Creating Complexity From Simplicity


The most memorable puzzle games take root in your mind and keep you thinking. From imagining blue and orange portals around your office to seeing tetrominoes as you try to sleep, playing around with fun puzzle concepts doesn’t always stop when you put down the controller. Like the genre greats, The Witness has the same ability to infiltrate your perception and draw you in. The core mechanic is deviously simple, but it paves the way for brain-bending puzzles and cascading “a-ha” moments that are among the best games can offer.

As the lone person on an island full of ruins and mysterious devices, your basic goal is drawing lines. The gorgeous open world serves primarily as a delivery method for hundreds of monitors displaying grids, and you need to trace paths from the designated starting points to the ending points. Of course, you can’t just scribble anything; your line’s exact path is important, and is the basis for an unbelievable amount of diversity and creativity within this straightforward structure. Symbols on the grid require you to outline particular shapes. Physical objects obscure your view. Your surroundings might provide necessary clues. The grid and symbols communicate information clearly, and the satisfaction that comes from identifying the trick and then arriving at the right solution is immense and frequent.

Because figuring out the requirements and their obstacles is part of the fun, I won’t spoil much about the forms the puzzles take – but put aside any concerns that they might feel too similar. Developer Jonathan Blow and the team at Thekla have created an astonishing variety of elegant and polished problems incorporating elements like colors, shadows, and spatial manipulation. Each new twist and surprise left me impressed, and I only got more absorbed as I uncovered more. Fans of Blow’s previous game, Braid, might be surprised to find some notable similarities in The Witness. The format is different, but it relies on the same principle of gradually building a vocabulary, and then challenging what players think they know about how the pieces function and interact with each other. It doesn’t repeat the same idea over and over; most puzzles are organized into groups that feature variations on a theme, but each one in the sequence adds a new layer to constantly push your thinking in different directions. This approach is perfect, since it allows players to experience a bunch of smaller victories as they progress toward clearing an entire zone.

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When you do reach the final puzzles in a sequence, don’t expect an easy win and a pat on the back. One of my favorite parts of The Witness is its refusal to treat players like idiots. The only hand-holding that happens is the gradual progression from the “teaching puzzles” to the more complex and full-blown applications of the concepts. You don’t have a magic hint button to nudge you in the right direction, so if you hit a tough puzzle, you’re on your own. 
You may need to draw things on paper, play with cut-out shapes, or take some notes. By the end of my playthrough, the array of dots, lines, grids, and other doodles on my desk made me look like a crazed conspiracy theorist. I relished the opportunity to work for the solutions, because the effort makes victory that much sweeter. If I encountered a puzzle that was too hard or complicated, I just walked away and returned to it later. You can move between the zones freely, and you don’t need to clear all of them to reach the end-game puzzles, so you can almost always make progress somewhere.

If you jump between areas, you don’t need to worry about jumbling the plot. The Witness isn’t a story-forward title, though the state of the island poses some implicit questions. These aren’t addressed during a normal playthrough, which is my only major complaint. The air of mystery invites speculation, but the world is practically barren on the narrative front. Why are you on the island? Who set up all the monitors? Why is everything in ruins? Puzzle games don’t need an involved plot, but The Witness’ atmosphere plants the seeds of a story that doesn’t grow. You can find some answers in certain voice recordings, but they are few and well-hidden – facts that make the ending particularly strange and anticlimactic.

The opaque world might be disappointing for some players, but The Witness is about a different kind of discovery. It steers your mind in unconventional directions, and makes you feel clever as you build on your knowledge and uncover new layers about the game’s language and logic. Even when I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about puzzles that had me stumped. Some puzzles are tough, but all of them are fair, and the fun of solving them is only topped by seeing what awaits you on the next series of monitors.

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