently forces them to keep moving forward. With 650 different mazes, solving one immediately points to the next, and that sense of exploration is intrinsically tied to each maze screen, so solving them moves the player and the game forward.
It’s a game unlike any other that I’ve played, and one that resonates with me long after my Xbox One has been powered down. Booting it up feels comfortable, like visiting an old friend, and after many hours of solving puzzles and exploring, I’ve only been frustrated once (I explored a little too far and was boxing outside my weight class on those mazes). If life is a series of mazes to be solved, The Witness is a perfect reflection of the human life cycle, and it is executed to near perfection, unlike life itself, which is the only true indicator that this is a game, and only a game.
The Witness is now available for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This review is based off a Xbox One review code provided by the publisher.
TheHDRoom may be paid a small commission for any services or products ordered through select links on this page.