Jonathan Blow’s 2016 puzzle-adventure, The Witness was once the critical darling of its day: making year end lists and reigniting the discussion of games as art. Now it resides in a cellphone-port retirement home. But, I’m here to tell you that 2023 is the perfect time to dive into this wonderful world of puzzling mystery.
Discovering Jonathan Blow’s The Witness
Recently I stumbled upon a documentary from the excellent YouTube Channel NoClip. It detailed the creation of The Witness with Jonathan Blow describing the crucial choices he made that led to such an acclaimed gaming experience. Hearing his enthusiasm and authentic joy describing the pursuit of his vision finally motivated me to take a stab at this famously cryptic game.
I wasn’t disappointed. From the very beginning, I felt a refreshing sense of freedom and relaxation that I haven’t experienced in gaming recently. No UI, skill tree, “Press B to Jump” tutorial; just you on an island with some line puzzles. Which might sound too straightforward, but theses puzzles were placed organically, folded into the natural environment–laid out with subtle guidance for the player, yet ultimately providing the freedom to pursue them in any order they choose.
Still you might ask, “Who cares? Why should I play this old game when there are so many amazing, complex gaming experiences released almost every day?” Well, maybe, like me, sometimes you feel a little overwhelmed with all the games you own or the pressure to play the latest FOMO triple-A titles. This was the mood I found myself in when I decided to jump into The Witness. A game just old enough to be set aside by the gaming hive mind, yet too new to be a classic throwback. If, like me, you missed the experience in 2016–or enough time has passed for a revisit, this relaxing island getaway might be the perfect vacation from your current game grind.
If you decide to join me on this journey, you’ll find yourself on a gorgeous Myst-like island with natural and architectural splendor, painstakingly crafted by Blow with the aid of real architects and landscape designers. I found myself frequently stopping just to admire the cinematic framing of every angle. Nearly every viewpoint revealed a picturesque scene. I spent much of my time simply walking around, relaxingly, and taking screencaps to use as desktop wallpapers. And this photogenic world is one that you can step in and out of with ease with the game’s autosave-anywhere feature. This welcoming vibe kept me returning to the game as it captivated my evenings for weeks.
Another integral aspect of the atmosphere of The Witness is a general silence. I found the lack of music in particular was essential to the experience. Time stood still while I pondered the lines, dots, and grids of the many puzzles spread across the game world. With no rhythmic beat or progression of notes to remind me of time’s passing, it was easy to forget that I was playing a video game at all, finding myself lost to the real world; unexpectedly enjoying my own confusion, failure, bewilderment, frustration, and aimlessness trying to figure out my current puzzle or next intended step towards progression. And when I finally did solve the puzzle I was on, or opened a new path of the island to explore, I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment like I haven’t with any other game in years.
Despite the lack of a musical score, sound design does play an important part in encouraging the player while they challenge the game’s puzzles. The mounted interfaces whirr when engaged by the player and continue their soothing hum until a guess is inputted. If you are unsuccessful, a “bonk!” sound plays out, and the remnants of your fruitless attempt slowly fade from the puzzle screen. When you are correct, the satisfying sounds of gears click into place, doors opens, and the island’s clacking machinations transform the world around, revealing yet another puzzle to tackle, and hopefully releasing satisfying dopamine in your brain in the process.
Though the puzzles are the star of the show, there is storytelling happening in The Witness, just mostly told visually, letting the player fill in the rest with their imagination. A constant sight throughout the game are statues of everyday people, frozen, mid-position, going about the task of setting up the puzzle screens. They contribute to the aforementioned feeling of being trapped in a moment and add to The Witness’ welcoming and relaxing vibe. No NPCs are watching you or waiting for you to solve the puzzles. It’s as if you have arrived on the island after an apocalyptic event and whether or not you progress through the game is entirely your prerogative. This provides a calming solitude rather than an existential loneliness. You create your own meaning for your progression and the world unfolds how you see fit and at your own pace.
And it’s this unique experience that kept drawing me back in night after night. The Witness made me feel as if I was transported to another world. Sometimes, even with only 10 minutes of free time, I still enjoyed squeezing in a session, knowing I’d be staring at the same puzzle I was stuck on the night before and would probably quit without accomplishing anything beyond the simple act of thinking and discovering what didn’t work to solve the problem. And yet, this was the game I wanted to play when I had time to play a game. Considering the mobile port, I don’t think playing distractedly on a phone would recreate the same experience. For me, it was the twilight hours with a glowing television illuminating a dark room that provided the perfect setting to puzzle until my eye-lids grew heavy; where I ultimately found my head hitting the pillow pondering what I could have done to open that one door–imagining where it might have lead as I drifted off to sleep.
Yes, taking part in a shared experience like playing the latest 100+ hour open-world action RPG is a wonderful time. But, every few release cycles it’s nice to play something like The Witness. A game that no one cares that you are playing; one that you are not bombarded with articles and strategy guides about everywhere you look, but instead are left to figure out on your own at your own relaxed pace. Something just for you and your moment of peaceful gaming.
The Witness can be played on Steam, XBOX, and PS4/5.