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The Witness (PC) review: Uncovering an island's secrets, one line at a time

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 26, 2016
It took eight years for Jonathan Blow to create his follow-up to Braid. It was worth it. We're obsessed.

But that’s all set-dressing. It’s a motivation, and certainly an important part of the game, but it’s not what makes The Witness so compelling.

The Witness is a stunning example of focused game design. Most games sprawl, try to fit as many mechanics in as possible to fill out the back-of-the-box bullet points. “It’s a shooter? Well what if it’s an RPG shooter with some light inventory management and maybe a branching dialogue system?”

Which is not to say games can’t be good with a lot of different mechanics to master. I merely use it as a counterpoint. In The Witness, you have one means of interacting with the world. One. You click, you draw a line, you end the line.

The Witness

And yet as new rules are introduced, something as simple as “draw a line” becomes a hellish endeavor. I’ve never been more aware of how many possibilities are afforded by a five-by-five grid than while playing The Witness. You’d think you could brute force something this mechanically simple, and given enough tenacity you can, but it’s not a great course of action if you value your time and sanity.

Instead you leave. You draw shapes on graph paper. You eat dinner. You sleep on it. You come back and...there it is. The solution, so obvious in retrospect. Or maybe you still don’t get it, so you wander off to a different part of the game. It’s encouraged. There’s a lot to explore, and The Witness doesn’t care what order you explore in.

Later you’ll—

Ah, well, there we go with spoilers again. Suffice it to say, it’s a lot harder than you think and discovering why it’s so hard is in large part what makes The Witness great.

Bottom line

The Witness has taken hold of my brain, both waking and sleeping. If I’m awake, I’m playing. If I’m not playing (for whatever reason) I’m inking possible solutions into a pad of graph paper. Writing this review I’ve solved two more puzzles and I think have a lead on a third. It’s compulsive. When I’m done and this is all filed away, I’ll go right back to playing.

And asleep? I dream about The Witness. I’m not joking—it happened last night and I’m still feeling a bit weird about it. Grid lines do not make for a pleasant night’s sleep.

It’s a brilliant puzzle game, and one I suspect still holds plenty of secrets, even after twenty hours and seeing an “ending.” There are gates I still haven’t managed to unlock, paths I haven’t found the entrance to yet, theories I still need to test. Everything looks like a hint. Everything looks like a red herring. I love it.


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