The Witness is incredible. It drops you directly into its world, never stopping to teach you, and leaving you to work out its various puzzles' rules for yourself. The best thing is - thanks to its intelligent, incremental increases in difficulty and smart visual feedback – you slowly become able to solve things that initially felt impossible, and it feels amazing.
One step at a time
The Witness starts with you looking at a light. By holding up on your controller, you begin to walk toward the light at the end of the tunnel, which is when you realize that - from the moment the game loaded – you have been playing.
Reaching the end of the corridor you find your first puzzle. An incredibly easy task that has you place the tiny dot you use to interact with the world on the start point and drag the glowing line it creates to the end.
Yes, it’s simple, but even this establishes some important facts that hold true for the whole game: how you interact, where puzzles start, and where they end.
This is followed by a similar task that further builds on the underlying principles, guiding your glowing line around a grid. Again, not hard, but it teaches you the basic form of every puzzle that follows while also demonstrating that you cannot double back or cross the line.
So it goes on. From the first moment you are learning, and as you pass from one area of the open-world to another, new rules are discovered and layered into the same grid based puzzles - all without any need for explicit explanation. Once you know the solutions it’s possible to breeze through the game in a few hours – only completing a handful of critical grids – but the fun is in the challenge of discovery.
And yes, I know am being vague, but only because I don’t want to spoil one second of it for you. Plus, it is only by working out the rules yourself - and integrate them into your mental tool box - that you can effectively apply them in future solutions.
Everything you find out about The Witness's puzzles outside the game, detracts from the satisfaction of working them out for yourself.
This is something you really want to avoid because - at its best - The Witness occupies your thoughts even when you aren’t playing: trying to figure out the rules to a puzzle, the solution to it, or the environmental cues around it that may form part of the answer.
It has you lying awake at night, thinking, then getting out of bed at three in the morning after a sudden flash of inspiration. Which is amazing if you are right, but not so much so if you are wrong.
And it is a holistic experience, with puzzles drawing on anything and everything around you. You may need to make use color, light, shadow, shape, spatial awareness, and sound from the environment… or everything you need may be on the grid in front of you.
You can never be sure where the answer lies. This means that walking through the game’s stunningly stylized island in first-person - in all of its bold watercolor splendor - you must always be paying attention. Maybe you missed something in the emerald greens of the bamboo forest, or in the reflection of the sea when on the beach.
The result is that, along with taking in the beauty of the tightly designed world as you smoothly transition from one environment to the next, you must be constantly aware.
A holistic, absorbing experience
The Witness takes over your mind and does not release it until you are done. You may find that your end point is finishing the story at around the 300 puzzle mark, when you solve all 700 the conundrums that the game has to offer, or just when you get so stuck that your frustration pushes you away. But, for as long as it holds you, its grip is unrelenting.