One of the things I love about some of the best video games is the fact that they can give your brain things to chew on. In a well-designed game you can encounter puzzles, goals and boss levels that you may not always conquer or figure out in your first attempt. But with a little time and thought—oftentimes when you're off doing something totally unrelated—your ever-ticking mind clicks a possible solution into place.
The Witness is the pinnacle of that kind of think-and-learn gameplay.
Gamers find themselves plopped down on a mysterious and incredibly colorful island in the middle of some uncharted stretch of sea. It's a large isle composed of a variety of different and seemingly incompatible environments—from brightly hued forests to beachfront coves to stretches of desert dunes to snow-covered peaks. And scattered throughout these contrasting biomes are hundreds and hundreds of puzzles: square panel mazes solved only by drawing a line from a start point to an end point.
Who created these many brain teasers and the other buildings, statues and mechanisms on the island is unknown to you. But each puzzle panel opens the way to other more challenging mazes. And in some cases your clicks open gates and doors, move platforms into place or flip on the power to keep you moving and discovering.
No Instructions for You!
Now if you're wondering, "Is that it? It's that easy?", the answer is "yes" and "no, not even close." Yes, your main activity is to keep exploring the world and figuring out the new puzzle or set of puzzles before you. But trust me, easy is not a word that even vaguely applies. In fact, for some this is a game that might well keep them playing for the rest of their lives.
Or make them chuck the whole thing in frustration.
There are no written rules posted or any words of instruction given. The initial mazes may be simple enough, but they're really only easing you into the concept of play before expanding the idea in ever more complex ways.
After a fashion, new colors, shapes and symbols appear on the panels, each communicating the next path-finding clue or rule you'll need to take into account. And you only pick up those adjustments and hints through your own intuition, logic or experimentation. It's sorta like learning a whole new language by simply hearing people around you talk. Only in this case it's an unspoken language of patterns and perspectives. And the surrounding environment can play into that learning process, too—from the shape of trees in a forest to drawings found on a nearby table to the position of the sun in the sky.
More to Think About Than You Thought
You finally start to realize that each of the island's puzzle areas and buildings aren't as isolated as they seem. The island itself is a puzzle of sorts, a maze that's designed to be connected and unlocked. And it's an open world that can be explored as you see fit, one area offering unexpected insight into another's puzzles that you may have just walked away from.
One other interesting aspect of The Witness is its inclusion of audiotapes that can be found scattered around the island. Small, tucked-away recorders play back quotes from real-world philosophers, writers, physicists and explorers. They're witnesses of life, if you will, who muse on the nature of knowledge, philosophy and religion.
A 1944 quote from British writer Hugh Kingsmill, for instance, ruminates on the "divine in man" and mankind's struggle to externalize "the kingdom of heaven" in some temporal form. Not that all the quotes are so heaven-focused, of course. American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman ponders a poet's statement that the whole universe may be found "in a glass of wine."
Through those kinds of reflect-and-mull-over additions, you begin to realize that this isn't just a game that challenges players to think their way through tough brain teasers. It not just about patterns, logic and line paths. The gamemakers are asking players to think about ... thinking.
And that's something you don't regularly encounter when you pick up a game controller.