'The Witness': Puzzles Are Teachers, Puzzles Are Bullies

The Witness is the most pleasant and educational descent/ascent into madness you’ll ever experience.

The Witness

Publisher: Thekla Inc.
Rated: Everyone
Players: 1
Price: $40.00
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Developer: Thekla Inc.
Release Date: 2016-01-26

A good puzzle is a teacher. It gives us a crash course in critical thinking, lessons in analysis, interpretation, and experimentation all wrapped up in a package that emphasizes entertainment. A good puzzle is also a bully. It forces us to confront the limits of our knowledge, to admit our ignorance, and then sits in mocking silence as we fail and flail about trying to find an answer. A good puzzle is equal parts affirming and insulting. A good puzzle breaks us down only to build us up into something better, smarter.

The Witness accomplishes this handily with smart level design and puzzle design, but what lifts this puzzle game above its peers is that strives for more than just teaching. It also wants you to want to be taught, and it wants you to recognize that the thinking you apply towards its puzzles can also be applied to the world outside the game. The Witness still wants to teach you, but it doesn't just want to teach you puzzles. It's a paean to critical thinking in all its forms.

It starts off easily enough with some simple mazes to establish the fact that all of its puzzles involve you drawing lines on grids. However, once outside that starting area, the game immediately jumps over your head, guiding you towards a grid with black and white squares and dots on your path. It's not obvious what you have to do, and you'll have to leave it behind. The solution is actually nearby: two separate series of grid puzzles that each introduce you to a concept necessary to solve the earlier puzzle. They begin as tiny 2x1 rectangles, puzzles so small you can draw a random line and get them right, but the size of the puzzles steadily increases from there. This gentle ramp up in complexity teaches you what the symbols mean, not through explicit instruction, but by allowing you to experiment in small controlled areas.

Naturally, you'll head right back to that first door, and suddenly it will all make sense. Now you're speaking the game's language.

This moment of revelation happens over and over again throughout The Witness. There are 11 distinct areas on the island, each with its own variation of the grid puzzle, and you're free to do them in any order. The catch is that you'll likely encounter many more unknown symbols, more rules that you can't possibly know, and you'll have to walk away. But you can walk away feeling confident that a tutorial is out there.

This is the contract that The Witness makes with you. It might make you feel like a fool when you bang up against an idea that you just don't get, but it doesn't want you to stay foolish. It wants to teach you, and it will teach you. However, it also wants you to realize that you need to be taught to face your limits and confess your inadequacy and admit defeat. Because only then, only by walking away from a puzzle, will we free ourselves to find the tutorial.

It's an unconventional and bold gameplay loop. There's no consistent progression, since you can wander for an hour before finding a puzzle that you can solve, and the rewards are abstract at best, just an increased understanding of the world. This would make for a slow game, but thankfully, the world itself is so beautiful and strange that even absentminded wandering remains engaging. Each area has a distinct style to match its distinct puzzles, and the game uses color and architecture to draw your eyes to important paths. This clever level design evokes a strange sensation of feeling lost and guided at the same time, much like the puzzle design itself. The Witness is nothing if not consistent.

Throughout the world you’ll find many audio logs, but these are not like traditional game audio logs that record backstory or dialogue. These logs are all quotes by various philosophers and scientists, speaking about religion, zen, politics, and more. Taken on their own they can feel out-of-place and pompous, especially the long ones, but taken as a whole they begin to form the outlines of a story, such as it is. The Witness is less a narrative and more of a discourse on learning communicated through the very process of learning. The common thread through all the logs is an admiration of learning and critical thinking, the logic of puzzle-solving applied to life and what that kind of life would look like. Listening to these, it becomes clear that The Witness has greater ambitions than just being a fun puzzle game.

Exploration isn’t just good for hunting philosophical collectibles. The environment plays a surprisingly large role in many of the puzzles. You’re still always drawing lines, you’re always interacting with the world in this same simple way, but the context around that simple interaction changes in such wonderful and unexpected ways that it never gets boring. As such, the more that you play, the more that you come to realize the importance of the world around you, and the more that you start to seek clues from it. You’ll start to feel like a paranoid genius, seeing patterns everywhere. It’s the most pleasant descent into madness you’ll ever experience.

The downside to this variety is that you'll inevitably find some puzzles not to your liking (damn the Bamboo Forest to hell!), but you'll also likely find many puzzles that make you smile (the Shady Trees!). It’s an acceptable tradeoff.

What’s less acceptable are the puzzles that feel like they betray the lessons that the rest of the game hammers home so well. Sometimes if you draw the incorrect solution on a grid, it will shut down and lock you out from drawing within it. To reactivate the grid, you have to resolve the previous puzzle. The idea is that this prevents you from solving a puzzle with brute force, but The Witness already discourages that through its puzzle design. The solution doesn’t matter as much as your understanding of the solution. If you don’t get why a certain solution works, that means that you don’t understand how this puzzle works, and you certainly won’t understand how the next puzzle works.

The way lessons build upon each other naturally deters cheating, so this “anti-cheat” measure does nothing but punish experimentation -- which is exactly the opposite of what the rest of the game encourages. These puzzles are infrequent, thankfully, but they’re just common enough to be a nuisance, and they always ruin your fun when you’re on a puzzle-solving roll.

I was all set to finish this review and give the game a 9 as a masterpiece hurt by some puzzles that betray your trust, but then I discovered the game's larger secret: an entire other puzzle game hidden right under my nose. It's a similar kind of drawing game that stays within all the established rules, but it also blows away your concept of what was possible within those rules. It’s a joyous reward of trust and observation that more than makes up for the resetting puzzles.

More importantly, it’s a brilliant merging of theme and gameplay -- a revelation that drives home the lessons that the game has been trying to teach us all these hours. We have to purge ourselves of the notion that we are done learning, that we actually understand how the world works, because we don't. The learning never ends. The grids were only the beginning. Every solution was really just a piece of a bigger puzzle, and all of them were a tutorial for something larger. The puzzles never end, they only grow more complicated, but we've been preparing for this.

The Witness hasn’t just taught us mechanics, it’s taught us critical thinking, and with these skills, no puzzle is unsolvable. With this knowledge, we can change the world.

Puzzles can change the world.

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