I think I may have been living under a rock. That is the only explanation that I can come up with for being alarmingly unaware that Jonathan Blow was releasing a new game.
For those in ‘the know’ and more specifically, The Blow Know, the last game to be mind-spewed by Jonathan’s studio Number None Inc. was 2008’s Braid, which was released to critical acclaim and currently boasts a well-deserved 90/100 on Metacritic. Braid’s fractured storytelling gave as much as the player was willing to find and the design of the game was, for its time, gorgeous. Coupled with solid platforming and some of the best puzzles gaming has to offer, Jonathan Blow broke brains beautifully with Braid (alliteration fully intended)
To be fair, it is sheer ignorance on my part that has kept me squandering under this rock and hidden away from any Witness related news over the last few years. But I am stoked that I finally clawed my way out of the darkness and into the light because hot damn, I don’t think I’ve hated a game this much, for all the right reasons in a long, long time.
Quick disclaimer, it will be difficult to write this review. The Witness is one of those games that really has to be experienced on a personal level. 2 players who start the game at the same time, will likely have vastly different experiences; and what they take away from the game will be based on how much they chose to explore and solve within the game’s beautifully designed world.
Let’s get real with graphics for a minute, and more specifically, let’s get real with colour palettes. Like a bad disease, the ‘modern’, ‘realistic’ browns and greys have spread from game to game, so much so that for the past several years, the first person genre in particular has become boring to look at. Colourless, lifeless. Dev’s add lens flares and lighting techniques to ‘wow’ us and yet, only manage to shine light on the drab environments even more. The floors are brown, the walls are brown, pretty much everything is brown, or grey. This lack of colour variation adds up to incredibly detailed and technically ground breaking games (at times) that somehow manage to look boring! Enter, The Witness.
While the Witness is not pushing any technical boundaries. It is strikingly beautiful to look at. Primarily due to its use of colour. Bursts of perfect purples, popping pinks, grassy greens and blissful blue’s bring a joyous life to an otherwise lifeless island. The burnt wood browns, youthful yellows and oaky oranges bring the lighter colours back down to earth and help give sections of the landscape a warm, homey feel . Exploring the witness is like walking around a children’s nursery rhyme, which is important, because you will need a reason to smile when you are throwing the controller through the screen.
Sound is important. Not just in games but in everyday life. Sound is SO important to humans that the longest a single person has been able to stay inside ‘The world’s quietest room’ was around 45 minutes. (read up on the anechoic chamber for more) Inside the room, you are alone, in the darkness, and in the quiet. The room is so quiet that you can hear your internal organs at work. What causes people to go ‘mad’ inside these rooms? I can only assume it is the overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. The sense of that sheer, crushing, emptiness that exists all around you. Creepy. The witness plays on these feelings of isolation and loneliness by being an eerily quiet experience. And while the game won’t drive you insane within 45 minutes through lack of noise (it will drive you insane for other reasons though) it will leave you feeling isolated, and alone, as you wander back and forth across the beautiful landscape, aimlessly at times, searching for a way out. A reason as to why you are here. It does this through a gorgeous in game soundtrack that barely exists in the first place; music is (ingeniously) forfeit in place of the ambient, background sounds of a man alone on an island completely devoid of life. It really is a case of less is more in The Witness. I just never thought that so little could emote so much.
Let’s address the big grey elephant in the crushingly quiet room. The Witness is, primarily, a puzzle game. You may have the opinion by now that I dislike this game. That couldn’t be further from the truth, The Witness is amazing. I just hate feeling stupid. And at times, The Witness makes me feel truly, deeply, stupid. There are points in this game that you will stare at the screen for hours. Singular puzzles will stay fixed within your gaze for so long that they will become burned into your retinas and you will dream of nothing but grids and lines. Then, you will wake refreshed, and completely and inexplicably solve the puzzle within 30 seconds of looking at it.
This is when you will likely suspect that you may in fact have brain damage, throw your controller at the screen and call your parents to abuse them for dropping you on your head during that one family vacation to Hamilton Island when you were 8 months old. That is the beauty of the witness and its beast, all in one. The puzzle you spent hours staring at last night, figuring out over and over in your head. The puzzle that you scribbled on the pad beside you 73 times. Will suddenly become SO obvious, so… infuriatingly obvious. That it’s as if Jonathan Blow is laughing at you.
“What?!” He will cackle. “You got stuck on THIS?!”
Within the first few minutes of entering the world of The Witness, players will be faced with a puzzle that they simply CANNOT complete. You see, the witness will gradually, drip by drip, give players small pieces of information, relating to the mechanics behind a range of puzzle problems, which means that it is very possible the puzzle you have been staring at for the past 2 hours, simply cannot be completed, YET. Or, it is equally as likely, that you just aren’t looking at it the right way. Doing this adds a level of progression to the game that keeps the monotony of constant puzzle solving, bearable, enjoyable and challenging. All of this puzzle skill progression would not be possible without the ‘metroidvania’ style environment surrounding The Witness.
I said it earlier in the review, but you will get as much out of the witness as you are willing to find. And without spoiling anything, I encourage you to explore everything. Do every puzzle. Complete every achievement. Not just because The Witness is a brilliantly, beautifully crafted puzzle game, the likes of which we haven’t been blessed with in a long while. But because if you don’t, then Jonathan Blow just called you stupid. And you let him, without saying a damn word back.